"StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty" is a daunting thing to review. Between the legacy of its 12-year-old predecessor as the greatest real-time strategy game of all time, the anticipation fueled by more than a decade of waiting for a follow-up and the incredible depth on offer in the now-released sequel… well… really, "daunting" becomes something of an understatement.
I'm not even going to try to review this for the hardcore fans. Any flaws in terms of the game's balance will undoubtedly be dissected in the coming weeks and subsequently patched by Blizzard's fastidious team of support technicians. Read this instead if you're curious about whether or not "StarCraft 2" delivers an enjoyable experience to the newcomer or the strategy hobbyist.
"StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty" picks up a handful of years after the events of the last expansion pack, "StarCraft: The Brood War." Story is a central focus throughout the single player campaign, centering on the Terran faction (full Protoss and Zerg campaigns will be released in the next few years). It all unfolds via a series of CG cutscenes, briefing screen voiceovers, in-mission plot twists and between-mission, click-to-activate exposition points (akin to "Wing Commander"). Supplementing the story are offline player vs. AI challenge modes, and, of course, the ever-popular competitive online multiplayer.
Long, Strange Trip
The single player game unfolds across just shy of 30 multi-objective missions, all of which manage to stay fresh thanks to the drip-feed of new introduction of new units and a varied assortment of play-changing scenarios for each mission. For example, one early outing gives players a set allotment of troops and forces them to survive a gauntlet along a mostly linear path. Another requires the shoring up of forces while groups are sent out to escort a series of convoys through increasingly dangerous combat conditions. In yet another, the goal is to destroy 100+ "infected" buildings; in a twist worthy of a zombie flick, players are free to destroy during the day but must retreat back to base at night, since enemies respawn quickly and in large numbers through the evening hours. The campaign is wholly entertaining, but the gameplay challenge amounts to elementary school in comparison to the online multiplayer.
The Art of War
Once you've got a grip on the gameplay and unit basics, it's time to graduate to the high school that is the AI versus mode in "StarCraft 2." In these skirmish battles, all of the objectives are stripped away, save one: kill everything that isn't yours. In addition, players can select from a list of Challenge scenarios; these preset encounters are designed to introduce more advanced unit tactics and gameplay strategies of the sort that you'll need to employ against expert players online.
The School of Hard Knocks
Higher-level education in "StarCraft 2" occurs entirely online in the game's competitive multiplayer mode. Which isn't to say that newcomers aren't welcome. A series of placement matches help determine where each challenger's skills fall, which the online matchmaker then uses to pair up equally experienced combatants. If there are any flaws in terms of the balancing, they're not apparent; leave it to the hardcore among the hardcore to find them and the experts at Blizzard to provide the patches. What you really want to know is this: is it fun to jump in and play online? Yes. Yes it is.
Wrapped around everything is Blizzard's Battle.net. If you've used Steam/Xbox Live/PlayStation Network, you'll be on familiar ground. Friends lists, leaderboards, a marketplace which Blizzard intends to stock with for-purchase "premium" maps… it's all here. Separate from the Battle.net community, there's also a packed in map editor which allows players to create their own battlefields and campaigns.
Band of Brothers
Story fits very elegantly into the game, particularly between missions when players can click crewmembers and highlighted objects to check out expository moments, ranging from a quick voiceover to a full-blown cutscene. Between missions, players can also spend earned credits and research points on unit/base upgrades, specialized mercenary forces and a branching alien tech tree.
Painted Into A Corner
There's very little to knock about "StarCraft 2." During some missions, I found it was possible to literally lock an SCV (construction/mining unit) into a corner by erecting a wall of buildings around it. Given that this is a possibility, a "Scrap Unit" button would have been nice.
Remains To Be Seen
If there are any deeper flaws, particularly in terms of the multiplayer balancing, it will be a bit before those issues surface. Fortunately, Blizzard has a good history of maintaining their games; the last "StarCraft" patch was released in 2009!
"StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty" is an exceptional real-time strategy game. Very few changes have been made to the core factions and their units, and rightfully so. Many of the game's key enhancements relate to presentation, but the more open-ended elements added to the single-player campaign – such as research and upgrade options – must be shouted out as well. Even with just one faction represented in the solo campaign, and cutting out all of the multiplayer elements, there's a lot of game here. Add all of the online stuff back in and you've got, just like the original, an RTS against which all others must be judged. Any aspiring armchair general should be excited to lay waste to these battlefields; "StarCraft 2" is more than worth your $60.