If you were pondering whether or not to delve into StarCraft II’s fast-paced strategy without having experienced the original, don’t hesitate; Blizzard’s ultra-long gestation period has produced a polished and supremely accessible title at pains to include everybody. Like Halo 3 and so many others since, the Wings of Liberty campaign mode largely serves as a cinematic conduit for the main attraction of competitive multiplayer, but an addictive meta-game overflowing with achievements, missions and sub-objectives makes for a worthwhile purchase no matter your online persuasion.
From the moment it boots up into a well-defined menu with integrated friends list, party system and stat-tracking, StarCraft 2 subtly prods and leads people to their relevant areas. Tutorials and challenge modes cater for the absolute basics of control and learning rock-paper-scissors unit combinations, but although you’re free to approach the plethora of single and multiplayer modes from any angle you choose, Blizzard’s suggested path begins with their titular 15-hour story continuation. After a couple of hours marvelling at the production values and excellent difficulty curve, it’s easy to understand why.
Unlike so many of the Command & Conquer titles that fuelled strategy addictions over the years, Wings of Liberty is a shining example of a singleplayer campaign that understands how to showcase its narrative through consistently varied level design. Following a couple of introductory missions that teach the basics of movement and squad commands, each subsequent chapter introduces a new unit or ability and a unique scenario in which to experiment with your new-found power. Once you complete your assignment, that unit is then added to your armory for future battles.
Although that’s almost an expected design template, the variety comes into play with inspired mission objectives that are rarely based on simple attrition. Every stage has its own flavour, and whilst it would be criminal to reveal any of the surprises here, suffice to say this is some of the most consistently surprising RTS design you’ll find anywhere. You simply won’t know which units you’ll be working with next, which foes you’ll have to rout, what you’ll be defending, protecting or running from,whether you’ll need to chase something down or avoid a looming threat, or if you’ll have to manage multiple fronts or a lone unit behind enemy lines.
Of course 12 years of development buys you a lot of time to experiment with all facets of your project, and nowhere is this more apparent than between missions as you control space-trucker Jim ‘Jimmeh’ Raynor’s interactions with his crew. The Conversations and musings of your assembled cast of misfits lends them considerable personality in a genre usually bereft of such a quality, and whilst the dialogue is cheesy and riddled with sci-fi cliche, it’s delivered with enthusiasm in that trademark deep southern style. The result is charmingly groan-inducing instead of just plain awful.
It’s not all window dressing either, as most of your dealings with extraneous crew members are presented next to a corresponding upgrade system, providing ample incentive to explore and interact. As an example, Engineer Swann controls access to unit upgrades (purchased with reward money), whilst the science lab offers up two tech trees of persistent perks accessible with points accrued via specific mission-based side objectives. Those trees offer binary selections at every reward level, and every research decision you make locks another one out permanently. Replay value is high, if only to see how the game plays out with different selections.
Under the hood, SC2’s fast-clicking strategy template is essentially the same one Blizzard nigh-on perfected many years ago. Stripped back and refined to a few manageable upgrade paths, Protoss, Terran and Zerg armies offer up distinctly different styles that reward tactical nous, defensive planning or a frenzied attack, with myriad possibilities for on-the-fly adjustments and unit preferences to keep your opponents guessing. Matches almost perfectly straddle the line between complexity and accessibility, and you’ll hardly ever lose a game in unfair circumstances; there are always counter-measures for counter-measures for counter-measures.
But that’s the crux of StarCraft’s appeal, and the reason it rewards a fast mousing hand at high levels of play just as much as careful planning and risk-reward at the lower end. Whilst there will always be a few strong tactics to exploit and inevitable balance patches as the playerbase uncovers whatever minor advantages remain, it still feels like an almost entirely fair experience in both single and multiplayer, with defeat becoming as much a part of the learning process as successfully implementing a new tactic or reacting quickly to danger. Isn’t that the source of strategy games in the first place?
Some may be disappointed at the lack of progression instead of polish, and yet more will be horrified at the lack of micro-management and hero units. For those people, Relic has you covered in their own interesting style, but that isn’t a reason to cast aside everything StarCraft 2 accomplishes. Maybe they were doing the same things correctly twelve years ago, but that doesn’t make it any less valid in 2010, and it probably won’t make it any less valid in 2022 either.