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The most highly anticipated strategy game of all time has finally hit store shelves. Despite Blizzard's success in the past, it is hard to envy the company's position. The original Starcraft is arguably Blizzard's second most iconic game (behind World of Warcraft). It has also been over a decade since the original was released, giving gamers plenty of time from an intense nostalgic bond.
So, without further blubbering, let's find out if Starcraft 2 can live up to the legend of its predecessor.
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Story and Characters
Given the length of time between the original Starcraft and the new game it is likely that you've lost the plot. Hell, there are some players of Starcraft 2 who may not have even been born when the first game was released. Starcraft 2, unfortuantly, doesn't do a great job of getting players up to speed. Yes, there is a sequence during the installation that explains the plot's background. The problem is that this sequence is every bit as entertaining as watching a PBS documentry about the history of potted plants.
Once you enter the game and start the campaign you'll be treated it a promising cut-scene. The writers at Blizzard have an obvious lust for the TV series Firefly. The main character, James Raynor, is essentially a copy of Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds. And it doesn't end there - if you want to reach a bit further it isn't hard to find similarities between Tychus, the hardcore but rather stupid marine, and Jane, Firefly's hardcore but rather stupid mercenary. There is even a fight scene between the two later in the game that perfectly mimics a similar conflict between Malcolm and Jane in the Firefly series.
You might think that all of this "heavy influence" is a bad thing. Actually, I wish Blizzard had allowed themselves to be influenced a bit more, because the rest of the game's characters are utterly forgettable. There is an insultingly nerdy science kid, a morally troubled captain, some creature with breasts that James Raynor can hit on, and a sneaky black-ops character who may or may not be trustworthy. In other words - Yawn.
The biggest failure of the campaign's story, however, is Kerrigan. The Queen of Blades. After having been hyped over in Brood War as a frightfully intelligent schemer she spends the entirety Starcraft 2 blundering about while making half-hearted threats. Far from a force to be reckoned with, she has become the classic stereotype of a villain whose bark is far worse than her bite.
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The old-school approach of Starcraft 2 must have made the game's mission designers want to jump off a cliff. It has been known for years that the sort of gameplay mechanics that make for a good multi-player strategy game often make for a terrible single player campaign. That is why Dawn of War 2 offers wildly different single player and multi-player gameplay.
Starcraft 2 dosen't. Instead, the mission designers have come up with an endless array of gimmicks aimed at spicing up the mission objectives. For example, in one of the early missions you are given the task of clearing out a hive of infested Terrans. They're vulnerable to UV rays so they only come out at night. This means you have to rush out during the day to kill their hives and then rush back to your base to set up a defense at night. It is a fun mission, particularly on the more difficult settings where the zombies come in huge numbers.
Yet, as hard as Blizzard has tried, they're putting lipstick on a pig. At times they succeed, and the result is an image of Angelina Jolie that smells of pork. Other times they fail, and the result is a long, slow slog through enemies with predictable AI. The game's achievements at least spice things up, as they can be very challenging at times and provide a reason to replay the heavily scripted missions.
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Welcome to the reason Starcraft 2 exists.
First, let me say that I'm not going to pay much mind to some of the complaints surrounding the game itself. There is no LAN play, and some other features missing that people hoped for. Whatever. There is plenty of rage about this, and if feel like Blizzard is cheating you, don't buy the game.
The multi-player gameplay itself, however, is nothing short of amazing. What is most impressive about the experience is that Starcraft 2 offers something for everyone. The gameplay is deep enough to provide endless challenge, and the ladder system works amazingly well. If you only know one strategy and you become overwhelmed when more than five units are on the screen, that's fine. You'll be matched with other people of similar skill. If you're god's gift to the game, awesome. You will also be matched with people of similar skill. There is some lead-up to this, because it takes a few matches for the skill system to decide where to initially rank you, but once you're placed in a league you'll never have trouble finding an even match.
The game's co-op is also surprisingly good. The AI provides a very competent challenge even against a team of humans because the AI itself works together. Like all AIs there are some loop-holes, and it will always be stomped by a skilled human, but it performs well enough that the average player will find themselves reasonably challenged when fighting the AI on medium. This means that comp-stomps with your friends are actually enjoyable.
And then, finally, there are the mod tools. The game is young, and I haven't run across any custom maps or mods that made by socks explode. However, the tools are incredibly robust. I have no doubt that we'll see some very interesting custom maps/mods within the next few months, and these may give you reason to play long after you've grown tired of the core gameplay.
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Graphics and Sound
The original Starcraft could run on most systems, but that was because its graphics were not very good. Starcraft 2, on the other hand, can provide as much or as little eye candy as your system can handle. At the lowest settings the game looks bad, but it will run on video cards that were considered slow five years ago. On the highest settings you'll need a reasonably beefy modern video card, but the graphics look great, providing a crisp, highly stylized visual experience.
The sound is even better. Voice acting, both in-game and in the cinematics, is one of Starcraft 2's greatest strengths. Even the blandest characters at least offer their lines up with a reasonable amount of passion and the main characters, like James Raynor and Tychus, are backed up by Hollywood quality performances. The in-game sound also does a good job of notifying you of in-game events. This is not a game you want to play with the sound off because doing so is a competitive disadvantage.
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To be brutally honest, I think Blizzard made a mistake by including a single player campaign in this game. Yes, its reasonably competent, but it's worse than what can be found in other quality strategy games like Dawn of War 2.
The real star of the show here is the multi-player, which is well balanced and fun even for people who have no interest in becoming a pro gamer. You can easily hop into a match against a similarly skilled stranger at any time of day. To again benchmark Dawn of War 2, Starcraft 2 absoltuely blows DoW2 out of the water in this regard. Finally, we have a skill-matching system in a strategy game that actually works!
So, in summary - if you want to play multi-player, even casually, Starcraft 2 is well worth your money. If you just want to play for the story and campaign, forget about it. Go watch a movie instead.