Blizzard knows games. They've been making them forever; much longer than their trio of epic licenses (StarCraft, WarCraft and Diablo) have been around. It seems that they haven't just evolved with videogames, but that they themselves have somehow been involved in steering the course of that evolution. Their games, while seldom genuinely original, are perfected and polished into a refined total experience that manages to transcend anything achieved by their peers.
Put simply, Blizzard seem to have captured the "X-factor" and put it to work in their games factory.
With that sort of (well deserved) reputation comes a level of anticipation that starts out at about "oh. my. god." and goes all the way up to "over 9,000". Basically, if StarCraft II isn't one of the best games of all time, people will be disappointed.
For the uninitiated, StarCraft II is a Real Time Strategy (RTS) game. Put simply, this means that users control units from a top-down perspective, zoomed out enough to allow a good portion of terrain and a number of buildings to appear on the screen. Using the mouse, players must strategically gather resources before deploying them decisively in order to successfully complete their objective (which is typically, although not always, the utter annihilation of any enemy forces in the area).
The original StarCraft was something of a huge hit, particularly in Korea where massive gaming leagues and multiple television channels orbit around it. With that in mind, Blizzard were wary of massively revamping the gameplay so the core experience is remarkably similar to that 12-year old game. That's not to say it's a bad thing; in fact the level of familiarity in the core "click here, then there" experience is comforting. That it stands as a workable mechanic after such a long time is testament to the fact that it was well designed in the first place.
That's not to say this is some cookie-cutter mission pack with a few new maps - oh no, not at all. So much of the non-core experience has changed it will be difficult to detail it all. In singleplayer, for example, you spend your time in a 3D environment populated by other characters from your story so far, as well as numerous interactive objects. Through the manipulation of these people and objects, you are able to learn more about the story, fill in detail about your equipment or perform upgrades/research/hire mercenaries in order to bolster your ability in the field.
The story picks up from the first StarCraft, with Kerrigan (now the Queen of Blades) and her Zerg army strangely silent. Jim Raynor, hero of the people, is now on the run from a corrupt Emperor (power corrupts, it seems - who knew?) who twists tales of his heroism through the media to make him sound like a terrorist. Without giving any spoilers, it's fair to say that the story (Jim and his rag-tag crew scour the universe looking for a way to save the day without being killed by the people they're trying to save) is great. The characters are rich and well-voiced, evoking real empathy.
The singleplayer gameplay itself is a rich combination of tried-and-true and modern RTS mechanisms (remember, it's StarCraft at the core). This means build queues, resource gathering, creating groups of units combined with modern RTS dynamism and think-on-your-feet scenarios that keep things fresh as you progress. And progress you will, regardless (nearly) of your skill level. The new "casual" skill level dials things down a lot in terms of difficulty, with three levels above that for people with some experience playing RTS games.
The presentation of singleplayer is superb, with detailed in-game cinematics that look gorgeous on pretty average hardware and still look good if your machine is a total junker. In the game itself, an incredible amount of detail makes up each and every map, from the flocks of birds that flee on your approach, to the little lava beasts that take refuge in your base when the lava rises. Every time you look you see something new, some little element of polish seems to laugh in the face of every other RTS map ever made. Exaggerated and "unreal" as the world may be, you believe that it exists as a living, breathing, tactile location.
Multiplayer is incredibly fleshed out, taking the new Battle.Net out for its first real play. Integration of friends lists and general presentation of menus, etc, is just the beginning - it's the way the multiplayer works behind the scenes that really has people excited.
When you first start out you'll have to play a series of five seeding matches, where all unseeded newbies are chucked in a pot and matched with each other. Based on your success here, you'll emerge with a rank that ensures that future placements are with players around your own skill level. From here, your climb (or fall) on the ladder is directly related to your success or failure in games.
If you're not up for the competitive stuff, or just don't like playing against random strangers, fret not - there are multiplayer options for you as well. You can team up with people to play against the AI, play non-ranked matches against your friends and so on. There's full support for voice communications, too, so if kicking back drinking a beer while you farm vespene gas and whine about your job with your friends sounds like fun, there's no reason to leave that big "multiplayer" button un-clicked.
One of the touted features of the new Battle.Net is RealID, rolled out a while ago with the Battle.Net-enabled World of WarCraft. Basically it's a way for people that actually do know each other (you're known on the opt-in service by your real name) to link up, using an instant messaging system that works across all Battle.Net games (i.e. you can chat to your mates raiding Ulduar in WoW while you fight back the Zerg in StarCraft II).
Unfortunately, thanks to the way the servers are configured for StarCraft II, it's a bit of a flop for us Kiwis that want to jam with our WoW mates. NZ WoW accounts, you see, are on the American servers - while StarCraft II, for fear of crappy pings to America resulting in crappy gameplay experiences, is based in SEA - South East Asia & Oceania. For reasons known only to Blizzard, this means that you can't even chat to your RealID mates, let alone play with them.
After the uproar surrounding the above, Blizzard have stated that "within 60 days" of the game's launch, SEA players will be able to download the US client (many gigabytes - yay for tiny data caps!) and play on there, however the two versions of the game will be entirely segmented (i.e. if you do that, you won't be able to talk to or play with anyone that doesn't). Pretty disappointing and yet another reminder of how peripheral a market of just a few million people really is. Sucks to be us, eh?
One thing Blizzard refuses to move on, uproar or otherwise, is the exclusion of LAN play. Touting the integration of Battle.Net at the lowest level (and likely influenced by the mass piracy of games on PC) all multiplayer games are played over Battle.Net. You even need to connect to Battle.Net to authenticate your copy of the game before you can play it singleplayer - something that itself would have caused online fury a few years ago. But time marches on, and the marketplace for PC gaming is evolving - the internet is required. That's not likely to change anytime soon.
The gameplay balance, while different to the original StarCraft, seems solid - it's likely that numerous balance issues remain but, knowing Blizzard, they'll be patched out as and when they are discovered. Whatever issues are there aren't obvious - it occasionally seems like you've found something clever but then someone else comes along and spanks you into the ground with a counter strategy you hadn't considered. There are loads of units, each with many levels of customization or play style variance. Chances are good you'll still be learning years down the line - if you want to be at the top of the ladder, you'd best brush up on "Theorycrafting" because reading tips and strategies from other players will open your mind to what's possible.
That and click rate. Like the original StarCraft, the speed that you can click at makes a whole world of difference. There are also numerous shortcut keys (force yourself to use them in singleplayer so they become second nature) which make all the difference when milliseconds count in a ranked ladder match.
Visually StarCraft II is superb. If your machine can handle it (and the recommended specs aren't that high) the in-game graphics are amazing and the cinematics... wow. Just so very awesome. Blizzard really needs to put this team to work making a movie. In-game detail is second to none, with all of the maps, units, animations and textures having an incredible level of polish. They weren't created so much as they were born, nurtured and loved. Those aren't a collection of polygons you're looking at, they're someone's children and they've come from a happy home!
Similarly the sound has obviously had a lot of time spent on it by seriously talented people. The musical score is vast and gorgeous, ably backed up by superb voice talent and effects that can only be attributed to incredible skill. The attention to detail here is out of this world, with well-leveraged surround sound (ambient swamp sounds will cause you to look around your room for the bugs) and a full gamut of frequencies from the deepest sub-base through to the peakiest treble. Get some decent speakers if you don't already have some and turn them up loud. If you don't get a visit from noise control you're not doing the artists behind the work any justice.
This review, overlong though it already is, scarcely touches on many elements of the game. There is a lot to it, from the lengthy singleplayer campaign to the complexities of the advanced multiplayer capabilities. Sure, there's only one campaign mode (Terran) with the other two races to have their own, separate games down the line. There's also a map editor, Facebook integration, an awesome arcade game which parodies one of Blizzard's own beloved properties, extensive modding capabilities, a marketplace for people to sell their own mods (including an updated version of DoTA) and so much more. And all for less than the price of an average, 5-hour playtime FPS from Activision whose name we won't mention.
Bang for buck? Check. Killer gameplay? Check. Loads of options? Check. Story, sound, presentation? All awesome. It even has a "casual" difficulty level. What's not to like? Screw 2010 - StarCraft II is the best RTS game released in YEARS and one of the best games on PC full stop. If you like gaming at all, you owe it to yourself to check this out. The ultimate RTS has arrived.