Chances are that you already know if you’re going to like Starcraft 2. If you’ve played any of Blizzard’s games then you’ll pretty much know what to expect: an accessible if somewhat cheesy game with high production values and extensive multiplayer support. I could go into detail on the unit balances and the intricacies of battlenet, but those are not really important. In fact, the important parts of this game, really, are the multiplayer and the campaign, and I imagine a sizeable chunk of consumers would disagree with me on the latter point.
Because I disagree with those who disagree with me, I’ll talk about the campaign first. Much to my endless chagrin, it is in no way short and nor does it suffer from the decision to carve up the campaigns into their own games. The missions are numerous and varied, with very few falling into the typical strategy trappings of “build a base and use it to destroy the enemy’s one”. Instead, you’ll have missions where you fight nocturnal zombies, avoid lava eruptions, evacuate civilians and fight your way across a planet that is slowly burning itself to ash, to name but a few. It’s one of the few campaigns inside a strategy game that feels like more than a series of skirmish games strung together.
The glue that holds the campaign together, however, is the story. Starcraft 2 drops you into the boots of James Raynor, outlaw and revolutionary, who is supposedly depressed and demoralised having been forced to watch the zergification of the woman he cares for. I say “supposedly” because, despite the odd glass of whiskey, Raynor rarely shows much in the way of this depression. He’s a light-hearted, warm character, who gets angry approximately three times in the course of the campaign.
This is a minor niggle but, considering the campaign is built upon Raynor’s hatred of Emperor Mengsk, one that cannot be overlooked. Raynor is not the tortured soul that pre-release documents (including the installer) proclaimed, and this somewhat detracts from his vendetta. The main driving force of his revolution is for vengeance, but he is far too chipper over the course of the campaign to really take that seriously. He jokes with the crew, socialises and generally seems as if nothing is wrong except for in key plot-advancing scenes.
Oddly, this is mitigated by the fact that almost everyone else is somewhat weirdly acted and lazily written as well, giving the entire plot a sort of cheesy sci-fi feel. Had Raynor stood out then perhaps it would have detracted more than it does, but given the context you can at least pretend that it was intentional. It doesn’t feel intentional, but you can pretend. Couple it with the atmosphere of the ship and at least you have a lie you can take solace in.
The Hyperion, Raynor’s flagship, is well realised. Where normally you would have a menu screen, the Hyperion instead tries to keep you immersed in the universe by assigning menu options to a part of the Hyperion itself. Want to replay a mission? Click on the archives terminal on the bridge. Want to research some new weapons? Head to the laboratory or the armoury and log into those terminals. It does start to lose its shine after an hour or two, once you notice just how little input you have in the world and the general menu-ness of the thing, but it is prettier than most menus.
I do, however, take somewhat of an issue with the quasi-linearity of the game and the plot. The quasi-linearity, again, is a minor niggle, with your available missions operating in a sort of tier system. You can tackle the missions in a tier in whatever order you like, but there’s no urgency. The tactical choice of which mission to take at which time is constrained only by whether you think the unit you unlock will be useful in any of your other choices or not. For its sins, Dawn of War 2 dealt with this in a much better way, giving you missions that would expire if left for too long. Starcraft 2 feels as though this system, or something like it, might have been beneficial to give the universe itself a bit of life.
The story should also pump life into the universe, but this happens in a weird way. The secondary modes of plot dissemination, like the optional missions and the news reports, are generally quite well executed. The news reports deserve special mention, coming across as a parody of some more pro-establishment news channels that we will all be familiar with, and usually doing so in a deliberate and subtle manner. It does step over the line into blatant comedy once or twice, which I think hurts it a little, but that’s comparable with the general flow of the plot at large.
Starcraft 2 feels like a story woven by natural comedians trying to be serious. The framework is elementary – evil space empire, bigger space evil that wants to eat space empire, one man with the vision to see both for what they are and wanting to fight them – but whenever something serious is supposed to occur it feels a little forced. The comedy moments, while mostly simple in scope, feel more comfortable than Raynor’s few moments of survivors guilt or Horner’s fanatical devotion to the fight. There’s just a certain aura about the whole thing that makes me think that Blizzard weren’t quite sure how serious they wanted the tone to be.
The multiplayer, on the other hand, is serious business. Knowing how hardcore the online arena can be, Blizzard have gone so far as to include “challenges” designed to teach you how to play the online component correctly, supplementing this with a series of tiers dependent on your competency as a player. The better you are, the better the opponents it matches you up with. Perform well and you can get promoted, giving you a nice progression as you improve as a player.
Assuming you have the patience or will to improve. With the exception of the challenge mode, singleplayer mode teaches you nothing about the dynamics of a multiplayer match, and they can be extremely harsh. Even the AI players follow the tenets of your average Starcraft player, right down to the inevitable debilitating zerg rush. While the difficulty can be adjusted, there is no sweet spot for players who enjoy the singleplayer dynamic more than the multiplayer one, ending up in an opponent that’s either too easy or too hard.
Of course, that’s an opinion that I’ll get stick for. “You don’t play against the computer” people will say, “you’re supposed to play against people, noob!”. The thing is, there’s not much else I can say about the multiplayer. From what I’ve seen, it seems to play quite similar to the first game, with only very minor tweaks. I imagine that will be pleasant for the hardcore fans, but I’m not a hardcore fan. As accessible as the singleplayer was for me, the multiplayer was the exact opposite. I readily admit that I am not committed enough to learn the necessary tactics and macros and whatnot to survive, and I say this because I will not be the only one out there who thinks this way.
Yes, if you liked the multiplayer in the original Starcraft you will like that of the sequel. If you like fast-paced games that require you to juggle any number of roles, you will find something in Starcraft 2 that you enjoy. If, however, you are like me and prefer to play your strategy games against a computer opponent, perhaps with friends, there are better choices out there. The competitive aspect is honed to perfection, if competition is what you want, but a laid back and relaxing multiplayer experience will probably not be forthcoming.
So what does this mean? Do I hate Starcraft 2? No, but I am a little disappointed. It is worth pointing out, however, that this disappointment came after finishing the singleplayer campaign and finishing my foray into the multiplayer world. When playing the game, the disappointments were concealed by the general fun the game provides, although I did notice my irritation with the multiplayer aspect very quickly.
Starcraft 2 is a great game, but it is not perfect. What flaws there are, however, are small and largely dependent on preference. If you can look past the mediocre acting, oddly toned plot and punishing multiplayer – and you probably can – you’ll find a lot of entertainment in this game.