First StarCraft II Single Player Campaign Hands-On (With Spoilers)

We've played one-third of one-third of StarCraft II's single-player campaign recently. Blizzard gave us a full day with the most recent playable build of the game, a seven-mission long journey through the Terran's Wings of Liberty portion of the trilogy.

We took notes. Lots of notes. And in this post, the full no facts-barred details of our hands-on time with StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty are yours for the reading. While there wasn't much in the way of massive story revelations in what we played—we were just getting access to some of the Terran vehicles by the end of our demo—there are some key characters that spoiler-phobic StarCraft fans may want to experience only for themselves.

That's why there's this alternate spoiler-free post, packed with details on StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, but short on plot points and proper names. Read on for our full, unfettered impressions and a blow-by-blow account of our time at Blizzard.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty opens in a bar. Rendered in real-time, the opening cinematic starts intimately, with Jim Raynor drinking alone, his only company a Zerg skull mounted on the wall behind him and a jukebox that plays two kinds of music—country and western. There may be a fly or two on the wall. He's at a run down watering hole, Joey Ray's, watching the news.

He's the subject of that night's intergalactic newscast. Terran Emperor Mengsk is onscreen, lashing out at the rebellion against the ruling Terran Dominion, specifically the group of rebels that follows Raynor, known as Raynor's Raiders.

In between Jim's monologue and Mengsk's televised speech, the player can interact with portions of Joey Ray's bar. Have a drink. Reflect on the previous Zerg war by clicking on the mounted Hydralisk skull. Or click on the nearby cork board, see a bit of history on the Terrans and Raynor's Raiders.

That mechanic gives StarCraft II's single-player campaign a bit of an adventure game feel, even if most of what the game offers during these moments is atmosphere. These moments replace the talking head intermissions from the original StarCraft.

And thankfully, as these moments in Joey Ray's and, later, on board the Battlecruiser Hyperion, make StarCraft II feel less like a cycle of missions and briefings, and something more interactive.

From the bar is where Raynor takes his first mission in StarCraft II, a small force attack called "Liberation Day."

Raynor and his Raiders help to liberate a Mar Sara colony from the Dominion's ruthless occupation. Leading a small band of Terran forces, your re-introduction to controlling a squad of Marines. Simple stuff, no resource gathering. All you really need to do is kill any Dominion soldiers in your path, taking out the propaganda "holoboards" looping Mengsk's occupation message, just for fun.

Of course, with the introduction of achievements to StarCraft II, there are other things to do. Some, like the "Liberator" achievement, reward you for simply finishing the mission. Others are a bit more challenging, like ensuring that not a single Mar Sara civilian dies, or finishing that mission on Hard and in under three minutes.

After finishing "Liberation Day," you'll be rewarded with new tech—access to train Marines at a Barracks. Most missions we played unlock something new, whether its the ability to train Marauders or build Bunkers. After the mission, you'll be reintroduced to Terran Marine Tychus Findlay who joins Jim at Joey Ray's. He comes armed with a job, your second mission "The Dig." You'll need cash to finance Raynor's Raiders' exploits, occasionally taking gigs that aren't just about taking potshots at the Dominion.

Findlay's lined up a buyer for some alien artifacts, which you'll need to get to before the Dominion does. During "The Dig" you'll get access to the Medic unit—the same that was introduced in StarCraft: Brood War—a unit that you won't actually use during the game's multiplayer game. That's not that uncommon, actually, as you'll have access to plenty of units, technology and buildings that didn't make the multiplayer cut.

Once Raynor and company have unearthed those artifacts, we learn that Tychus' buyer is actually an organisation called the Mobius Foundation. It's a legit scientific foundation that seems to have an interest in securing alien relics before the Dominion does. Tychus and Raynor have plenty of opportunity wax nostalgic at Joey Ray's talking about the Mobius Foundation, the Zerg, the rebellion.

The voice acting and direction here is top notch, offering excellent morsels of background on the characters and the universe they live in. Blizzard does a good job in the game's first act of doling out a well written narrative, with Tychus' current situation—his involvement with the Mobius Foundation, why he's still in that Terran Marine exosuit—shrouded in mystery.

Our next mission, "Zero Hour" is a familiar base defence chapter. Help Raynor and crew survive a Zerg invasion, holding out for 20 minutes until help arrives in the form of the Battlecruise Hyperion and ship commander Matt Horner. The mission is relatively simple, just defend a few choke points—you'll get access to Bunkers here—while watching out for Zerg air drops and the occasional Mutalisk squad.

The game trades Joey Ray's for the Hyperion after the completion of "Zero Hour," giving Raynor access to the Battlecruiser's bridge, armory, lab and cantina.

The bridge is where you'll interact with Horner. Raynor will be able to view mission briefings and have the option to solicit freelance work. Someone's gotta pay for Raynor's army and the technology upgrades necessary to fend off the new Zerg invasion, so the Hyperion crew does some jobs just for cash.

That's where the armory comes into play. With enough cash—and the help of the dwarf-life Swann—you'll be able to add new unit types to the Raiders' rebel forces as well as upgrade their capabilities. In the armory, you'll be able to buy tech upgrades for infantry, base structures, vehicles, star ships, and beyond.

One of those options includes the option to buy and upgrade units specific to the Dominion itself, alluding to some later game hijacking of Mengsk's own technology.

(For a list of every upgrade that we saw during our playthrough at Blizzard, refer to this post.)

The other areas of the Hyperion, the lab and cantina, present other opportunities to make and spend money, respectively. Blizzard's Dustin Browder says that the lab portion of the ship is still undergoing some refinement. Browder didn't sound too thrilled with the current implementation of that section of the ship, saying that the reconnaissance and research missions just weren't that much fun yet.

We wouldn't know. Those mission were locked out of our demo. All we could do in the lab was chat with the pimply faced scientist Stetmann and review research objectives. These were just cash-in opportunities to learn more about Zerg evolution or Protoss shield technology. These side missions may offer some variety and an injection of funds, but we won't know what they'll look like for a while.

The last section of the ship, the cantina, is multi-faceted. You'll be able to catch up on intergalactic news, chat with the NPC crew of the Hyperion, ogle holographic strippers, play games—there's an arcade cabinet in the back with a shoot 'em up called The Lost Viking that will be playable—and hire mercenaries.

The mysterious Mr. Hill will be your merc agent, hiring special units that you can deploy once per mission.

Those mercs, which come at a cost, obviously, are somewhat like the hero units Blizzard introduced in Warcraft III. More powerful than your stock infantry unit, they can be deployed from the Merc Compound, deploying a small team of Marines, Marauders or Firebats. The Kel Morain Mercs, Hammer Securities and Devil Dogs are "elite" versions of the aforementioned units. These extra strength soldiers are good to have around, as they can help fortify a budding squadron.

Back at the bridge, we learn from Horner that the Zerg resurgence has spread, with casualties "in the billions." A news broadcast shows blurry footage of Zerg overlady Kerrigan, with reporters saying "the Queen of Blades is in fact leading the swarm."

Raynor and Kerrigan have their first interaction in StarCraft II during the mission "Tooth & Nail," another Protoss relic hunting endeavor. You'll battle a weakened Protoss force approaching from the south, preoccupied with a Zerg invasion from the north, while trying to steal their artifacts. Introduced in this mission are more uniquely single-player units. When trying to secure the relic, Raynor's forces are attacked by a quartet of Stone Zealots, gargantuan statues brought to life to protect the prized artifact.

It's here that Kerrigan and Raynor exchange words, with the Zerg queen warning our hero that "Time is running out... for all of us."

The reward for completing "Tooth & Nail" is two-fold. Raynor earns $US80,000—the Terrans still deal in dollars, it seems—and gets the right to train Marauders, the heavily armoured infantry units he experiments with during the mission.

The storyline tree splits here, as Raynor and the Hyperion crew have the option of taking missions of mercy and missions of material gain. Following "Tooth & Nail," two mission options are made available, "Mining Your Own Business" and "The Evacuation of Agria." Since we had the option of access to multiple saves, we tried both.

"The Evacuation of Agria" is fairly self explanatory. After receiving a distress call from Dr. Ariel Hansen, Raynor and crew sign up to escort a group of Agrian colonists through a Zerg infestation. That involves following a series of convoys full of helpless citizens. But the mission offers alternative goals as well, including the total elimination of all Zerg forces in the area and the successful harvesting of DNA from hidden chrysalises.

Since "The Evacuation of Agria" is, as Tychus Findlay jeeringly calls it, a "hero mission," it pays less than "Mining Your Own Business." But it gives the player access to Firebats and it welcomes a new addition to the Hyperion bridge, Dr. Hansen. What benefit she offers, we don't know, as we were only permitted to play a set number of missions.

So we reverted to an older save to play through the mining rescue mission. It's largely a harvest and defend mission. All Raynor's Raiders are on the planet Red Stone III to do is mine the a set amount of high yield minerals, all the while defending against the occasional Zergling nuisance.

But "Mining Your Own Business" has an environmental twist. The area has a rising tide of molten lava every few minutes. So it's more like harvest, defend, retreat, rinse, and repeat until you've pulled in enough minerals to make it worth the while of your employer, the dreadlocked Tosh. He'll also ally with Raynor, should the contractual obligations be met.

The lava laden mission has a fun side quest, one that involves another single-player-only unit. To get the "Red Lobster" achievement, you'll need to kill the hidden Brutalisk by luring it into lava. I got lucky. The Brutalisk followed some of my SCVs into a valley, then decided to stay put on low ground for just a little too long. Oops.

The seventh and final mission we played, "Outbreak," was similar in its retreat tactics. But it's another "hero mission." Dr. Hansen explains on the Hyperion bridge that the planet Meinhoff appears to have been afflicted with some sort of infestation. Everything, from Terran refugees to buildings has been infested by a Zerg infection. Our mission was to eliminate that infestation, destroying every infested building on the colony.

Meinhoff's residents, now just infested colonists and infested Marines, will only attack Raynor's forces at night. So, during the day, it's build, research and destroy every Zerg infested structure. At night, the player must retreat, as hundreds of infested humans emerge from their hidden burrows, swarming the camp. They're easy cannon fodder, should you have the right amount of Bunkers and Hellions, but their overwhelming when not forced to attack through a choke point.

Fortunately, some of the avenues into the camp are guarded by destructible rocks. Fine protection, but simple enough to break through should the Terrans need an out.

"Outbreak" features the last single-player specific unit we saw, the Centaur, a massive mutated Terran-Zerg hybrid, structured like the mythical Greek beast, only with a thorny carapace and a lower half made of pincers. Blizzard reps said that units like the Centaur and Brutalisk were just fun extras that they wanted to include in the StarCraft II campaign, some of them units that might have been left on the multiplayer cutting room floor.

After playing through "Outbreak," we'd racked up about 7 hours of play time with StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, revisiting some missions on harder difficulties, some just to satisfy a completionist itch. Reaching that mark put us about a third of the way through the single-player campaign in terms of mission count—there were 26 missions mentioned in the build we played.

But in terms of how that ultimately plays out in terms of what one can do in single-player, when including splitting story arcs, research missions in the lab and replaying levels on higher difficulty for extra achievements, remains to be seen. StarCraft II's single-player mode looks meaty, far more robust in terms of scope and presentation than what we were expecting.

StarCraft II's units and structures feel much more broad in their scope than what we've seen in the game's multiplayer mode—all those upgrades would be nothing short of impossible to balance. It's clear that Blizzard is heavily investing in both single and multiplayer for Wings of Liberty. The storytelling in the Terran campaign is expert, with plenty to dig deep into should players want to hear every single word of spoken dialogue, through which bits and pieces of backstory are delivered.

The decision to split StarCraft II into three separate campaigns was, obviously, concerning. But the amount of content that Blizzard appears to be packing into the first third of that trilogy allays most of those concerns. There's an incredible amount of game here.

Now we just want to see how they're going to do this for the Zerg. Do they even have bars?


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