StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty Review: Upgrade Complete

Real-time tactics evolve with StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, Blizzard's long in the making sequel to one of the most beloved, bestselling sci-fi strategy games of all time. Oh, so you've heard of it, then?

Three distinct races, the displaced humans known as Terrans, the ancient, mystical alien Protoss, and the insect-like Zerg horde, are (still) embroiled in an intergalactic war. Billions die as the Zerg swarm reawakens from hibernation four years after the events of 1998's StarCraft: Brood War. In StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, players will largely experience the Terran side of this story under the command of Jim Raynor, hero of the original StarCraft and now enemy of the imperial Dominion forces. Raynor and his faithful crew of Raiders hop from planet to planet searching for artifacts that may end the Zerg's reign of terror and that of its leader, the Queen of Blades.

Of course, that's just a small slice of what StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty has to offer. In addition to the lengthy story-driven campaign mode, there's a deep multiplayer component, a revamped Battle.net matchmaking and social service, plus a robust game mode editor.

Was it all worth waiting more than a decade to play?

Loved

As Good As Sci-fi Space Opera Gets: StarCraft II's single-player campaign story engages and satisfies—even if we only peek at a third of this game's arc in Wings of Liberty. After waiting far too long to revisit the heroic Terran marshal Jim Raynor, the tragic Ghost-turned-Zerg queen Sarah Kerrigan, and their respective conflicts with the sleazy Emperor Arcturus Mengsk, it was StarCraft II's single-player campaign that I anticipated most. It does not disappoint. The story meanders as Blizzard dispenses some missions that serve as tutorials, some as experience-awarding filler, but it never loses sight of its looming climax. Wings of Liberty's story blends humour, tragedy, mystery and intrigue into something worth playing through, ending on a thrilling note. The expansion StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm cannot come soon enough.

Fine Mission Design: Over the course of Wings of Liberty's 29 campaign missions—I actually wound up playing through 26 of them to reach its end—rarely does a mission feel rehashed. Some worlds are flooded with lava every few minutes, some spawn unstoppable armies of zombie-like Zerg at night, some require stealthy gameplay and demand careful unit management. Almost all are memorable and filled with alluring bonus objectives and challenging, elective achievement-based skill tests. There are no duds.

Decisions, Decisions: As Wings of Liberty's story progresses, the player is faced with some hard choices. With whom should Jim Raynor ally himself? Who to trust in this war in which billions of lives may be lost? Blizzard was more than effective in making me second guess each pivotal decision. While the interactive portions of StarCraft II's story may have been conflicting, choosing which research items and troop upgrades best suit my play style was much easier. While collecting relics and earning cash by taking jobs, Raynor will be given the chance to evolve his troops, buildings, vehicles and ships in compelling new ways. The impact of these decision making moments makes Wings of Liberty playing through more than once (or at least saving your game frequently).

Adventure Lite: I'd hesitate to label the in-between moments spent on the Battlecruiser Hyperion an adventure game or a role-playing game. It's not that deep, But clicking around Raynor's spaceship environment was a treat. Speaking with non-player characters and surveying the ship's armoury, lab and cantina was infinitely better than the alternative from the original StarCraft. Instead of watching talking heads explain why Planet X needed to be infiltrated, rich characters engaged in conversation, exposing aspects of their personality that made them memorable.

The Campaign Remix: There are creative unit and ability additions in the single-player campaign that can't be experienced elsewhere. Familiar units from the original StarCraft that were left on the cutting room floor, like the Terran Medic and Firebat, are alive and well here. The addition of Mercenary troops that players can hire and call upon aid in lending StarCraft II's story-driven side a feeling of looking at the director's cut of the game. It can be a little unsettling to play through Wings of Liberty's campaign and then dive into multiplayer, where your tech tree and tactics will need to be relearned, but the wild variety here is an enlightening look at the chances Blizzard was willing to make.

Old Units, New Tactics: Some StarCraft standbys appear virtually unchanged in the sequel, like the gruff Terran Marine and the Zerg Hydralisk, essential to any army. But small changes to these units and bigger alterations for new or evolved ones open up exciting new tactical opportunities. Chokepoint strategies are rendered less useful by the Terran Reaper and Protoss Colossus, which essentially ignore terrain. The Zerg Infestor, which can possess enemy units, and the tactic of moving Zerg units that remain cloaked underground wildly changes how old units must be employed. Tried and true tactics, like Zerg rushes and micro-managed Terrans Siege Tanks, can still work, but players will be required to think differently about how they're employed. StarCraft II may not go far enough in shaking up the formula, but its less obvious changes can have substantial impact.

3v3, No Waiting: Getting into a multiplayer game of StarCraft II is smooth, streamlined and speedy. It's also fair, thanks to matchmaking rankings that have resulted in closely contested matches more often than blowouts. StarCraft II's interface for finding, creating and joining a versus game is easy for those who just want to hop into a skirmish, but also customisable enough that playing on the map of your choosing with the Battle.net friends of your choosing is a snap. Browsing custom games and player-created maps is straightforward, making it simple to get in, get out, a deliver your opponent a "GG."

Play It Again, Jim: A far more helpful tool for improving one's StarCraft II's game than its tutorials and player guide are post-match stats and replays. After a win or defeat, players can save replays of matches to review another player's build order or understand how they built their tech tree. This is a great tactical equalizer and should be explored by new players thoroughly.

The Lure of Achievements: I love achievements as a learning tool—the game regularly encourages you to play it on harder difficulties—and StarCraft II's virtual rewards do an expert job of making playing smarter more rewarding. The campaign and challenges become more appealing to revisit thanks to numerous achievements across game types and dozens of unlockable avatars and decals.

Hated

The 12 Year Half-Step: For all of its polish, its technical accomplishments and its masterfully told sci-fi story, there's an inescapable feeling of StarCraft II being stuck in time. While still thrilling, the gameplay side of StarCraft II feels less innovative than it does derivative. That's more of a product of the original StarCraft's ingenuity, which was dazzling for its remarkable balance between three distinct races and its massive, species spanning story. Wings of Liberty is also a harsh reminder that the majority of StarCraft II's story is yet to be told, an even more painfully long wait to see this chapter unfold.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty comes with its share of nits, including its lack of true local area network play, its demands for an internet connection to play and its comparatively tame progression in terms of real-time strategy gameplay. The rest of what Wings of Liberty brings to the table far outweighs those pesky complaints. It's stuffed with a great story, nearly limitless gameplay opportunities and a finely balanced, competitive playing field.

The greatest thrills, after the impact of Wings of Liberty's powerful story has sunk in, remain online. Other players are crafting unique maps and experiences with StarCraft II's Galaxy Map Editor, pumping out mods that turn the strategy game into a shooter, a platformer, a kart racer and more. Other players are simply waiting for a competitive or cooperative challenge, ready to surprise you with new attacks and counterattacks, frustrating and impressing you with their ingenuity.

StarCraft II is still a game of micromanagement, build speed and base management, playing with and against forces you're mostly familiar with in a theatre of war that certainly feels less fresh than it did in 1998. But Blizzard has polished that classic real-time strategy gameplay to a brilliant shine, offering a single and multiplayer experience that is unmatched. The long wait was worth it, if only to kick off another long wait to see how StarCraft II ultimately ends.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was developed by Blizzard and published by Activision Blizzard for the PC and Mac on July 27. Retails for $US59.99/$AU99.95. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played single-player campaign to completion on Normal difficulty, played half of the game's Challenges and played dozens of multiplayer matches in the multiplayer beta and final versions of the game.

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Comments

    Although I have the game and am enjoying it so far, I can't help but think that if this game didn't have 'Starcraft' in the title it wouldn't be getting as much praise as it is.

      You know, i thought the same thing. An 11 year old game given a shiny new paint of coat, with virtually no innovation from RTS standards set in the last decade.

      Then I played through the campaign...

      SCII deserves the praise IMO, even if it's just for the campaign

    good review overall. The lack of LAN play would definitely have been a great big 'hated' point for me. I can't help feel that this might have been a decision from activision heads, as Blizzard have always been big supporters of LAN play. Starcraft 1 and Warcraft 3 are staples at any LAN cafe or party (especially Warcraft 3 with it's plethora of custom maps).

    People say that the LAN party is dying, but in there is respawn lan in melbourne (http://respawn.com.au/) that frequently throws 500+ person events. Adelaide also has reloaded LAN. LANS did experience a moment of decline, about 4 years ago (for Melbourne LAN veterans, twas around the time Shafted stopped running, and Extremelan shortly after) but have since surged in popularity.

    Sorry, turned into a bit of a rant, still <3 starcraft II so very much, but a bit peeved that Blizzard would turn their backs on the people that propagated the popularity of their earlier games for privacy prevention.

    I'm confused you say that in the 12 years since sc1 they changed almost nothing then you say that the gameplay is near perfect?

      Because the gameplay of the original was also near-perfect. If not much has changed, then the new game would be near-perfect too =)

        Except 12 years later updating the graphics of a "near perfect" game doesn't make it a near perfect game. Few companies or games would get away with this like Blizzard has. Drink the cool-aid.

    why is it a hundred bucks in australia? costs more to sell here or we jus get ripped?

      All games are approximately $100 in Australia. Yes, it costs more to sell games here. Please refer to this article from last year for more detail - http://www.kotaku.com.au/2009/05/monday-musings-the-price-is-right/

        Of course, none of this explains why we're paying the prices we do for online versions of the game...

          I wrote a follow-up to that column focusing on digital download prices - http://www.kotaku.com.au/2009/05/monday-musings-on-the-download/

          Hopefully that should explain why digital versions are never going to be sold at significantly different price points to disc versions.

      Yes you're getting ripped, dont buy from EB if you can, i got my copy from game at $80 yesterday and Dick Smith had copies going for $70 and if you have a JB Hi-Fi nearby worth looking in to them too.

      As per our currency strength, our games do cost more relatively to other developed countries like the UK and U.S. On the bright side we have intense competition in the retail sector for gaming, this has led to extreme markdowns and you'll hardly see brand new games selling for RRP when it is first released.

    I got it for $69 from Dicksmith

    OK, I really don't mean to accuse Kotaku of anything in particular, but this is entirely out of curiosity:

    Brian Ashcraft called out Famitsu for giving MSG: Peace Walker a perfect score while the magazine was closely affiliated with the game's advertising campaign (which was warranted, I'll add).

    Yet here, Kotaku is giving Starcraft 2 a near perfect review ("...what Wings of Liberty brings to the table far outweighs [the] pesky complaints."), days after running a pretty large advertising campaign for Starcraft 2 itself, and a hell of a lot of puff pieces on the game as well.

    I mean, it just seems hypocritical to review the game, AND accept the advertising revenue. One or the other is obviously fine, but I feel I need to take this with a pretty big grain of salt.

    The game could be absolutely fantastic, but how can I really have faith in Kotaku to give me impartial information when you may be beholden to your advertisers?

      As an addendum, I just noticed that Kotaku still is running Starcraft 2 advertising.

      Ashcraft criticised Famitsu for *appearing* in the ads for Peace Walker; Famitsu was integral to the game's marketing campaign. We are not appearing in the StarCraft ads running on the site. All Kotaku editorial is completely independent.

        While there is certainly a difference, and that Famitsu situation was particularly egregious, there's still a pretty big conflict of interest here.

        Kotaku's fundamentally not independent if it's relying on continued funding from the marketing divisions of publishers of games that are going to be receiving Kotaku coverage.

        I mean, if Starcraft 2 was absolutely terrible, can you honestly say that Kotaku would bite the hand that feeds it and risk losing the funding that'll most likely accompany Diablo 3?

          Absolutely we would say it was terrible if we thought it was. Potentially losing advertising income never enters into the equation.

          Thing is: if we don't call it like it is, we lose readers. If we lose readers, no one wants to advertise with us. So the only way we're going to lose advertising revenue is if we stop calling it like it is.

        His point about you guys running a large number of puff pieces is still true. I'm surprised Blizzard bothered to have advertising on Kotaku when you guys are doing it for free all the time.

          Puff pieces? Kotaku has and will always cover new games from every single angle. We're not a straight news and reviews site - you can get that elsewhere, if that's what you want.

          We're always going to dedicate a lot of posts to a game launch as big and eagerly awaited as StarCraft II. Why? Because we know that many of you are going to interested in reading about it. "Games website carries editorial and advertising for a major game during week of launch" is hardly the juiciest conspiracy theory I've ever heard.

          Don't really want to seem like a suck up, but i'm going to have to side with David on this one.

          Kotaku publishes a lot of 'puff peices' based more on culture and oddities (hidden easter eggs in starcraft, team fortress 2 cosplay, cakes that look like the cake from portal) and the only reason it seems like there are more of these for starcraft is because, well, there are more of them out there!

          Starcraft II is a massively popular game, and Blizzard are big lovers of pop culture references. Put them together and you get a hype machine that the fans fuel themselves. Make sure you keep an eye on the Kotaku website any time they have a major release like this, I'm sure you'll find that the 'puff pieces' are proportional to the game's popularity, not the advertising dollars.

          On a Second note, I do agree with the original point, that Kotaku should not have called Famitsu out when it seemed that they were eschewing journalism standards in favour of their sponsors, but this is just based on personal opinion.

          On a third note (lol) I've always found Kotaku to be very impartial anyway.

        Look at that, you made Dave work on a Sunday :(

        Anywho, SC2 has been well-reviewed because it's a good game. Kotaku rarely rates a game this highly, whether or not there is advertising for it or not.

        For instance, if I remember correctly there was a rather large advertising campaign for Crackdown 2, yet it had four 'hate it' segments and a conclusion that seemed to say: "good, but not great." (http://www.kotaku.com.au/2010/07/crackdown-2-review-shoot-first-leap-buildings-later/#more-401845)

      So, what kinds of ads would you prefer to see on Kotaku? Ones for McDonalds? Ones for random movies? How about Viagra? Or "You're an Instant Winner!" ?

      Furthermore, I can tell you now Activision (nor any other publisher for that matter) doesn't give a crap about what Kotaku says.

      Kotaku doesn't give game scores, and Publishers only care about metacritic scores and units sold.

    Still pissed over no LAN support in this and no packet routing fixes for SC1. They strip us down to Bnet alone, and watch them stop patching the game in 5 years. At least you can still use workarounds in SC1.

    What's gonna happen to SC2 when Blizzard doesn't feel like patching it anymore, and we haven't got LAN?

    And being able to make an FPS in SC2 isn't a good feature. It's a fractured fanbase. You force multiplayer online, and then say I should use my shiny new MMO to play a dodgy FPS? Not cool, Blizzard. Not paying money for this.

    *RTS not MMO ugh sorryfor any confusion folks.

    In the 3v3, No Waiting section shouldn't that be 'and deliver your opponent a “GG.”' not " a deliver your opponent a “GG.”". Sorry it's just really bugging me.

    Been playing the game non stop since the midnight release ( ok i lied, i have had around 3hrs sleep since the midnight release)
    So far my only real complaints are the short sightedness of blizzard with the region locking. I play wow and being able to speak to people in wow while playing SC2 and vice versa was the main reason for RealID yet the region locking for us aussies and kiwis was rather stupid. My only problem with the campaign is the the fact that theres difficulty levels and the jump from normal to hard is just way to high. for me i can cheese though normal but hard is almost too hard for me on most levels. I shudder to think what brutal is like.

      Oh THAT'S why that's happening! I've been trying to add some of my Warcraft buddies, and wondering why it's not working. That's quite lame, they should region lock the game, but allow RealID to work across regions.

    JB HiFi Innaloo (WA) had it for $69 last Thursday.

    Ok, enough about SC2, show us something about Diablo 3!

    The problem with making a followup to StarCraft 2 is trying to satisfy both the core gamers who look for innovation and creativity in a title, and the rabid hordes of fans who are still playing the original game and aren't so much interested in a sequel as a polished remake with more units.
    I think Blizzard innovated as much as they could, while still servicing the rabid among us and in South Korea.
    They were walking a tricky path and managed it well.

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