Aliens. We like them. At least we like them on screen. It’s easy to forget that they don’t exist because they appear in more films than Samuel L Jackson. Starcraft II recognises our collective impression of what an alien should be and delivers it screeching and spitting to tear us limb from limb in the form of the ‘Zerg’. Of course it would make for a disappointing game if they turned up all fluffy and we had to select the correct mix of shampoo and combs to see to them.
Instead, you play a real time strategy game (RTS) where combinations of space militia units are deployed on a battlefield to burn, blast and bomb the opponent into oblivion. Developers Blizzard entertainment have a long history of success in this genre. Their flagship strategy title Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) was a major player in the dawn of RTS games and spawned the phenomenally successful World of Warcraft role playing game. Blizzard have learned a trick or two from their cash cow and brought elements of role playing to help drive the story via interaction with characters in the excellent mission hub. They have also created opportunities for social networking through the use of friend lists, even linking to Facebook so you can play with that guy Jeff you met at the 2006 office Christmas party.
On the battlefield itself it’s a semi-fixed top-down perspective that allows you to rotate the camera through 90 degrees either way, like some kind of omniscient CCTV operator in full colour, observing a slightly cartoony world. The edge of realism is spoiled slightly by this graphical style, but it’s not without its charms. Fans of Warcraft will instantly feel at home in the soft edges and bright colours. On the highest settings it could even be described as impressive, the physics involved in explosions in particular offering some sadistic delight to the destroyer.
In practice the game relies on a fairly standard formula: you have to ensure that you harvest enough resources to buy yourself a bunch of dedicated little soldiers, then go and watch them smash against your enemies. Despite the similarities to the game mechanics of the original Starcraft, this is a very good thing. It wasn’t broke and they didn’t fix it. Well, most of it wasn’t broken – it does still have the issue of cumbersome Artificial Intelligence. When you tell a bunch of troops to move somewhere, they bustle into each other, get frustrated, swear and shove the person in front of them. It’s a lot like the London Underground. Sometimes when I’m bored waiting for enough resources to get my next unit, I just click around the group a few times, just to watch them bumble around. Blizzard should have created animations for the ground units, so that when you give a command that involves shuffling around, they curse and trip over each other, sprawling onto the ground in a clattering of armour and weaponry like drunken squaddies.
What they have developed from the original is a very strong atmosphere in the campaign, unmatched in a strategy game and more comparable to Aliens vs Predator in edge-of-the-seat terms. I won’t dare spoil any of it for you but what I will say is each of the 29 unique missions show considerable levels of thought and detail in their planning and scripting. This unfolds spectacularly on the battlefield, vehemently succeeding in bringing home a sense of dramatic occasion rarely present in the video games medium. This blending of the media borderlines is increasingly important in games nowadays and Blizzard has strived to keep up their reputation by staying on the frontline of the industry advances.
The whole campaign experience could be described as interacting with a 15 hour plus movie, were it not for the lack of true depth in the storyline when you peel it back. Our main protagonist Jim Raynor bears more than a passing resemblance to Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston, which is appropriate since Raynor leads a bunch of space cowboys. However, where Marston has bags of character, Raynor has got about as much depth as a papercut and his presence can be twice as painful.
The other issue with the story might be felt at the very end. The epilogue is a little too short and inconclusive to be satisfying. This is fairly typical of a production where the other two parts of the trilogy are already working their way down the corporate money spinning conveyor belt. Some fans might be slightly annoyed after their 12 year wait from the original Starcraft, to find they only get the human Terran campaign. There is a mini campaign to tide over fans of the Protoss, who as a race, are something between high tech predators and ethereal little green men with big heads. The Zerg’s campaign is due for release in the first expansion pack, due whenever Blizzard feel it will be most profitable. Obviously not short of cash from their successes in Warcraft, Blizzard must need more coins for the gold mountain on which their dragon nests.
Fortunately, the multiplayer is entirely complete with all three playable races, after months of beta testing with real players to ensure it is well balanced. The endless tweaking of the online experience is necessary in part, since the South Koreans have adopted Starcraft as a national sport (seriously). Many play the game professionally in the true sense, getting paid and sponsored for their efforts. A players performance is measured in actions per minute (APM) with the professional players topping 300 APM. I’m proud to say I can currently roll out a good 3-5 actions in 60 seconds, including scratching myself and having a drink.
To avoid alienating newbies, Blizzard has wisely introduced a ladder ranking system, whereby players are awarded a skill level behind the scenes. If you beat enough people at your level it goes up, lose to enough, it goes down. This ensures that matches are always evenly balanced. It’s a bit like in football; premiership players don’t come and ruin my 5 a side matches because they have more important leagues to win. In Starcraft, the many-million players are split into 5 leagues and hundreds of thousands of divisions, so that you compete in a mini-league of 100 people at your skill level.
Starcraft 2 has been a long time getting here. However, it has been well worth the wait. Blizzard has always been in the business of ripping off every good idea out there and comparisons to other RTS titles, such as Relic’s Dawn of War, might highlight just how little it has innovated. However, Blizzard has succeeded time and time again by masterfully creating gameplay so compelling it hooks in the gamer. This occasion is certainly no exception; Starcraft 2 is the best of the genre and a benchmark for all aliens-vs-other-aliens-vs-marines franchises to live up to.
Graphics: 4/5 You can trade top end graphics for lower settings to get it to work on older machines. That being said, the demanding graphics and high frame rate have been reported to make some video cards overheat. Ensure you check the official technical forums if things are hotting up.
Sound: 5/5 The musical scores and soundtrack add to the excellent in game atmosphere. The rattling machine guns and juicy impact sounds when you splatter an alien across the landscape are spot on. There is even a country rock jukebox in the quest hub pumping out covers such as sweet home Alabama.
Gameplay: 5/5 Enthralling throughout the campaign, balanced and addictive online. Despite only tweaking the original Starcraft’s model, this is masterful game design and the aspect where Starcraft II truly differentiates itself.
Longevity: 5/5 Instant replay value in the campaign through alternative branches in mission choices and unit upgrades. The cult multiplayer leaves infinite hours of enjoyment for the competitive gamer. You can also rack up xbox live style achievements, which in itself is an addictive metagame.
Overall: 5 Sci-Fi clichés out of 5 Starcraft II takes ideas from all the best stuff out there and wraps it up neatly into a near-perfect package. Any fan of the genre will find fun here.