Discover the key to saving the galaxy and rebel against a tyrant.
PC Release: July 27, 2010 (PC)
By Ian Coppock
For many of its fans, StarCraft is a complicated love story. We have its surprisingly strong narrative and fun gameplay, with its poor AI and unforgiving difficulty. Like relationships with people, you take the good with the bad. So, of course, the announcement that Blizzard was bringing back the StarCraft franchise after 12 years was one of great interest to the PC community, and to me. I was excited for a new story in the gritty universe StarCraft had set up, yet apprehensive of the problems that plagued the original game. Let’s see how StarCraft II handles.
StarCraft is a sci-fi strategy game series that takes place far in a region of space far, far away from our own. Its narrative focuses on three playable races: humans (called Terrans in-game) the terrifying Zerg, and the highly advanced Protoss. Players take command of each race in real-time strategy gameplay: gathering resources, building a base and training units to engage the enemy. Whoever can destroy their enemy’s base first, wins.
StarCraft II returns with the same style of real-time strategy gameplay, but each of the three races has undergone considerable retooling, and features a mix of old and new units. Unlike StarCraft, which contained 30 missions divided between the three civilizations, StarCraft II is divided into a series of three games that each focus exclusively on one race. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is the first game, and hones in on the humans.
Though it’s been a 12-year wait in real life, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty takes place a mere four years after the conclusion of StarCraft. The Zerg have retreated to their hive clusters and the Protoss are trying to rebuild their shattered civilization. As for the humans, they’ve regrouped and reorganized under the totalitarian Terran Dominion.
Well, most of the humans. Jim Raynor, the gun-slinging, tough-talking space marshal from the last game, returns as Wings of Liberty‘s main protagonist. After surviving countless brushes with death in StarCraft, Jim now spends his time plotting against Arcturus Mengsk, his former boss and now-emperor of the Terran Dominion. The two got along until Mengsk left Jim’s girlfriend to die on a zerg-infested planet. Problem is, that girlfriend turned out to be Sarah Kerrigan, whom the zerg have mutated into their new leader. Raynor resents Mengsk for this betrayal, and the ragtag group of rebels he leads were similarly dumped to the sidelines after the Dominion’s rise to power.
Though Raynor’s good with a gun, his spirits are flagging, and he spends most of his time drinking instead of taking the fight to the Dominion. All of this changes when Tychus Findlay, an old friend who’d been put on ice, shows up at Raynor’s favorite bar. Findlay’s been sprung out of jail by a mysterious research organization called Moebius, and proposes that the two of them partner up to find a set of ancient alien artifacts. The pay’s good, and it revitalizes Raynor’s little rebellion into action.
As so often happens in sci-fi narratives, things quickly get more complicated from there. Just as Raynor and Findlay take off in pursuit of the artifacts, the Zerg return to human space after a four-year hiatus. Raynor finds himself fighting to stay ahead of the Swarm, as well as the Dominion, and figuring out how these artifacts and the Zerg’s return might be connected.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty contains about 25 missions, and comprises the first installment in a three-part, overarching narrative. Though Jim’s primary mission is to collect these ancient artifacts, the ex-marshal takes plenty of other jobs across the Koprulu Sector. From saving innocent farmers from a Zerg invasion, to raiding Dominion supply trains, there’s much more going on in this game than a simple treasure hunt. You can pick and choose between most missions in any order, traveling to a diverse array of planets in the process. It’s a great way to make the StarCraft universe feel big.
It’s also the diversity of these missions that makes Wings of Liberty so much fun. Whereas most missions in StarCraft consisted only of wiping the enemy blips from the map, StarCraft II sees players do a lot more. You’ll attempt to harvest rare minerals from lava planets, break into imposing prisons with only one guy, even try to win a battle as the planet around you is caught in a supernova. You’d think that most of these scenarios would be impractical for the RTS format, but Blizzard found ways to get creative with its mission design.
The other thing that’s nice about these missions is that the dialogue between characters is (mostly) constant. In StarCraft, plot and character development was confined to the mission briefings, but there’s continuous interaction during the missions and in reaction to crucial events. This lends the narrative some much-needed infrastructure; instead of cramming everything into 30 seconds of mission talk, we see the characters react to new situations in real time.
To further deepen the narrative, players get to explore Raynor’s flagship, the Hyperion, between missions. You can visit different areas of the ship to get the scoop from other characters, and most of these encounters are pure exposition. The dialogue is very well-written and feels organic, and they even got Raynor’s original voice actor, Robert Clotworthy, to return to StarCraft after a 12-year hiatus. Each area of the ship has its own inhabitants, and you get to converse with each of them as the story continues to build. It’s a great way to bridge the narrative gap that real-time strategy games too often have.
Of course, these interludes also have a more practical use. Most characters can provide upgrades to your standing forces to be used before the next mission. You can hire mercenary units to round out your forces, and use the money from artifact hunts to buy powerful upgrades. You can even research Zerg and Protoss technologies and incorporate their innovations into your military. For example, researching Protoss teleportation technology allows you to make automated resource refineries, a subtle but powerful upgrade.
Most characters, like your captain and chief scientist, are mainstays on the Hyperion, but others will come and go depending on the choices you make. StarCraft II contains branching subplots that affect how the next mission will play out. Do you side with a prison warden in helping to contain dangerous fugitives, or do you spring those fugitives out and add them to your crew? Your choice will affect how the next map will look.
Once you’ve purchased your selections and made your choices, it’s time to put boots on the ground. Just like in StarCraft, the human civilization is adept at moving quickly and producing a range of versatile units. Raynor’s forces can make most buildings take off and fly to new locations, and if you play your cards right, you can build a powerful army in impressive time. You’ll start off with space marines and medics, but work your way up to heavy vehicles and star fighters.
With each mission you complete, Raynor’s armorer will bestow you with a new unit. Early missions will yield new types of infantry, but late in the game you’ll receive such awesome weapons as the Viking, a vehicle that can transition between ground walker and air jet, and the Thor, a massive, walking tank. You’ll even have access to the full back catalogue of units that were in the original StarCraft, spiffed up and ready to join new units in the fray. My one complaint about this system is that by the end of the campaign, your unit catalog is needlessly bloated. Despite their various designs, most missions can be completed with a mix of a few units, and don’t require all the different vehicles and soldiers the game thinks you need. Still, the unit pathing has improved, so your workers won’t get stuck behind the house they just finished building.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty‘s gameplay is phenomenal. Between the diversity of level design, the branching subplots and the many units you can choose from, Blizzard has succeeded in providing an open-end experience as diverse, in its own way, as that of Diablo III. Unlike that game, StarCraft II also gives you a decent explanation of how to use your units and technologies.
In a far cry from the previous game, StarCraft II also has different difficulty levels to suit your experience. I love StarCraft, but I feel no shame in admitting that I need cheats in order to complete it. I know dozens of people who have attempted StarCraft and only one of those dozens has actually beaten it without cheats. I don’t mind if your game is challenging, but being so punishingly hard as to be inaccessible to players is a tragedy. Especially with a narrative and universe as interesting as StarCraft‘s.
Atop this smooth blend of excellent gameplay and strong dialogue is StarCraft II‘s core narrative. It’s easy to tell that the game was crafted with a lot of love; Wings of Liberty is loaded with references to the old game, and you visit many locations from StarCraft that’ve been gussied up with modern visuals. The game starts you out on the backwater world of Mar Sara, and you’ll also revisit such locations as Tarsonis, Korhal, and even the Zerg homeworld of Char. There’s an optional Protoss mini-campaign you can play in the background of the main narrative, following the dark mystic Zeratul’s quest for an ancient prophecy.
StarCraft II is one of those rare games that keeps its character development going at a steady pace. We see full character arcs with damn near everyone, even the characters at the center of minor subplots. Jim is forced by this artifact hunt to confront the pain of his past, and get serious about figuring out how to take Mengsk down. As time goes on and the Zerg invasion becomes more severe, the story becomes less about rebelling against a tyrant and more about saving humanity from this overwhelming threat. There’s a good blend of the trademark dark humor that comes with StarCraft‘s space rednecks, as well as some good ole sci-fi action. The game’s mood and tension rises and falls alongside that of Jim’s crew, all in a story whose stakes continually rise.
I’m sure that StarCraft II‘s multiplayer mode is quite fun, but I never touched it. As I’ve said many times, narrative is the main reason I will play most games, and StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is in that pile of “most games”.
Between its fun and accessible strategy gameplay, and the strong story bringing one of gamedom’s best sci-fi universes back to life, I can’t think of a reason not to recommend this game. Its selection of units gets a bit bloated, and some of its jokes fall flat, but Wings of Liberty is a strong debut for the StarCraft II series and a game that I recommend you try ASAP. It’s far and away the best strategy game I’ve ever played, and it has none of that always-online bullshit holding back Diablo III.
Admit it. That line I put in about space rednecks intrigues you.
You can buy StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.