Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, and its following expansions Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void mark the long awaited continuation of Blizzard Entertainment’s landmark RTS title Starcraft, one of the most popular and successful real-time strategy games of all time. Starcraft II follows directly on the heels of the narrative setup by the original game with numerous characters returning to fill greatly expanded roles. Mechanically the sequel builds heavily off its predecessor, continuing and expanding on many classic mechanics and strategies.
When taken all together, Starcraft II’s campaign, formed of three individual campaigns each released with the base game or one of the expansions, is perhaps the greatest single RTS production element in the second decade of the 2nd millennium. Each campaign focuses on one of the game’s three main races, and follows iconic characters that were the movers and shakers from the previous game as they continue to chart their own paths, and those of their respective races, through the deepening conflicts in their home system. The various campaign sections feature new units, mechanics, and abilities beyond Starcraft II’s standard multiplayer fare; these variations not only keep the very large string of missions exciting and engaging, they also perfectly showcase how effectively the game’s design tools were implemented and thus the great level of customization available to modders. This is all in addition to watching a very colorful cast of characters interact between missions inside the “command ship”, a semi-interactive debriefing and prepping area that serves as the “lobby” for the campaign missions and the workshop were the player upgrades and customizes their units and abilities.
The downtime between missions is another great addition from Blizzard. Pacing is balanced between diverse and sometimes rather hectic missions and the controlled, casual environment of the command ship, without ever bringing the player out of the overall campaign experience. Aside from a slightly distorted sense of time, primarily due to “time-sensitive” missions being optional due to multiple choice selections, the game world and its nuances are continually in the fore of the player’s space. The interaction between the different points of the command ship, and the characters within, also serve as the perfect vehicles to establish plot points and the campaign’s narrative in an environment where the player would not be easily distracted and can engage or skip them at leisure.
Pacing is most certainly an element that Starcraft is known for, at least as far as action economy is concerned. The first Starcraft was famous of high-speed, knife-edge missions and matches where players had to be continually focused on balancing long-term goals while addressing short term needs. Starcraft II maintains this trend most obviously in its multiplayer, and in its campaigns to a lesser extent. Blizzard was very careful to preserve the design elements and mechanics that make this level of action possible, including a proliferation of hot-keyed commands and abilities. The campaign missions are for the most part a more casual sampling, which is entirely appropriate considering the highly detailed levels, colorful faction designs, and intricate plots. Of course varying levels of difficulty are still including to satiate more experienced players and some of the higher level missions include their own parameters for increased challenges such as time-limits and resource limitation.
Starcraft II’s developers were also able to take advantage of its famed multiplayer and stellar single player to introduce an element that was still in its infancy at the time. Cooperative play, in which two or more players join together through LAN or internet play to complete a single mission, was introduced in the form of a specific multiplayer option where players could each take control of a commander, represented by one of the notable characters from the campaign, and lead their specific roster of units alongside their ally against singular pre-built missions. With each completed mission, the particular commander that was used gained experience, unlocking new units and abilities, up to a final level of 15. Over the years Blizzard released more coop commanders, gradually increasing not only the unit options but also the very mechanics of gameplay for each commander. Players can not only use familiar units from the campaign and multiplayer lineups, but also experience completely new rosters and mechanics developed specifically for cooperative play.
All of this variety comes in a refreshingly concise and smooth package. Starcraft II demands its share of memory space, but can operate on most internet connections and high graphics settings are manageable on just about any gaming computer currently on the market. It also launches quickly, has very well developed tools to maintain internet play, and practically seamless party chat and matchmaking tools. Its graphics levels have also aged well, and while not up to the standards of modern FPS titles it can still provide enough grand explosions and minute, interactive details to more than satisfy any level of RTS gamer.
It’s always difficult to confidently say that a particular title is the greatest genre champion of its generations, but as one of the few RTS franchises still viable and active, Starcraft II most certainly deserves accolades as a game worthy of its fanbase and the legendary popularity it has boasted over the years. It is still supported by Blizzard and continues to receive new content. The base game is also free to play and its other assets are available at reasonable prices through Battle.net. The RTS genre may have faded, but Starcraft II should still hold a place among anyone’s game library as an enjoyable single player experience and a fun multiplayer excursion.