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Review: Starcraft 2

Starcraft 2 is a safe bet.

If there's one thing that is ever-present throughout the gameplay of Starcraft 2, it's that the game doesn't want to rock the boat. It knows it has a winning formula, and it sticks to it. That's not to say that the formula is old, contrived, or left completely alone. Blizzard has refined Starcraft 2 to perfection, and while it certainly resembles Starcraft, it has been improved in every way. Those that take the plunge into Wings of Liberty will find themselves going back to the original Starcraft wishing it played like its sequel.

Note: This review contains mild spoilers
Starcraft 2's story picks up 4 years after the end of Brood War. Kerrigan and her Zerg swarm have been ominously silent, and the Protoss and Terran have taken advantage of the lull in warfare to rebuild and improve their weapons of war. Arcturus Mengsk, realizing that Jim Raynor is the biggest threat to his hold over Terran space, has marginalized the ex-marshal and forced him into a life of mercenary work and backwoods guerrilla warfare. All this changes when an old friend from Raynor's criminal days, Tychus Findlay, shows up with a proposition for work involving an alien artifact. Coincidentally, the Zerg also decide to invade around the time Raynor gets his hands on the artifact, forcing him to take a greater hand (once again) in the affairs of the Koprulu sector.

The Starcraft story has always been cheesy pulp science-fiction, and the same can be said of Starcraft 2. There's not a whole lot new here in terms of characterization, and cliches abound. Tychus and Tosh are especially notable cliches, as the convict and voodoo master respectively. Raynor himself has a few cheesy lines, but is overall a very likable character with good humor and a strong sense of right and wrong. It's also great that characters from the offshoots, such as Nova (from Starcraft: Ghost) and Valerian Mengsk (from the novels) see canonization in the main storyline instead of being forgotten. Other old faces also make returns, such as Zeratul, Artanis, and even the conniving Samir Duran.

Naturally, the storyline is only present in the single-player. While the previous Starcraft game elucidated the storyline in briefings, occasional in-game talking, and brief cutscenes, Starcraft 2 goes whole hog on the information overload. No matter where you are, the story is there, from the exploration of the Hyperion to the talking head sequences in missions. Learning about the universe is much more interactive, and it encourages you to find things out on your own. If you don't want to, though, you can always skip it. Blizzard also rolled out the cutscene department for some truly stunning cinematics, showing that they are among the best when it comes to lush, fluid animation.

The Hyperion is more than just cutscene fodder, however. There are a number of activities that pertain to your in-game, which adds a meta-game to the single-player. First of these is Stettman's research, which manifests as a series of difficult binary choices about upgrades to your forces. Want vastly tougher bunkers, or bunkers with turrets on top? A unit that can mind control zerg, or a unit that slows them down? These choices are rarely easy, and allow for replayability, as they are set in stone once selected. The second activity is hiring mercenaries from Hill. Mercenaries are incredibly tough versions of normal units, such as Marines or Goliaths. However, they are only available in small squads, or in one case, a single ship. Finally, there's upgrading your forces in the armory. By funding the research of Swann, you can increase the effectiveness of certain troops on the field, such as making medics heal faster or giving Thors an area-of-effect stun. These abilities are also permanent, and there is not enough money to buy everything. Just mostly everything.

Starcraft 2's single-player is perhaps the first we have played where the story was not the reason to play through the game. Wings of Liberty contains 29 missions: 22 normal missions, six branching missions (choose one or the other), and one secret mission. Not a single one of these missions feels out of place, boring, or ordinary. Some do resemble older missions (the third bears resemblance to a mission from Starcraft) and others are a variation on previously played mission objectives, but all of them are unique. One mission has you mining in the middle of an unstable landscape, picking up every time lava floods the area. Another has you chasing down trains and gunning them down for the valuables inside. Yet another is a mission with a night and day cycle that resembles the most distressing zombie movies. Not a single mission is the simple "build up, attack enemy base, win" that was so prevalent in the older games. If anything, Blizzard knew that there had to be fundamental gameplay differences between single-player and multiplayer for the campaign to be compelling.
There are a few concerns about the single-player that are worth addressing. One prominent assumption it is merely one-third of a game. It most certainly is not. While the overarching story arc is not resolved, Jim Raynor's personal arc certainly is. Not only that, but the single-player has as many missions as the original game did, but focusing on the Terrans instead of dividing the attention among all three. The result is a cohesive snippet that, while completed, fits within a larger arc. Those that prefer to not play as the Terrans the entire time will have to wait until later games for their respective races, although a taste of the Protoss is given in one mission arc.

The single-player is also relatively non-linear. While the first and last three missions are totally linear, the missions in the middle are divided into story arcs. Each story arc is linear, but you can play the latest mission from any story arc at any time. This means you can hop back and forth between arcs, if you really want to. It's also a great way to circumvent frustration. If you are stuck on a mission, simply do a different arc to get better units/armaments, then go back to the mission you were having difficulty with.

A valid problem with the single-player is the necessity of being online. While you can play offline, it is glitchy in saving your progress and may even crash. You also don't get achievements. The Battle.Net requirement to the single-player campaign can be seen as a sort of DRM, and DRM is always a nasty affair. However, there's a few alleviating factors. You can play offline, which will no doubt be patched to be less buggy in regards to saves. Your saves are stored online. There are achievements which unlock portraits that work in multiplayer. You can go seamlessly from the campaign to multiplayer. You can chat through the Battle.Net service without leaving your game. Still, if you aim to avoid online-focused DRM, you might wait for Starcraft 2's offline action to get fixed.

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