So what does one do when making a sequel to what is arguably the most-played RTS in the world? I'm sure that was one of the largest burning questions running through Blizzard developers minds when designing the inevitable successor to the King of Real-time Space Strategy. One could blaze new trails, pushing the envelope in terms of what is expected and accepted in a game, hoping to score with ingenuity and inventiveness. Or one could embrace the "if it ain't broke" ideal, lovingly re-creating the feel of the original in an updated format. And that latter course is exactly what Blizzard chose. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is a finely-tuned, beautifully-polished work that brings the classic franchise to the 21st century.
It may seem that I'm gushing with over-the-top cheese, but that's merely because Blizzard managed to bring all the nostalgia-tinged StarCraft-iness roaring back onto my screen, without missing a beat. Granted, when compared to many modern-day RTS games, the original StarCraft looks a little worn around the cuffs. But Blizzard unashamedly took all the best in current RTS trends and knitted them seamlessly into the StarCraft title, and somehow made it feel like almost no time had passed in between. Some may quibble that there's really nothing new with Wings of Liberty, which is an honest assessment, but once players drop back into that familiar world most of those concerns will melt away.
The first of a trilogy of titles, Wings of Liberty chooses to focus almost exclusively on the Terran forces for their single-player campaign. The plot propelling the game along isn't anything amazing, but the actual storytelling is top-notch. Picking up four years after the Brood Wars, the Terrans have managed to settle into an uneasy calm. The Zerg have remained silent all the while, and the Protoss have likewise kept to themselves. Jim Reynor, hero of the previous title, finds himself hunted by the government of the recently-crowned Arcturus Mengsk. Of course, nothing remains quiet for long, and soon Reynor finds himself pitted against old enemies and aided by loyal friends. The campaign itself is laid out beautifully, with a wonderful assortment of well-balanced missions. Borrowing heavily from some other current RTS favorites, the campaign features a branching mission structure, with between-mission downtime available to purchase upgrades to troops and technologies. There are even a few either/or points in the campaign, which when coupled with a slew of Achievement goals, make for quite a bit of replayability in the single-player campaign alone.
The missions themselves feature a great mix, from typical "destroy the enemy" to hero-centric RPG-lite outings. Almost every mission introduces a new Terran unit type, or at least stresses a specific strategy--in essence, the single-player campaign is a training regimen for the multiplayer arena. But even for those, like myself, that don't typically enjoy the frantic multiplayer battles, the single-player missions are a blast.
Once the single-player campaign is finished, Blizzard also offers up a series of Challenges. These mini-missions are exercises focusing on various strategies that should help even the most multiplayer-phobic of us feel a little more comfortable in the online arena. Finally, when it's time to take that plunge and face human opponents, Blizzard has completely updated their Battle.net service to make finding an appropriately balanced game a breeze.
So how does Wings of Liberty actually play? For veterans of the series, it feels like home. I found myself able to jump right back in after all these years with almost no troubles. The units for all sides felt exactly as they should, from the jack-of-all-trades Terrans to the relentless Zerg to the more subtle Protoss. The interface is incredibly slick and precise, and I never found myself floundering to give exactly the command I wanted. Even for those wandering into StarCraft for the first time, Wings of Liberty should be a breeze to pick up--Blizzard has taken many of the best control elements of ten or more years of RTS games, and distilled them into an intuitive and completely approachable scheme. StarCraft II also looks great. The each of the units, from all three sides, are unique and very well animated. And while updated, each of the returning units seems just as I remember. Blizzard is also well-known for some incredible cutscenes, and Wings of Liberty doesn't disappoint. And it's not just the visuals that are top-notch--StarCraft II boasts some of the best voice acting I've seen in quite a while. From the cutscenes to the individual unit responses (including the trademark comical quips received from over-clicking), every bit of vocal work is a delight.
Of course, it can't all be good, and for some, much of what I lauded as praise for the olden days might be a turn-off. There really is nothing new here in StarCraft II. Although it's incredibly well-polished, Wings of Liberty is, at its core, a facelift on a twelve-year-old game. Worker units still gather crystal and green gas resources, bases build in the familiar old progression, Zerglings still rush. By not taking any risks, Blizzard doesn't show us anything truly innovative, they merely showcase how far the RTS genre has come.
Also, for better or worse, players now must rely on Battle.net, and Battle.net alone, for their multiplayer experience. As a gaming recluse and fan of the single-player side of things, this doesn't bother me much at all, but for many the thought of hosting a StarCraft II LAN party will come to naught.
Another concern voiced by many is the choice Blizzard made in creating a trilogy of titles, each focusing on a single faction. Again opinions will vary, but I didn't have too much of a problem with this. The lengthy single-player campaign is among the best RTS campaigns I've played in quite some time, even if it focuses almost completely on the Terrans. Will it be worth the extra cost of buying two more titles, before we have a "complete" game? It remains to be seen, but I will give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt on this, and rely on them to deliver two more high quality installments. In the mean time, players do have access to all three, fully-balanced and fleshed-out factions in the skirmish arena, and with the constant support and fine-tuning for which Blizzard is known, I won't be surprised if each new offering is worth the wait.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is one of the best, classic-style RTS titles I've had the pleasure of playing in years. Slipping back into that comfortable and glorious StarCraft world is was a true joy for me, allowing me to overlook the lack of anything truly "new". Blizzard knows how to make a great game, and Wings of Liberty is no exception.