Twelve years in the waiting and seven in the making, Blizzard finally let the world in on its continuing saga of the war between the Terran, Zerg and Protoss. Undoubtedly one of the most eagerly anticipated sequels in gaming history, and one with an almost impossible expectation to live up to.
What Blizzard did to pull off the resounding success that is Starcraft II, is 'simply' polish it to gleaming brilliance. Starcraft is probably most famous among RTS fans for its almost perfect balance, which is without doubt a major factor in its continued popularity. A legitimate sport has been made of the game as a consequence of it. Starcraft II doesn't mess very much with the formula in terms of the makeup of the various factions. What it does do is wrap the package in phenomenally high production values and offer a multiplayer component that is second to none.
Back to the game itself for a bit though. The storyline picks up a few years after Brood War left off, with the Queen of Blades and her Zerg swarm vanished without trace, the Protoss retreating from the spotlight and Jim Raynor leading a rag-tag rebel group intent on taking down treacherous emperor Arcturus Mengsk. Raynor gets involved in a race to uncover ancient artifacts, which also brings the Zerg and Protoss back into the action. A fateful encounter between Raynor and former human 'Ghost' Sarah Kerrigan - now the corrupted and dreaded Queen of Blades - seems inevitable.
The presentation of the story in Starcraft II is done via the modest 'hub world' of Raynor's battlecruiser. Between missions you can move around the ship, talk to key crew members to advance their own stories, unlock bonus missions, and research and upgrade equipment. The heavy 'rednecks in space' feel of the original game is in full effect, but while the characters are somewhat stereotypical, the quality of the acting and visual design is top-notch.
Many RTS series are trying to find ways to push the genre forwards from the simple base-building of old. With its Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series, Relic is focusing down onto small groups of units under direct control and individual character progression, merging the genre into more of an RTS/RPG hybrid. Supreme Commander is going the other way, offering action on an unprecedented scale. Blizzard on the other hand keep the campaign mode of SCII fresh by pretty much never repeating themselves. I can't recall any two missions in the game where all I did was build a base and an army, and march it across the map to wipe out my opponent.
There are stealth missions involving single characters or small groups, there is a train robbery mission, there's one in which rising and falling molten lava reveals and hides parts of the map in turn. There's a mission where the entire map is being consumed with fire, forcing you to keep uprooting your base and units and re-establishing them. Another where you have to defend a base during a day/night cycle, completing objectives across the map during the day, while the night part brings overwhelming hordes of creatures to bear on you. The range of things to do in the campaign mode means that it never for one moment feels repetitive or stale. On top of that there's an element of branching structure, where certain missions (and eventual technologies) are available or not depending on your decisions and dealings with major characters.
Optionally through the missions are secondary objectives that bring you rewards in the shape of points to spend on Zerg and Protoss research. Money is also rewarded for successful missions, and this can also be spent on upgrades to your units, vehicles and buildings. You can't simply afford everything, so choices have to be made on where to spend these resources.
The storyline wraps up the chapter very nicely, while obviously paving the way for the next instalment - Heart of the Swarm - in 2012, telling the Zerg side of things. It may not be the greatest story ever told but it's done with such warmth, humour and style that it's totally compelling. However, the campaign is only half of the package of Starcraft II.
Once you're done following the story it's time to jump online and pit yourself against other people on Battle.net
Now, we all know Blizzard have a long and celebrated history with their devotion to the online side of their games. Notwithstanding the behemoth that is World of Warcraft, they have continued to refine and support Starcraft and Diablo II for over a decade. Still patching and tweaking things after all this time. Their relaunched Battle.net service brings everything together for their three core series, and it's a really slick piece of work.
You can jump right in against other players and fight your way up the rankings, but first it's best to play a series of unranked matches that determines whereabouts you should start when you do go competitive. Battle.net takes all the stats from your games and figures out who you ought to be playing against, skill-wise. As long as people aren't hustling the system you should mostly get matched against a fair competitor. Starcraft II online is thrilling stuff, and while I'm certainly not very good at it I still enjoy it immensely. The replay functionality is very helpful here, not only for your own mistakes but also to see just how others play the game. Battle.net also keeps track of crazy numbers of stats for the truly dedicated.
If you have friends on Battle.net it's also a great social game to boot. Lobbies of players can spectate on matches, chatting in their own channel and viewing the action freely or from the point of view of any player. They also have access to information such as current construction, unit breakdown, economy, and even how many actions per minute the players are performing. Blizzard have done as good a job as possible to maintain the spectator sport feel of Starcraft online play.
I'm an unrepentent and unapologetic Blizzard fanboy. I love the games they make and I love the way they go about making them, from visual design to company philosophy. Yes we have to wait for years, but I'll take their "Ready when it's ready" approach over any rush to a release date, especially when they deliver a game of this calibre. Not only my favourite of the year by quite a margin, it's right up there with the best I've ever played.