Some sequels radically reinvent what has come before; others simply buff up a formula that already soars. To suggest that Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty does only the latter and not the former would be to sell short the fresh ideas and exciting gameplay that makes this superb real-time strategy sequel so enjoyable. This package delivers more than simple fun--it serves up incredible amounts of variety, from the cinematic and multifaceted campaign to the competitive and tightly balanced multiplayer. You might scoff at the fact that the game only includes a single campaign and, perhaps, at the high price point (the game retails at $59.99; $10 higher than the average PC game). But these are nitpicks, forgivable quibbles in a high-quality game that provides plenty of bang for the buck. Starcraft II is the natural next step for the series: it both embraces and updates the core components that made the first game a huge hit while layering on important features that give the game endless replay value, both online and off. This is one of the finest real-time strategy games in years, and whether you're new to the genre or have been studying Protoss build orders for the past decade, there's something here to delight you.
6271320Firebats versus zerglings: see if you can guess who comes out on top.None
The campaign is the first of many of these delights. You may have heard that Starcraft II features only a single campaign: that of the human faction known as the Terrans. One of the game's few disappointments is that the other two factions--the Protoss and the Zerg--don't get their day in the sun, so if you're a newcomer who wants to prove your superiority (or inferiority) online, don't expect the campaign to prepare you for the potential onslaught. But the campaign is hardly a one-note wonder, offering loads of variety, including an entire set of missions that divulges important story elements from an entirely different perspective. Yet even outside of those devious missions, you accomplish diverse and interesting tasks throughout the story. In one early mission, lava periodically rises onto the mainland, posing a threat to any units not positioned on high ground. In another, an exploding sun causes a deadly wall of flame to steadily push you across the map. From one mission to the next, there's an intriguing new development that keeps you devoted to seeing what surprise is waiting for you next.
Many of these missions are RTS staples: Lead these small groups of units down this linear path, defend this specific structure, and so on. Yet Starcraft II gives these tasks meaningful context. Take the very first mission, for example. It's a very easy training mission, but one side objective has you take down holograms displaying emperor Arcturus Mengsk's political propaganda. After destroying these displays and arriving at your objective, the citizens rise up and join you, and you get a sense of the Terran dominion's heavy hand, as well as the peoples' desire to be freed from tyranny. A later mission puts you in control of an enormous mech and sends you off on a fiery rampage. Controlling a single unit in an RTS for any period of time isn't always fun, but because of how the mission is presented and its meaning within the story, this simple single-unit romp feels completely satisfying.
Of course, the story plays out in more ways than simple mission objectives. You closely follow brooding freedom fighter Jim Raynor as he struggles to fight off the threat of the alien Zerg race, topple the manipulative Emperor Mengsk from his throne, and come to terms with his own guilt over the fate of Sarah Kerrigan. If you're headed into this sequel without any knowledge of prior events, you need not worry that you'll be in the dark: the campaign does an excellent job of filling in backstory even as the current narrative unfolds. The plot is uncomplicated, and the dialogue is action-movie simple, but Starcraft II's excellent cinematics, evocative soundtrack, and top-notch voice acting have a way of keeping you glued to the screen. Hero Jim Raynor is a strong but troubled man. You hear it in his resolute drawl, and the way the soundtrack signals his presence with its telltale twangs; you see it in the dark, moody way he's so often lit. The game punctuates its most poignant and thrilling moments with fantastic prerendered cutscenes, but even the in-engine cutscenes pull you in, thanks to expressive facial animations and plenty of humorous winks and nods scattered about.
You do more than just watch cutscenes in between missions, however. This downtime is your chance to get to know the crew of Raynor's battlecruiser, the Hyperion. In a style similar to that of an adventure game, when you click on various characters and items on the screen, you might be rewarded with a short cutscene, a clever quip from a nerdy scientist, or a broadcast from a not-so-fair-and-balanced news agency. But these interludes aren't just for clicking and watching: You also upgrade and enhance your units and structures in important ways. By spending research points you earn on particular missions, you will gain access to permanent upgrades and new units normally associated with the Zerg and Protoss factions. However, these are either/or propositions: choosing one research option will lock you out of the other choice offered. You also earn currency to spend on other permanent upgrades or on mercenary units you can immediately summon to the battlefield. By their very nature, these options give the campaign replay value--value that's further elevated by a few occasions on which you must make a choice during the campaign that determines the course of minor story elements. These decisions don't just bring narrative consequences, however; they also determine which of two or more potential missions you must complete and have further impact on what units you might have access to or the enemy units you will face.
And so the campaign is certainly not an incomplete game, in spite of the focus on a single faction. The structure of the campaign provides a strong argument for playing the entire thing from the beginning all over again or, at least, from an early save game. Furthermore, the campaign is of a goodly length, lasting 15 hours or more depending on how quickly you blow through missions, how much time you spend tooling around on the Hyperion, and what difficulty level you choose. But there's also another factor that will keep you coming back: an entire metagame in which you earn in-game achievements for accomplishing very specific tasks. Of course, such achievements are nothing new; Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network, Steam, and even Blizzard's own World of Warcraft have made good use of abstract rewards to keep players dedicated. But these achievements are woven through every aspect of the game, from the campaign to the multiplayer, and in turn, these achievements are broadcast to your in-game friends on the all-important Battle.net online service that serves as Starcraft II's primary interface.