StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
Let's get one thing perfectly straight from the outset: A swift perusal of the reviews I've penned in five years of working with Play.tm reveal one damning constant, I don't do PC games. And, if that weren't enough of a red flag for expectant StarCraft fans hoping for a favourable appraisal of Blizzard's latest offering, I don't do real-time strategy either. Oh dear.
Call me a shallow and unimaginative console whore, but I'm most comfortable submerged in my Fatboy beanbag, controller in hand, enjoying the visceral thrill of first and third-person shooters and the occasional action RPG. Indeed, the very idea of hunching over a keyboard and monitor while suffering through countless hours of rinse-and-repeat resource management and point-and-click strategy fills me with dread. So, bearing my obvious PC prejudices in mind, how on Earth am I supposed to do anything but despise every facet of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty?
Although unleashing a tirade of vitriol from my pro-console fanboy gland would be the easy option at this point - and so very tempting - there's an annoying choke point preventing such an outpouring, and that's mainly because StarCraft II happens to be the single best gaming package I've seen since Valve's Half-Life 2: The Orange Box.
Considering 12 years have passed since Blizzard's original game, and the sequel was released to retail on July 27, chances are the vast majority of existing fans are already well aware of just how good the StarCraft universe is - be that through first-hand experience or content provided by other review outlets. But what of those prospective players who, like me, are staunch anti-RTS console gamers or are perhaps intimidated by the prospect of approaching such a colossal PC franchise and its long-standing hardcore community?
Yes, StarCraft II boasts a superbly satisfying single-player campaign, not to mention an immense multiplayer component that could easily last gamers through another 12 years of torment. Yes, it also offers a great variety of mission types and planetary battlegrounds, and an accompanying storyline the equal of anything that's gone before. Yes, its presentation is faultless, its graphics and music are unfailingly top drawer, its attention to detail is unrivalled, and its level design is never anything short of wonderfully clever and inventive. Trust me, this unbridled rush of ebullience fits perfectly with the current Metacritic average of 93/100 assigned to StarCraft II, I'm not looking to controversially kneecap a game that's perfectly deserving of its critical adoration.
What I do want to convey here is just how damn accessible StarCraft II is, and why that accessibility should allay the fears of players who'd otherwise back away in favour of sticking to tried and tested experiences. First off, while I'd heard of StarCraft ahead of the sequel's arrival, I'd never even been tempted to play it. Yet the lack of association didn't matter in the slightest due to masses of intriguing backstory and character information provided through both the Quickstart Guide and also during game installation. Blizzard certainly provides no end of opportunity for new players to familiarise themselves with their surroundings before sending troops into battle.
Once the game has loaded up, players can of course choose to jump straight into either the extensive single-player Terran campaign or the more unpredictable world of multiplayer. However, caution may yield better long-term results thanks to an in-depth Tutorial system and a Challenges mode that combine to explain the execution of basic gameplay elements and allow players to practice and hone valuable strategies and tactics. There are even handy Tech Tree research overviews for the game's three core species (the human Terrans, the technologically advanced Protoss, and the savagely alien Zerg).
But what of trepidation regarding hardware compatibility, which often hinges on whether a host computer is sufficiently tooled to meet the demands of those intimidating lists of 'minimum' and 'recommended' system requirements? From a personal perspective, my modest three-year-old Dell Dimension 9200 copes admirably well with StarCraft II. Granted, it only has a 2.13GHz Intel 6400 Core 2 Duo processor, 2GBs of RAM and NVIDIA's GeForce 7900 GS graphics card, but the game's automatic optimal settings feature ably dances around any possible shortfalls. As a result, gameplay rarely stutters or slows (even when faced with large groups of animated sprites), and presentation remains utterly impressive despite the majority of audio and visual options only being set to Medium.
Having seen the game played on its highest possible settings through a friend's new oomph-tastic rig running Intel Core i5 processing technology, there is a definite step up in texture detailing, light sourcing, surface reflections and such like. But, on the whole, I'm still more than pleased with the results squeezed from my little Dell.
After utilising incredibly well implemented scalability to help players sidestep potential compatibility issues, Blizzard also achieves an expanded degree of audience appeal by cleverly grounding StarCraft's single-player Terran campaign amid a very human narrative. Wings of Liberty may provide only the first of three single-player campaigns, but hardcore fans and newbies alike will be left gagging for the forthcoming Protoss and Zerg expansions after (re)connecting with the StarCraft universe via an enigmatic story of lost love, self-destructive guilt, and ultimate betrayal as it collides with murderous conspiracies, shadowy organisations, twisted agendas and a very real threat to humanity.
But what about my open lack of enthusiasm where RTS gameplay is concerned? Surely demographic-busting accessibility, stunning presentation, story appeal and scalable compatibility can't bridge such a yawning chasm? They certainly help. But, if I'm being honest, StarCraft II's gameplay is so much more than just the mining and processing of planetary resources in order to construct military bases, train elite troops and develop devastating weaponry. That typical prerequisite RTS guff is in evidence, of course, but it's eclipsed by the game's true pivotal point of success: the immersion it creates through its ability to surprise and thrill in equal measure.
For example, what appears to be a standard mission to help human colonists escape a Zerg-besieged planet turns into a pseudo turn-based battle of attack and defend when it emerges that the colonists have succumbed to some strange virus. Mutated and deadly but vulnerable to ultra violet light, the colonists repeatedly attack the player's base of operations after each twilight, before then fleeing to the safety of their dwellings come the dawn. During daylight hours, the player is free to wander the greater environment, seeking out mutant-rich regions and destroying the wretched souls therein, with the mission only complete when all settlements have been completely obliterated.
While the rules of engagement seem clearly defined, the game is only too willing to throw tantalising bonus objectives into the mix by tasking the player to venture out at night to hunt, kill, and harvest important research from specific creatures responsible for the entire infestation. However, to do so leaves the player's away party highly susceptible to being swamped by vastly superior numbers.
Calculated risk constantly weighed up against the pros and cons of loss versus gain. These are the rock solid foundations that StarCraft II is built upon. And, once layered into a wide selection of planets and environments to do battle upon, the constant sense of not knowing what's coming next proves to be the perfect distraction from the otherwise mundane resource management.
Perhaps aware of the potential boredom associated with the 'collect it-process it-build it' gameplay mechanic, Blizzard has even created a level on a volcanic mineral-rich world that's awash with freak lava tides. Of course, the all-important mineral fields are located on patches of low ground and the player must feverishly shepherd their harvesting teams to and fro, protecting them from unpredictable flows of molten death - not to mention the occasional unwanted rush of Zerg activity.
If you need any more proof that StarCraft II is the PC game that all console fanboys should seek out, consider it much like a good movie that numbs the bum but keeps the mind blissfully unaware of the gathering discomfort. Extensive sessions of gameplay with StarCraft II provide challenges and dangers galore, thereby creating an immersive experience likely to prevent the player from noticing the acute dorsalgia building throughout the spinal chord, the fiery pins and needles clawing at the legs, and the swollen elbow caused by long bouts of chin-resting on the palm of the non-mouse hand.
Packed with a never-ending stream of variety across 30 single-player missions, StarCraft II certainly ticks all the boxes for those looking to ease themselves into the action against an A.I. opponent. But, once the campaign is over, the Challenges have been completed, and the four-tier difficulty has been conquered, the true longevity of Blizzard's creation lies in its multiplayer. Specifically, fuelled by a fervent community of galactic strategists, no two online matches are ever likely to be the same, no single approach will ever guarantee success, and the level of difficulty is nigh-on inexhaustible.
Not that I'd know - because I hate PC games remember - but the last 12 years have been well worth the wait and there's enough content packed into StarCraft II that franchise fans would probably be willing to wait another 12 for the next instalment if they had to. Luckily that isn't the case, and the individual Zerg and Protoss campaigns should be available well before we bid farewell to another decade of existence. I'm loathed to say this, but whenever those species-specific expansions do arrive, Blizzard is assured of my money. Now, I'm off to scrub myself clean in the shower before slamming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 into the PlayStation 3.