I’m sure you want to know if StarCraft II is as good as the first, and if the multiplayer is balanced, and if the campaign is like, cool and everything, and if the game is wholly new. The answer to all of those things is a strictly technical yes.
Hype and anticipation are inseparable from certain games, though, and the way StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty turned out is a fantastic microcosm of the how video games are different today from ten or even five years ago.
Reports on the multiplayer have been around a while because of the beta, so the first order of business is the campaign. The simple linear progression of Mission 1 to Mission 10 is a thing long-gone. The first StarCraft had a plot that, for its day, actually had you interested in the characters and the events. You were the accompanying commander/cerebrate/judicator guy whose job was simply to be awesome at mobilizing units and follow orders. You watched passively as the people you served made tragic choices, cut off alliances, backstabbed, politicked, and swore oaths of vengeance like it was a sci-fi version of a Greek tragedy. Many characters had zippy one-liners (“Clearly Tassadar has failed us…you must not,” “He’s our snake now”).
That’s all different now. You follow Jim Raynor as he attempts to overthrow Arcturus Mengsk, running into various friends and hostiles along the way. In between missions there are newscasts to watch, a jukebox to play with, and characters to talk to. Those characters are very generic and archetypal, and they fill the campaign with predictable plot twists. Achievements (in multiplayer also), easter eggs, and mission order choice are all part of the mix too. Completing levels and finding hidden items give you access to upgrades and new units. The campaign will feel a little more like a quest this way compared to the first Stacraft’s, which felt like a multiplayer tutorial and movie.
The curious thing about the game as a whole is the divergence between the single player and multiplayer. For one thing, StarCraft II will have three parts. The campaign here is all Terran, all 26 missions, and we won’t even see the next campaign, the zerg, for about two years. The campaign will only teach you about one of the three races (a lot of players in multiplayer pick terran), and even there some of the upgrades and units don’t exist in multiplayer. The fact that the firebat and medic return for the campaign yet don’t in the multiplayer is a curious choice. Was the balancing not complete, or did they keep them just for nostalgia’s sake?
Regardless, the missions are creative and the objectives interesting enough that it won’t feel like a grind of base-stomping just to get to the next audio file, and for that the campaign is to be commended. Polish and volume of content were the main goals in mind. The graphics of the missions are more varied and intense here too. 12 years is a long time, and the sounds and graphics are appropriately new, though in the case of the the graphics not remarkable–that’s fine though, as scenery is not what strategy games are about.
For most, the multiplayer will be the most important part as that is where the majority of the time will be spent. The graphics here are actually a little simpler, presumably to keep the competition friendly. The game is the same–workers on minerals and gas, build order, base expansion, map knowledge, the whole formula is unchanged. Warcraft III was a very experimental game. StarCraft II takes no chances.
Most people didn’t want it to, either. But here are changes that are large, subtle, and more telling: it’s easier to add a friend by Facebook than it is by username. An Internet connection is absolutely required for single player, as is an email address connected to a Battle.net account. There are no channels to go to like in StarCraft or any of the Warcraft games. Custom games requires lots of uncomfortable hoops (though there are already some admirable tower defense creations in place) and the ladders are split up into tiny groups, none of which can be seen online anywhere, the way it can in World of Warcraft or Warcraft III. You can see the stats of 100 players at a time, all about your skill level, randomly assigned.
It’s cold and anonymous and encouraging you to play with your real friends. People do this anyway. Some people want the online culture, and it’s gone. The balance is fine and the looks are fine and the changes are nice but the channels and visible ladders are gone. What gives?
Ultimately, StarCraft II gets perfect technical marks and worthy artistic ones. I won’t kid anyone: we all want to see and play this game, and if there is disappointment, it’s not enough to warrant a regret in purchasing it. The real question is whether the story or the culture makes you feel the way the first did, whether the consolized style of Battle.net is going to matter to you.