Game Review: Starcraft II

To call the Starcraft franchise popular is an understatement. In video game years, Blizzard’s space epic is the gaming world’s equivalent of the Divine Comedy, or The Odyssey. Not only does it have one of the most ambitious stories featured in a video game (told in part by the best collection of cinematics ever), but throughout the years there hasn’t been many other titles that match the scope and fun of Starcraft’s gameplay. Featuring three races each with their own unique play-style and special units, Starcraft is also known for offering one of the most competitive and dynamic multiplayer netscapes.

I first started playing when Wings of Liberty was released, and I’ve never played the original or Brood War, but with the recent release of Legacy of the Void, and my desire to see the story’s conclusion, I thought I’d play the entirety of Starcraft II’s campaign and see how they stand side by side. This review will also have a fourth section commenting on the multiplayer that is Battlenet. This review will be based on a playthrough with the difficulty set at Brutal.

Wings of Liberty

Blizzard started with a bang back in 2010. Out of the three installments, WoL ignited eSports in a way neither of its successors have managed to replicate, but that’s another topic. In my own personal experience, I had never played a real-time strategy game before, and I think I’ve been spoiled in that department.

WoL just may be the most memorable of the three segments because of its cast of characters. Raynor and Tychus’ cutscenes together were usually funny and light-hearted, and that’s how they grew on me, and why I viewed all the optional conversations. This in turn made me pay attention to the story, because I inevitably cared about these characters. I understood Kerrigan was Raynor’s love interest and was converted by the Zerg prior to Starcraft II, and that was enough for me to hop on board with Raynor’s fight against both Mengsk and Kerrigan.

Another thing that made this campaign memorable were the missions. The ones that stand out for me are the defense missions, especially the one near the beginning when you’re waiting for extraction. Something about playing Terran turtle-style makes it really fun and engaging. They have bunkers, siege tanks, turrets, and perhaps the most varied and fun-to-play-as units out of the three races, and asking the player to choose the best tools out of so great a selection is when Starcraft II truly feels like a strategy game, forcing you to decide what to build, where to position your army, and how to distribute resources.

Ain't nothing quite like a fortified Terran base.
Ain’t nothing quite like a fortified Terran base.

The other missions are fun as well, but not quite as engaging. There’s really nothing better than marine-maurader-medic, and this is one criticism I have of the WoL campaign. While I played the campaign, I really wanted to use some of the other units, especially with their cool upgrades, but every time I did the brutal AI would just slaughter me, all because those units just weren’t as good as marines. It’s sort of a catch-22: I want to enjoy the campaign and play it my way, but I also want it to be challenging (and possible to beat) as well. Sure, you can probably mass firebats and reapers on Hard or lower, and just mess around, but then it’s not challenging anymore. On Brutal, resources are scarce and those two units can’t shoot air, and that means you’re screwed, so you might as well make marines. I was frustrated because I wanted firebats, reapers, ghosts, goliaths, banshees, and the whole gong show, but they were all unfeasible given the mission parameters, especially the time-sensitive ones. Siege tanks are better than diamondbacks, goliaths die too easily against void rays and carriers, and so they’re not worth making. I wish there was some way to balance all of these factors, but I can imagine the developmental nightmare it’d be for the level designers. Producing a campaign that can be completed by all possible unit compositions at varying degrees of difficulty and player skill-level seems daunting.

One good thing, however, is that even with the restricted army composition, WoL gives you the opportunity to feel what it’s like to grow and train your own army. It was always fun after a mission seeing what upgrade was available. Give the marines stim? Make the turrets fire extra shots? Combined with the research upgrades at the laboratory, you really got a sense that you were molding and growing your units as you progressed through the missions and the storyline. This is a very satisfying experience for the gamer; it gives the player a sense of accomplishment after each mission, while simultaneously providing a real sense of progress.

Nothing beats space marines.
Nothing beats space marines.

Overall, the WoL campaign is a fun experience with lots of variety. There are many unique missions and situations, on top of the intrinsic variety within the terran unit types (even though you’ll rarely get to utilize them full force). In the story mode you got a badass space cowboy trying to save his girlfriend, and a gruff and tough sidekick who provides effective comedic relief. While I only played on Brutal, I can imagine gamers of all levels being able to enjoy the campaign, given the adjustable difficulty levels. It’s completely fine if you haven’t played the previous games before, because I didn’t and I understood what was happening for the most part.

Heart of the Swarm

Out of the three races, I think Zerg may be the hardest to play at an optimal level. You gotta worry about injects, creep spread, and using up larva in addition to standard micro and macro. Thankfully, Heart of the Swarm’s campaign manages to find a balance between keeping things bearable and retaining a distinctly Zerg feel. It achieves this by simplifying the standard Zerg gameplay mechanics without sacrificing resource management.

Zerg units are so cute and cuddly, aren’t they? Just wanna squish every single one to death.

Without a doubt, HotS’s missions are way more fun and creatively designed than WoL’s. Not only do the missions have great variety (including a mission where you must attack at strategic intervals, and a couple of moba-style missions where you advance non-playable mini-units), but there is a much bigger selection for unit-specific upgrades at your home base as well as irreversible evolutions. This is what a single player campaign should do: offer an experience that focuses on fun and variety that is different from what standard multiplayer has.

Another unique thing about the campaign is that you get to play as a hero, Sarah Kerrigan, who has unique abilities and her own upgrade tree. While Kerrigan is indeed powerful, she is never required to complete the missions (other than surviving), but she can be pretty useful.

The story is also really good, though it was a major bummer that the ending of WoL was made completely irrelevant. Minus that, however, the narrative is engaging for what it is. Kerrigan must find the power to overthrow Mengsk and unite the fragmented Swarm, leading her to form alliances with interesting characters and taking her swarm all over the universe. Each chapter of the story is played in three parts, giving everything a sense of cohesive storytelling.

Finally, my previous complaint in WoL about being constricted to one army type is less of a problem here. Some unit compositions will be better than others depending on the mission, but you are free to go either zergling-baneling-muta, or roach-hydra. Throwing in infestors, ultralisks, and swarm hosts won’t mean insta-lose either. This is possible because the missions are less time-sensitive and more about strategic defense and attack. It was a very pleasant change to be able to make whatever kind of army you want.

Overall, the entire campaign has been well-designed to provide the player with an entertaining and fun experience.

Legacy of the Void

Epic. That is the one word to describe the final part of Starcraft II. It is obvious Blizzard wanted to go out with a bang too, and the player is immediately put into the thick of it: the Protoss are carrying out an invasion to retake their home world of Aiur. Inevitably things go south, and Hierarch Artanis finds himself having to rebuild his army and (re)form alliances, all in preparation for the final showdown against Amon, a fallen God.

MY LIFE FOR AIUR!
MY LIFE FOR AIUR!

This is the basis for the entire story mode, and it is an excellent one from a gameplay point of view. Artanis’ adventure takes us, the player, into an impressive variety of situations where we have to outmaneuver and strategize our way to victory. Although I’ve said this up above with HoTS, it is evident Blizzard just keeps getting better at designing single player missions. Personally, my favourite mission was Salvation, the very last mission in the main story. Maybe I have a thing for defence missions, but it was awesome fighting alongside the allies you’ve gathered throughout the campaign. Plus this was the only mission that was actually a bit tricky to complete. In the end, I ended up going mass Void Rays with the good ole Mamaship (don’t underestimate vortex!). All in all, it was very satisfying going through the campaign, especially with the highly customizable War Council and Spear of Adun. It is noteworthy how Blizzard is in tune with the concept of “strategy” in a real-time strategy game. Not only is it about controlling the battlefield, but also setting up the battle plan beforehand. “Every battle is won or lost before it’s ever fought.”

Furthermore, Legacy‘s story just may be the most engaging out of the three. The cinematics are the chief reason for this. From Artanis vs. Zeratul to Artanis & Raynor bro moment, the story was good enough to not feel like just an excuse to kill and destroy things. At this point, I think we’re allowed to take for granted Blizzard’s storytelling capabilities.

Whether you’re playing on Casual or Brutal, the feeling of satisfaction when completing a high-intensity mission is incomparable to other games. Although the difficulty level directly influences how many resources you have and the strength of enemy forces, a casual player has no need to complete a mission on Brutal to feel like a badass. At its core Starcraft II is a game about decision-making and split-second reactions, and that’s what makes completing a mission so satisfying, especially when placed within the context of an epic space opera.

The Protoss "deathball", AKA a-move ftw.
The Protoss “deathball”, AKA a-move ftw.

One final note on Legacy: the release of the main game was accompanied with the introduction of co-op missions, where two players can play together in a single mission. In a world where developers release unfinished games and charge gamers even furter for DLC, I’d like to give Blizzard the highly coveted “gamobo award” for giving gamers three commanders to play as for free in this brand new mode. Not only that, but co-op is actually really fun! The best part is when you fail you have someone else to blame. But seriously, a well-designed solo campaign is good; that’s what video gaming is all about. A well-designed game where two people can play together is even better! As of now there’s seven commanders you can play as, each with their own unique army compositions and special abilities, so the replay value of this game is pretty darn high for its price tag (half of your average major gaming title).

Multiplayer on Battlenet

Many people get stressed out with Starcraft’s one-on-one multiplayer mode. Ladder points, league placement, and the anxieties of macro and micro can be a lot to manage for a single gamer. However, for those willing to take the plunge and engage in jolly competition, they’ll find Battlenet to be a great place for honing your RTS skills, or trolling players to no end with baneling-busts. On Battlenet you’ll be matched up against players of similar skill levels, depending on your win-rate. From there you’ll make your way up from Bronze League all the way to Grand Masters, though you should be happy just reaching Gold or Platinum, as that’s where the average player resides. This system is an effective measuring stick for gamers to see how good they are, as well as providing an incentive to play more and climb up the leagues.

Just an average day on the ladder. kekeke.
Just an average day on the ladder. kekeke.

The three races each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve always thought of it in terms of rock-paper-scissors: Zerg has an advantage over Protoss, Protoss over Terran, and Terran over Zerg. Any way, as for which race you should choose, the best thing you can do is play as all three, watch pros play, and see which playstyle appeals to you the most. When I first purchased Wings of Liberty I initially wanted to play Zerg, but then decided to play Random in order to get the maximum amount of value out of my game (plus you need to master all three races in order to unlock those sexy portraits!).

In my experience, Zerg is the hardest to manage overall, in terms of keeping up production and managing your army, because their units are fast and meant to attack in swarms with hit-and-runs and run-bys. Protoss feels the most powerful. The gamescape is constantly changing with patches and tweaks, but Protoss always have the strongest end-game armies, with their spellcasters and powerful area-of-effect damage dealers. Terrans I think are the most fun to play as, because their units are the most versatile, allowing you to play any kind of style you’d like whether it’s laid back and defence-heavy, or aggressive with drops and multi-pronged harass. In any case, Blizzard gets a lot of flak from the community over imbalance issues, but I think it’s worthwhile to remember they are managing a game with three distinct races, each with their own playstyles within playstyles, all the while catering to a wide range of gamers in terms of skill level, and I would like to say that, for the most part, they have done a fantastic job with Starcraft II.

In Conclusion…

Big enough to span three separate games, each worth buying, Starcraft II is an immense game with tonnes to offer, whether you’re a fan of single player, co-op, or competitive. Make no mistake, however, this game takes patience and time to get good at. There is much to learn, but thankfully the game also comes with an excellent community for you to discuss strategies with, and a progaming (one “m”) scene to learn even more from.

I would recommend this game to anyone who is interested in real-time strategy, no matter what your gaming experience is. If you get stressed out with multiplayer, stick with the single player campaign and the co-op missions; these will be rewarding in of itself, featuring a great story and a memorable cast of characters. The adjustable difficulty level ensures that your gaming experience will be as comfortably challenging as you want it to be.

Similarly, the ranking system online also provides a fair matchmaking system, where you’ll be able to use whatever strategies you like against your opponents. Just don’t forget to build turrets and cannons for those pesky Dark Templar rushes! I’ll see you online.

This has been a gamobo review.

For further information:

Day9 has a cache of informative videos. Even though some of the strats are outdated, he also cover basic mechanics

Team Liquid is the place to go to talk to fellow gamers, and see a list of live streams of pro gamers

IMBAbuilds is a great starting point for learning what to do once you get the hang of playing online (just don’t click the link at the bottom!)

-a quick search on YouTube will also show plenty of YouTubers who play Starcraft II for fun and seriously. Most of them are quite entertaining and informative at the same time.

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