If any other company but Blizzard had simply put new graphics over the same old interface, it would have resulted in an interesting novelty at best. But within moments of putting my hands on StarCraft 2 during the open beta, it was clear this was no mere novelty. It's been more than a decade since I played the original, but the sequel feels both instantly fresh and familiar. It's not a game that will be forgotten in the rush of the coming months' releases. It feels timeless.
While the multiplayer was available for months in beta, the single-player Terran-only campaign of Wings of Liberty has remained a mystery. In short, it's a return to form for Blizzard, with a sweeping story told through gorgeous cutscenes and varied missions that fall along a pitch-perfect difficulty curve. The world of StarCraft is brought to life with a rare attention to detail, with original recorded songs like "A Zerg, A Shotgun and You" playing on the jukebox, memorabilia from protagonist Jim Raynor's previous exploits lining the walls and commercials for "Bubba's Gas and Grub" flashing by on the background TVs.
There are several updates to the single-player campaign to keep it feeling contemporary, many of which will be recognized by fans of Relic's Dawn of War 2. A branching mission structure, unlockable upgrades and single-player-only units and abilities all combine to make the campaign feel like more than a series of skirmishes. In traditional Blizzard form, the developer borrows from the best.
Though the budget and spectacle have clearly increased since the first game, what's most striking about the single-player game is the familiarity. The standard missions are all there -- stealth, base defense and straight-up battles -- and the core strategies still work. Blizzard didn't change StarCraft, because StarCraft didn't need changing.
Blizzard didn't change StarCraft, because StarCraft didn't need changing.
As for multiplayer in StarCraft 2, it's one of the most finely-honed experiences I've ever played. In order to live up to the legacy of StarCraft's professional gaming scene, Blizzard couldn't just settle for making the game "reasonably" balanced. The results of months of tweaks in open beta can be seen in a wonderfully balanced multiplayer experience -- every strategy seems to have a viable counter strategy, and at higher levels of play no single strategy dominates. StarCraft has always rewarded skill and creativity in a way few strategy games ever have, and its sequel continues this legacy.
The constant tinkering and re-balancing that went into the game wasn't limited to the unit-balance. The matchmaking system has seen similar love. You play in a few "placement matches" to determine your skill level, then the matchmaking secret-sauce algorithm pairs you with an opponent of similar skill.
It's hopelessly addictive. Similarly to the way a character gains levels in World of Warcraft, there's a continual string of wins to offset your defeats. This constant feedback of skirmishes against similarly skilled opponents is a staple of competitive StarCraft play, and Battle.net 2.0 consistently linked me to competitive matches. Even losses can be rewarding, as the excellent and improved replay system allows you to watch your opponent's strategy and learn to counter it. Replays have always been critical to competitive StarCraft players, and StarCraft 2 makes this invaluable tool easily accessible to everyone.
Battle.net 2.0 has also moved to a friends-list system similar to Xbox Live and PSN, which is a welcome change from the archaic matchmaking of Battle.net in previous Bilzzard games. The focus on the friends list creates even more jockeying for social status as you can view your friends achievements and ranks. (It seems Blizzard learned more than one trick from World of Warcraft.) If you have a competitive bone in your body, Battle.net 2.0 is designed to keep you playing for as long as there are opponents to defeat and friends to crow over.
Which, if StarCraft is any indication, will be for a long, long time.
StarCraft 2 didn't change the formula because it didn't need to. This isn't just a fresh coat of paint on StarCraft, it is StarCraft, right down to its pixelated bones. It's proof that games don't have to be disposable, that some games are so creative and balanced and fun that they don't go out of style or disappear over the years. Some games, it turns out, really are timeless.
Allen is a software developer, who has a part-time hobby writing about games. This part-time gig has yet to impress any women at bars, though that could be because his business cards are written in crayon. He can usually be found writing about indie games for Gamers With Jobs.
Editor's note: This review is based on the PC version of StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, provided by Blizzard.