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About a year and a half ago, when I got a chance to play StarCraft II at PAX ’08, I posed a question: How do you follow up StarCraft?

To answer that question, you have to consider what makes a good sequel in any case. Gamers want their sequel to be bigger and better than the original – everything that was awesome in the first game will now just be “eh, good enough.” This is compounded by a game’s success; if a huge amount of people loved the first game, then there are that many more expectations to fulfill. This is true of StarCraft more than any other game in recent memory.

The past half-year or so has been filled to the brim with big-budget sequels to popular games. Just off the top of my head, in late 2009 and early 2010 we saw Uncharted 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Assassin’s Creed II, the behemoth Modern Warfare 2, Mass Effect 2, and now BioShock 2 – all of which were highly-anticipated, AAA sequels. And yet, as beloved as all of those original games were, none of them spawned the e-sport, and none of them thoroughly defined a genre for years to come. In short, none of them were StarCraft.

The expectations riding on StarCraft II are absolutely astronomical, because the original 1998 RTS was a landmark title on a scale only a few games have ever truly achieved. When faced with a bar this high, it’s no wonder that Blizzard has taken twelve years to make the second game in the series. Hell, there are already people taking the game to task for being too similar to the first StarCraft (which, to be fair, it is). Where’s the innovation, they ask: After all of the RTS titles like Company of Heroes and Homeworld that have been released in the twelve years between the first and second StarCraft titles, what makes Blizzard think it can get away with making what is effectively StarCraft HD? Why shouldn’t the developers make something different?

But is “different” really what people want in SC2? Is “different” really what people want in any sequel? Is innovation for innovation’s sake more important than having an excellent game?

Don’t get me wrong: Innovation is certainly a good thing, and games that try something new should be applauded for it. But not every game needs to try something new. Often, what’s new doesn’t always work as well as what’s tried and true – and those problems are what hopefully get fixed in the sequels. Look at 2008’s Mirror’s Edge. It was a game that was unique and innovative, but also certainly flawed – should a Mirror’s Edge 2 tack in an entirely new direction and reinvent the game entirely, or should it take the core ideas and refine and polish them in order to correct what was wrong?

Let the games with new IPs be innovative. I want my sequels to take what works and run with it. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, let alone a wheel as good as StarCraft.

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If we look at all of the highly-acclaimed sequels of the past half-year, that’s exactly what they did. Assassin’s Creed was repetitious, but the historical aspect and actual assassinations were well-received – people expected AC2 to fix the flaws while expanding on the strengths in a new, gorgeously rendered historical setting, and it did. Uncharted had all the trappings of a roaring action-adventure movie but occasionally dodgy mechanics and same-y locations, so people expected the sequel to tighten up the mechanics and offer a brand-new story that was as tightly paced and well-written as the first, and it did. People are expecting StarCraft II to take the core gameplay of StarCraft that resonated so well with gamers twelve years ago and preserve that essence while updating it for a modern era, and guess what? It does.

From what I’ve played from in the beta – and I have been playing the beta a lot since it started last Wednesday – there is no question that there is absolutely nothing innovative about StarCraft II, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most fun and engaging titles I’ve played in a very long time. I get the feeling that I would be enjoying it quite a bit less than I am if it tried to incorporate elements of games like Dawn of War II (which I quite liked), simply because it wouldn’t be as intuitive and, well, StarCraft-y as it is now.

If you played StarCraft at any decent length, you’ll feel right at home with StarCraft II – as Escapist video producer Slycne said just before kicking my Zerg ass with his Terran marine rush, it’s kind of like riding a bike. The same basics are in place: harvest minerals, refine Vespene Gas, spawn more Overlords, Zerg rush. Many of the specific units have been changed or replaced, there are new mechanics and abilities, and things have been streamlined and refined… but the core game is exactly the same as it was twelve years ago. And honestly, Blizzard couldn’t have really done anything else.

StarCraft II is a game that is being made for two distinctly different groups. Blizzard is making a game that caters to the ridiculously hardcore pro-gaming scene which expects strategic depth and balance, while simultaneously crafting a casual PC game for those who have fond memories of the original StarCraft and who expect it to be easy to pick up and play. A simple, very traditional RTS core makes it easier to develop while still retaining the uniqueness of the races, and ensures that new players who aren’t gosu strategy gods can more easily understand what’s going on, as opposed to the more innovative – and more complicated – titles in the genre.

Playing StarCraft II is just like riding a bicycle. It’s StarCraft for a new generation. And now that I’ve had a chance to play it in depth, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

John Funk is actually starting to get the hang of Zerg. Sort of.

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