StarCraft II is a complete game experience. At its core, it is a standard-setting real time strategy game. But the shell around that core includes elements of an adventure point-and-click, an interactive cinematic, and achievement-hunter-baiting challenges, all topped off with an engrossing multiplayer component that many refer to as the “real StarCraft.” Playing all of StarCraft II after paying only 60 bucks feels like you are wearing a ski-mask and ripping off Blizzard at gunpoint. It’s that good.

The story is told through cinematics that attempt to rival some of the gritty science fiction films of our day. Jim Raynor is a cigar-smoking drunk, nearly every cutscene has him swilling various forms of alcohol, but he leads his group of rebels against the oppressive Dominion. Haunted by the memory of Sarah Kerrigan, and her transformation into the Zerg Queen of Blades, Raynor mobilizes his forces for a final push to take out Arcturus Mengsk, the man who betrayed Kerrigan and now rules the sector with an iron fist. Mengsk has created an 1984-like totalitarian government, complete with billboards and propaganda urging citizens to watch their neighbors and that the Dominion is there to “protect you from yourself.” From the start of the game, Raynor’s objective is clear: Take down Mengsk, whatever the cost.

The character development of Jim Raynor is told through a great supporting cast. Tychus Findlay arrives early on and through him we learn that Raynor was once a criminal and he had gone legit before being named a Marshall on Mar Sara. The support staff on Raynor’s flagship, the Hyperion, are fiercely loyal to their commander, but aren’t afraid to question him. How Raynor responds gives us a window into his troubled soul. The voiceacting for these supporting characters is way above average, with the deep southern drawl of Tychus standing out. As the story progresses, more characters interact with Raynor and, depending on your choices, become fixtures aboard the Hyperion. Between missions, you are encouraged to check in with them to get their opinions on what just happened. You can always check the network news on the TV in the Cantina, which offers a funny sideplot of how Mengsk shapes public opinion, always painting Raynor as a terrorist and war criminal.

The conventions of strategy games are all present in StarCraft II. The Command Center builds workers called SCVs which then collect the two resources: minerals and vespene gas. SCVs can build structures, which are then used to produce units. As Blizzard is wont to do, learning the basics of how to play is easy. If you have no experience with strategy games but you’re interested in StarCraft II, it shouldn’t be a problem picking it by playing through the campaign. New units and strategic complexity is added slowly. These units, some of which are new to the campaign and don’t appear in the multiplayer, are then added to the Armory, manned by the mechanic Swann, allowing you to build them in future missions. From the console there, you can buy upgrades using the credits that you earn after completing missions.

For the strategy nerds like me, the possible upgrades and tech trees make for some very difficult decisions that impact how you play the campaign going forward. The most important of these are the defensive base upgrades; having a defensive Bunker loaded with 6 marines instead of 4 is game-changing. You can also use credits to hire mercenary troops. Once their contract is purchased, these troops can be dropped in during any mission from the Merc Compound. The mercs are elite versions of units you can already build and can turn the tide of the battle in a jiffy.

Through completing the side objectives in most missions, you can gain either Protoss or Zerg research points. These are added to a separate tech tree which gives you a choice of upgrade at each 5-point level and the research can add new units or change the way your buildings work, permanently altering how you play. The only drawback is that you can only choose one research project at each level, with the other option lost forever, but that makes for some compelling decisions to be made.

Playing the 26+ missions in the StarCraft II campaign never feels repetitive or old hat. Yes, there are common base-building tasks, “defend the hill for X amount of time” missions and squad-based tactics missions through smaller locales, but each feels like a unique experience. Perhaps that is because the missions are closely tied to the characters that propose them to Raynor. Gabriel Tosh is a rogue Ghost who now refers to himself and his followers as Spectres, elite cloaking units with unique abilities. If Tosh wants to free prisoners on New Folsom, then it follows that his Spectre unit will figure prominently in the mission. New units are added to your arsenal in missions that let them shine, such as the Diamondback being salvaged in a mission that has you chasing down fast-moving Dominion hover-trains.

Even though StarCraft II is fairly derivative of recent sci-fi television series (there are notes of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica), it feels original for some reason. It could be the strong Southern American influence of the Terran race; most every character has a strong accent or at least a twang and the soundtrack is more Southern Rock than sweeping orchestra. The cinematic story definitely has an Us vs. Them theme which feels very Southern.

That’s not to say that the cutscenes are perfect. The dialogue can feel forced at times, and most of the representations of characters reside firmly in the uncanny valley. When a character’s expression changes only once or twice in a 3 minute conversation, it just doesn’t feel right. The leadup to the conclusion of StarCraft II is quite impressive, as Raynor is caught up in universe-altering events, but, when it was all over, I felt that the last scene didn’t give me enough. I was left asking, “What happened? Did it work? How long do I have to wait for Heart of the Swarm?!?” Unfortunately, there’s no word on when Blizzard will release the next installment. My guess is 2015.

One might argue that the single player campaign is a mere preamble to the multiplayer battles of StarCraft II, where your mettle is tested against the multitudes. I disagree. Despite the pressures of recreating the success of the multiplayer masterpiece of the first StarCraft, Blizzard obviously didn’t put all of their eggs into perfecting just that portion of the game. The essence of StarCraft II is the saga of Raynor against the Zerg-infested Kerrigan and the struggle of freedom versus oppression. These themes are far from clear-cut, however; is Raynor’s love/hatred of Kerrigan more important than the human race? Is freedom important when humanity is threatened by the Zerg?

As in any piece of interactive art, it’s up to you to decide. The genius of StarCraft II is that these decisions rest in the very framework of how the game is played. By playing the missions, you embody Jim Raynor and decide where to place your resources and how to accomplish your goals. StarCraft II is not an open-ended experience, it is, in fact, fairly railroaded as modern games go, but it never feels like your decisions are meaningless. How you play, how effective you are as a battlefield general, matters.

Bottom Line: StarCraft II is a wonderful game, both as a story-telling experience and a strategically deep and tactically challenging game. The single-player campaign is deeply satisfying to complete.

Recommendation: If you have a games-ready PC, buy this game. If you don’t, buy a decent PC and then buy StarCraft II.

[rating=5]

Game: StarCraft II
Genre: Real-time Strategy
Developer: Blizzard
Publisher: Blizzard
Release Date: July 27, 2010
Platform(s): PC & Mac
Available from: Amazon, Battle.net

Greg Tito would like to be Egon Stetmann’s friend.

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