Some people only play StarCraft for its single-player, others only play it for its multiplayer. Both have their draws, with the single-player campaign constantly introducing new units, gameplay mechanics, and twists; and the multiplayer balanced to such a fine degree that there are formulae to work out what performs best under different circumstances.
Love it or hate it, probably everyone with more than a passing interest in real-time strategy has tried it out and formed an opinion of it at this point, and for those who haven’t, trying to learn all of its systems and component parts seems like it would take a lifetime.
StarCraft 2 sees you pick one of three factions (Terran, Zerg or Protoss) and attempt to annihilate one or more opponents on a map. A typical match will have the following itinerary: harvesting resources, using those resources to build an army and supporting structures, and using that army to conquer the map. Resources are finite, found close to your initial starting point and at other key areas on the map (which is one of the main motivations to encourage expansion early on).
For me the biggest issue with the game (although I appreciate this is the game’s biggest draw for some) is the emphasis on speed and micromanagement. Every single unit in the game is an utter imbecile and needs to be ordered directly and explicitly to ensure they stay alive. The Terran’s basic “marine” unit can easily dispatch certain enemy units, provided they remain outside of the enemy’s reach. Yet somehow they don’t know this, so you, the player must:
- Click to move marine outside enemy’s range
- Wait until marine is almost within enemy’s range
The argument could certainly be made that this is the same as in Diablo, and enjoyable to boot, were it not for the fact that you’ll be managing multiple units at the same time, or that the specific area that currently holds your attention is probably only one small part of the map that requires your attention. Certainly this leads to frantic gameplay (and is undoubtedly the big draw for many), but it favours actions per minute over good old strategy.
In conjunction with this, the personal bugbear for me is resource generation. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the limited resources available, the path to victory in a match is paved by how quickly you can accumulate resources. There is only one game mechanic that impedes progress on this front: supply. Each race has a supply limit that dictates how many units the player can own. This limit can be increased through construction of certain buildings (or in the case of the Zerg, via a special unit), but the end result of all this is that people who play the game for any amount of time inevitably use build orders to offload early game decision making onto tried and tested templates. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with this (it’s arguably the same thing as an opening gambit in chess), it does give the impression that the majority of players are only interested in a small part of the overall gameplay.
What StarCraft 2 absolutely nails is in the differences between the three factions. Not only are the buildings and units sufficiently varied, but they each work differently in how they construct units and buildings (for the Terran, through production; for Zerg, through evolving organic matter; and for Protoss, through warping from elsewhere), which often leads to taking different overall strategies as a result.
Performance & Quality
Blizzard treats its Mac-based audience rather well. The game features full retina support, and the Mac version runs as smoothly under OS X as it does with Windows, with lots of options to tweak, and even a built-in frame-rate counter.
That’s not to say it’s without any faults; there’s a nasty issue where by the mouse stops working properly in the OS after quitting the game (at least, if you happen to have more than one input device attached to your Mac), which has plagued the game since its release. There are also some staggeringly long load times, even when using an SSD (an issue which also exists in the Windows version of the game).
Wings of Liberty
StarCraft II is intended to have three main campaigns, each centered around one of the game’s factions. The first of these is titled “Wings of Liberty”, is centered around the Terrans, and comes with the base game.
The story picks up after the events of Brood War, and is centred around space redneck Jim Raynor. I’ll just come out and say it: the writing is bad. The plot itself is adequate, but the dialogue is cheesy, the characters one-dimensional and stereotyped. However, where it counts, namely in the mission designs, the game is a success. Rather than making each mission follow the same flow as a typical multiplayer or skirmish match (seeing you build up an army from nothing), many will either start you with a base and some units, or will eschew the idea of base-building entirely, giving you just a number of units to complete the objectives with.
Many of the missions will also feature a gameplay twist on the traditional “destroy all enemies” approach. There are escort missions, time limits and so-called “greed” missions (which give you the objective to generate a certain number of resources, with the caveat that you’ll need to spend some of them to successfully harvest more). There’s even a mission where you get to rob a train. Frankly, it’s good to see the traditional gameplay being experimented with in this way, for those who yearn for more traditional gameplay, there’s always the skirmish modes.
The missions also follow a progression system of sorts. As you complete mission objectives, you’ll occasionally be rewarded with “research” materials, which can be spent on unlocking special bonuses for different units and structures (and in some cases, completely new units and structures) that are then available for the rest of the campaign (it’s rather trivial to have unlocked all research by the end of the campaign).
Completing missions also provides credits, which can in turn be spent on upgrades for specific units, as well as hiring “mercenaries”, which can then be purchased during a campaign mission as a one-off, powerful variant of a normal unit. Even the regular units must be unlocked during the course of the campaign, with each mission focusing on a specific Terran unit, effectively teaching the capabilities and strengths of the unit.
The mission structure feels a little awkward, with different missions given to you by different characters, meaning that you usually have a choice of available missions to attempt. The main problem with this approach is that some of the missions are branching, so even by the end of the campaign there will be several missions you didn’t play (although you can replay any mission at any point). Some of the missions also see you play as the Protoss, so you’ll gain a little familiarity with how their units work, but nothing really teaches you about the Zerg, other than being attacked by them.
There are also four different difficulty settings, but even so, the missions themselves seem to vary greatly in difficulty, requiring vastly different approaches in order to succeed. There’s also an in-game achievement system, although a sizeable number of these require playing on “Hard” difficulty.
The multiplayer scene for StarCraft II is gigantic. There are tiers of leaderboards, e-sports championships, and a large number of people who play the game for a living. Writing anything useful about the multiplayer aspect of the game is well beyond the scope of this review (not to mention my comparatively limited experience), but I will say that Blizzard does go to great pains to making the barrier to entry as low as possible to newcomers.
There’s a “challenges” mode in the game that lets you learn and practice skills that will translate across to the multiplayer portion, such as knowing which units are best used in which situation*, as well as kiting and other skills. There are (now) unranked leaderboards for practicing against live opponents, as well as skirmish modes to practice against the AI.
*Perhaps one of the oddest things about the game is that selecting an enemy unit or structure only ever tells you who it belongs to, and not what it is, so a key part of the game is learning to recognise different units and structure on sight (and have knowledge of their relative strengths and weaknesses), and planning accordingly.
Mods are supported via the “Starcraft Arcade” in the game. Here there’s a truly wonderful range of mods, from a Bejewelled clone to a full-blown RPG. Not sure where to start? Take a look at Blizzard’s recommendations.