There are many artistic traditions in which excellence comes not from how unique or original a creation is, but how beautifully or perfectly the creation embodies and extends a lineage or artistic heritage. The original StarCraft has been a beloved game for over 10 years because it took the elements of the emerging RTS genre and coalesced, balanced, and polished them into a nearly perfect example of game design. StarCraft did nothing brand new as much as demonstrate the potential that lay in such predecessors as Command and Conquer, Dune, and Blizzard's own Warcraft games. Now we have StarCraft II, another masterpiece of game design and again, a near-perfect update of the original that extends and enriches the core experience in dozens of minor but important ways.
Let's start with the single player campaign and story, which in the hands of many other studios would be irrelevant or ham-fisted and inept. Blizzard is, unsurprisingly, in fine form, with richly conceived and executed cinematics and in-game cut scenes that pick up the story of freedom fighter Jim Raynor, four years after the events of the original StarCraft. Kerrigan, Arcturus Mengst and a number of other, familiar characters return in this first installment of what will be a three-game series. Raynor's fight to bring down the corrupt Terran Dominion is told through a series of beautifully paced and dramatically effective missions.
Raynor's starship, the “Hyperion,” serves as a hub for mission assignments, unit and tech upgrades, and simple diversions such as playing the arcade game The Lost Viking in the ship's cantina. The introduction of these RPG elements and the missions structure are probably the biggest changes to the StarCraft formula, but they work well to add an element of coherence to the campaign by dramatizing the reasons you're going to battle and why it matters. Also, the great number of choices in upgrade paths mean a lot of careful decisions must be made.
The learning curve in the Terran-focused single-player campaign is smooth and never frustrating, and the missions—though still essentially revolving around building structures and units and playing a game of rock-paper-scissors—are distinguished by unique elements such as intermittent lava flows that cover crystal fields, or suns that going supernova in the midst of battle. Each mission has a main objective and several secondary objectives which must be completed to unlock special upgrades and earn extra credits. Many units appear in the single-player campaign only, never to be seen on the multiplayer side.
It would be reasonable to assume that, given the level of polish and artistry that went into the single-player experience, the voice acting and music are no less accomplished. In particular, the symphonic score is a brilliantly orchestrated and performed accompaniment to the action. The tongue-in-cheek jukebox songs that populate the soundtrack of the cantina are minor masterpieces of musical wit.
On the battlefield itself, the old familiar units have received some minor tweaks and a few additions, but the core gameplay retains that perfection of pacing and flow that made StarCraft the defining RTS game of its generation. There's no unit cover (a la Company of Heroes or Warhammer) or build orders or a dozen other wrinkles that other games have tried to introduce into the mix. This is pure, just-like-you-remember, pick-up-and-play StarCraft.
Graphically, StarCraft II—just like other Blizzard titles—is designed to work on the largest number of machines possible. Dialed down to medium settings it still looks great and runs silky smooth. Cranked up to the max, it starts to chug but the visuals pop with detail, style, and effective lighting effects. It's gratifying to play a game where so much attention has been paid to art design, detail, and polish.
Since competitive StarCraft is, in many places, elevated to the status of a national pastime, the multiplayer component of StarCraft II has been tuned to peerless perfection. Every aspect of what constitutes a competitive multiplayer experience—from interface to matchmaking to tournaments to ranking—has been addressed and (apart from LAN support) provided.
Stepping onto the Battle.Net 2.0 ladder means slogging through a five-match series of “placement games” to determine skill level. From there on, it's all about moving up and down the ranks through a matchmaking system that is robust and reliable. Competitive StarCraft II is not for the faint of heart or easily discouraged player.
I spent many happy hours designing maps for the original StarCraft, and for the sequel the map editor is back and more powerful than ever, allowing the player to fashion new maps, campaigns, mini-games, and even cut scenes—to build, in effect, an entirely new game if that's the goal. And it's all right there, straight out of the gate.
For those slapping down an extra $40 and buying the Collector's Edition of StarCraft II, Blizzard delivers the goods in the form of a soundtrack CD, a DVD with all the game's cinematics and a suite of interesting “behind the scenes” movies, a 2 gig thumb drive pre-loaded with the original StarCraft and Brood War expansion, and a beautiful hardcover art book (plus some other little extras like visitor passes and a WoW pet).
When it comes to delivering a polished, artistically rendered, and enjoyable game, Blizzard is without peer. The company's philosophy—demonstrated again with StarCraft II—is that innovation and experimentation are less important than taking what's already successful and bringing it to near perfection. Sure, maybe that's playing it a little safe, but it's hard to find fault with a game as well-made as StarCraft II.