‘Wings of Liberty’ Soars

Courtesy of Battle.Net

Courtesy of Battle.Net

After over a decade of waiting, gamers worldwide were treated to the retail release of “Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty” for Mac and Windows on July 27. Launch parties and midnight releases were commonplace on college campuses and video game stores as people picked up what could be the most anticipated video game in recent memory.

Developed by Blizzard Entertainment at their Irvine campus, “Wings of Liberty” is set four years after “Starcraft: Brood Wars,” the last game in the series. The single player campaign puts you back into the position of Jim Raynor, leader of rebel group Raynor’s Raiders as you clash with two separate factions – the insectoid alien Zerg, led by Sarah Kerrigan, who has resurfaced after being inactive for four years, and the Terran Dominion, a deeply corrupt human empire led by Arcturus Mengsk.

Blizzard decided to take a different approach with “Wings of Liberty’s” single player. In the first “Starcraft” and its expansion pack, the player has access to all three races — Terran, the resourceful humans, Zerg, insectoid aliens capable of massing giant armies, and the Protoss, technologically advanced aliens. Furthermore, the single player campaign was split into three separate parts, with each told from a different race’s point of view.

“Starcraft II” is set to be the Terran story while two currently unnamed expansions will tell the story from the Zerg and Protoss perspectives. Prior to release, this garnered some criticism. There was fear that, with Blizzard’s merger with Activision, Starcraft II would be milked for as much money as possible. These worries are unfounded, as the single player includes a total of 30 missions, just a few less than the original Starcraft.

The single player campaign has changed greatly from that of “Starcraft” in that missions are no longer linear. You can upgrade forces, and make other changes as well. The multiplayer format remains largely untouched.

Despite the graphics engine upgrade and the revision of each race’s army lineup, the multiplayer plays almost exactly like “Starcraft.” You and another player choose one of three races, and prepare to do battle.

The largest difference is that all games now take place over ‘Battle.NET’, Blizzard’s online matchmaking service, which is a departure from earlier Blizzard games, when games could take place either on Battle.NET or over a LAN connection.

While the game expects you to be up to date with the storyline, it will baby you into the control scheme. If you’ve played a “Real Time Strategy” game before (think “Age of Empires” or “Warcraft III”), you’ll know the basics of game control.

In the simplest terms, you use workers to build a colony and gather resources. Then you mass an army of different units and send them to battle with your opponent’s. “Starcraft II” makes no adjustments to the RTS formula. While the game play is fairly simple, it is diverse enough to spawn a fairly popular competitive scene, with several large tournaments taking place before the game was even released.

Since the game is available on both Mac and Windows, players will be able to compete across platforms. There’s no console incompatibility; Blizzard has taken the opportunity to craft a game perfect for the computer.

With requirements scaling back to bare bones, Starcraft II can be played on systems as old as 6 years. The graphics don’t suffer at all when pumped up to the highest levels — individual blades of grass are blown in the wind, rocks tumble accurately after being blasted apart and the Zerg pulsate as they move around the map. The cinematics, while nowhere near cutting edge, are fine for their purpose.

Blizzard scored a flawless victory with their character design. The relationships and personalities are believable; the hero, Jim Raynor, is easy to sympathize with, while the main villain, Mengsk, is simple to hate. Sarah Kerrigan, the series’ most complex and tragic character, is a ball of mixed emotions, leaving the player both hurt and angry at the same time. The voice acting is done perfectly, giving each character his or her own sense of identity.

Did Blizzard really deliver the perfect sequel? “Starcraft” was one of the best-selling PC games ever; it was so popular that professional leagues exist and games are televised in South Korea. Combine that with a decade-long wait time and expectations are through the roof.

Amazingly, Blizzard did it. Despite the lack of LAN play and worries about the single player, Blizzard made one of the best RTSs ever released better. The characters are more real, the game play is rock solid, and the story has more depth. The single player is engrossing and multiplayer is exciting. If you ever enjoyed an RTS, you are almost obligated to play “Starcraft II.” It doesn’t get any better than this.