|Starcraft II | For the PC and the Macintosh | Rated T for Teen | Developed by Blizzard Entertainment | Published by Blizzard Entertainment|
Imagine a game of chess. Now, imagine playing five chess games at the same time, as fast as you can. That would only scratch the surface of the skills you need to play StarCraft
When StarCraft came out, in 1998, it became one of the highest-selling PC games ever made, and it set a high bar for the real-time strategy genre as a whole. StarCraft fans all over the world have spent the past 12 years playing the game online, at LAN parties, and at tournaments. In South Korea, StarCraft has become a professional sport.
Now, after more than a decade, the sequel has arrived. As in the original, Terrans (human space explorers) are locked in battle with two alien races called the Protoss and the Zerg. The Protoss tend to arm their bases with high-powered units in low numbers, whereas the Zerg tend to dominate their foes with a huge onslaught of weaker units. Terrans do a little of each. StarCraft is renowned for its careful balance of the three races; you could, in theory, win by playing as any one of them.
StarCraft II sees to it that you have fun regardless of your skill level, so even if you've never touched the original — or any other RTS game — you shouldn't be intimidated. The multi-player mode records your wins and losses to make sure you're matched with players of similar ability, and as you improve, the game takes notice and pits you against more experienced players. If you don't like playing with strangers, the friends-list feature allows you to add people you know. You can either battle against your friends or play cooperatively against the AI.
The single-player campaign caters to multiple skill levels as well: each mission can be played on Casual, Normal, Hard, or Brutal. Novices will find the tutorial videos and the in-game "tips" to be most helpful. I found the Casual mode to be easy, fun, and addictive, and I plowed through a few missions before cockily increasing the difficulty. At first, that didn't go as well as I'd hoped, but even when the game gets harder, it's still fun. The campaign story confines itself to the Terrans, a blow to those who prefer to play as Protoss or Zerg — but Blizzard is planning to do campaigns for the other two races later.
As for the Firefly-meets-Mass-Effect atmosphere, it might not have felt clichéd 12 years ago, but it does now. The protagonist, Jim Raynor, has Marcus Fenix's build, Nathan Drake's wardrobe, and Malcolm Reynolds's personality. His spaceship is staffed with other stereotypes: the shy-but-smart brunette doctor, the geeky bespectacled scientist, the brutish weapons technician, and the borderline racist Jamaican warrior with a voodoo-doll collection.
Blizzard has honed the mechanics of the strategy genre, and StarCraft II's graphics are most impressive, but the developers haven't managed to make me care about their characters as much as I do about resource management. There must be a way to re-create the intrigue and suspense of a complex, multi-faceted war without resorting to cookie- cutter sci-fi caricatures and tacked-on cutscenes between each mission. Then again, people don't play chess to look at the pretty pieces, so perhaps it's fitting that StarCraft's story should take a back seat to the gameplay.