StarCraft 2: Wings Of Liberty returns players to the Koprulu Sector to settle the score between the Terrans, the Zerg and the Protoss. Let's hope you've built enough pylons.
Back in 1998, Blizzard released one of the most popular and influential games of its time,StarCraft. The strategy game pitted the resourceful Terrans, the ancient Protoss and the relentless Zerg against each other in a battle of strategy and resources.
Twelve years later and after the clamouring of its myriad fans, Blizzard has finally released the sequel.
StarCraft 2 returns to the frontlines of the Terran-Protoss-Zerg war, bringing with it some nifty new units, a polished new 3D interface, familiar gameplay mechanics and the continuation of an epic story set against the backdrop of a war-torn distant future.
After the long wait, what do gamers have to say about this?
Hell, it's about time!
StarCraft 2 is actually a trilogy of games, with the first entry being StarCraft 2: Wings Of Liberty.
Wings Of Liberty delivers the Terrans' single-player campaign, but the overarching story continues in Heart Of The Swarm and Legacy Of The Void.
The loud noise that you just heard was your wallet screaming in realisation that to enjoy the full breadth of StarCraft 2's single-player campaign, you'll have to fork out the cash to purchase three separate games.
Judging from the quality of gameplay and sheer fun packaged into Wings of Liberty, however, your investment will be well worth it.
If you've played the original StarCraft before, then you'll be immediately familiar with the gameplay.
You still collect minerals and Vespene gas using SCVs, probes or drones.
Iconic units like the marines, zealots and hydralisks return. Annoying Zerg players still swarm you with those pesky little zerglings. Grrrr!
In fact, if it weren't for the addition of new units to each faction's arsenal and the spiffy new 3D engine, you could have easily mistaken StarCraft 2 for the original.
StarCraft 2 doesn't make any bold new advances in the core gameplay; There's no new game-changing mechanic like what WarCraft 3 did with the hero units.
Compared to the original StarCraft, it's essentially the same game. However, it's how you play it and how it's presented that's different.
A campaign for freedom
The single-player campaign of Wings of Liberty is an entirely different beast from the "standard" build-your-base-and-kill-the-enemy offering.
The campaign is built on same gameplay mechanics, yes, but Blizzard adds so many innovations to the way it's played that it almost feels like a different game.
The story begin four years after the end of the devastating Brood War.
You take the role of Jim Raynor, the rebel hero and leader of Raynor's Raiders, as he struggles against Arcturus Mengsk's oppressive Dominion.
The storyline itself is fairly linear, in the sense that there's only one ending to the campaign, but as Raynor you get to choose which missions you want to play, how you play them and which rewards you unlock.
Every mission you play as Raynor and his merry group of rebels/mercenaries has a unique twist that keeps the gameplay fresh.
One mission has you racing to harvest minerals in a resource-starved junk world so you can hire mercenaries before the enemy does; another puts you in a Night Of The Living Dead type of scenario where hordes of "zombies" assault your base when the sun sets.
In between missions, you can use the credits and research points you've earned from completing missions and secondary objectives to purchase upgrades for your ever-growing army or unlock absurdly powerful new technologies.
The campaign pulls no punches - units that were considered unbalanced for multiplayer are yours to command (and upgrade!) as you fight the Dominion, rogue Protoss and Zerg.
Calling the presentation fantastic is an understatement; the 3D graphics engine, voice actors and story writers worked overtime to present in-game cutscenes of cinematic quality.
That's incredibly impressive for an RTS game, and we're ecstatic to see that storytelling remains one of Blizzard's strong points.
In fact, we'd go as far to say that even with the amount of quality and polish Blizzard puts into the rest of its product, the single-player campaign of Wings Of Liberty is easily the best feature of the package.
Of course, we might just be biased against the multiplayer because we kept getting our asses handed to us by players online.
Online, in space
Even though the Terrans get most of the love in the single-player campaign, all three factions are fully playable in skirmish and multiplayer games.
As mentioned before, the core gameplay mechanics for each faction remain the same, even ifStarCraft 2 introduces new units like the transforming air/ground Viking unit and the teleporting Stalker unit.
The most significant new aspect of StarCraft 2's multiplayer is its integration with Battle.net.
StarCraft 2's reliance on Blizzard's online gaming service is so tight that we'd actually suggest rethinking purchasing the game if you don't have a decent Internet connection.
You can technically play StarCraft 2 offline if you're only interested in the single-player game, but you'll still need to be logged into Battle.net to activate your game, earn achievements and download maps.
Yes, that's right - don't be surprised if you can't even play a skirmish with an AI opponent if you didn't first download the "default" maps.
While the integration of Battle.net proves to be a major downer to players with poor net connections and players who want to play the game on a LAN, it has its upsides.
Our experience has shown that the matchmaking system makes it really easy to find players of similar skill to battle, or partners to co-op with against AIs opponents.
If you're a competitive player, there's always the leagues and tournaments on Battle.net to keep you busy.
The RealID system - which sparked a controversy in July when Blizzard announced they were integrating it into their forums - is present in StarCraft 2.
If you're not aware of the ruckus it caused, the RealID system made a player's real name public when they posted in the forums, much to the ire of privacy advocates.
But don't worry, in this incarnation it mostly takes the form of a prevalent instant messaging system that lets you keep in touch with your friends on Battle.net, even if they aren't playing the same game as you.
Your real name is (theoretically) only revealed to the friends you add to your list and their friends. Standard privacy caveats apply.
If you're a bit of a game developer yourself, you'll be happy with one more aspect of the Battle.net integration - StarCraft 2's powerful map editor is also tied to the service, allowing you to log in and quickly publish your creations online.
StarCraft 2: Wings Of Liberty is hands down one of the best games currently available on the PC and Mac.
It's essentially everything that made the first StarCraft such a popular game, but with so much added polish that it's practically shining.
Fans who wanted an evolution in the gameplay will be less ecstatic to see that the core mechanics remain essentially the same as the original StarCraft, however.
But that said, the absorbing and refreshingly innovative single-player campaign should do much to allay their disappointment.
Twelve years might have been quite a wait, but Blizzard has deftly answered the question as to whether it could create a worthy sequel to its iconic RTS game.
Now only one question remains: When are the next two installments coming?
Pros: It's the StarCraft that players love; single-player campaign is fun even on its own; integrated Battle.net functionality.
Cons: A little too tied to Battle.net; No new innovations to the base gameplay mechanic.