StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty Campaign Review

by on 2nd Oct 2010

Introduction

The developers at Blizzard decided early on that Starcraft II required the scope to deliver a longer storyline for each of its three iconic races, and as a result the game was split into three standalone chapters to be released at intervals of at least 12 months.

The first chapter - the Terran campaign Wings of Liberty, is what I'll be reviewing today.

A Bit of Backstory

If, like me, you’ve never played the original StarCraft, widely regarded as a cornerstone of the RTS genre, or Blizzard’s expansion Brood Wars then you’ll be happy to know that the game’s installer helpfully fills you in on the events that took place prior to the opening scenes in Wings of Liberty. Blizzard have also helpfully expanded upon this history with a section on the official website entitled The Story So Far, which is worth reading to avoid confusion.

It is some four years since the events of the Brood Wars campaign that capped off the original game – the Zerg, a slimy insect-like alien race, have been uncharacteristically silent since the last encounter and Arcturus Mengsk, as ruler of the totalitarian Terran Dominion, has been using propaganda to effectively stop freedom fighter Jim Raynor’s rebellion against the Dominion dead in its tracks.

But things don’t stay quiet for long.

Characters of the Korprulu Sector

The campaign begins with a Zerg incursion on the planet Mar Sara where Raynor currently resides, whiling away his days drinking in a bar. During this early part of the campaign Raynor joins up with an old friend , recently released convict Tychus Findlay who is arguably the most likeable character in the game and also perfectly cast as the role of comic relief. Matt Horner, captain of the battlecruiser Hyperion picks them up just as the Zerg overrun the planet and before long we’re introduced to all manner of characters that, sadly, don’t quite live up to the sheer presence of Tychus Findlay.

Missions are dispensed via a rather neat and somewhat interactive between-mission interface where the game’s various characters stand around waiting for you to click on them and hear their story. This interface is present throughout the game, beginning in a bar on Mar Sara, moving to the Hyperion and even to the front lines of a pivotal battle at the game’s climax.

Many of the characters give you linear side missions to complete. Some are fairly mundane colonist babysitting missions from the two-dimensional Dr Ariel Hanson in which you spend lots of time evacuating and defending, whilst others include more aggressive escapades dispensed by Tychus and “pirate of the Caribbean” Gabriel Tosh as well as an interesting mini-campaign from Raynor’s old Protoss buddy Zeratul in which you actually get to play the Protoss, an ancient race with potent psionic abilities and highly advanced technology.

A few of these side missions give you choices along the way – defend the colonists and anger the Protoss, or join up with the evil-looking Tosh or betray him, though sadly these choices have very little-to-no effect on the central storyline.

There’s certainly no shortage of mission variation however. In fact, Blizzard have excelled in making sure there’s a unique take on every single mission. You’ll find yourself robbing trains or defending your base by night and attacking the enemy by day in a zombie-inspired hold the fort scenario, or even more imaginatively building your forces up whilst moving your buildings to new locations every few minutes to stay one step ahead of a supernova-induced wall of flame – they’re all interesting and all quite replayable.

Research & Recruitment

Other characters onboard the Hyperion serve to give you access to new technologies or troops.

Egon Stetmann, annoying boy genius, is your one man science team who researches various Zerg and Protoss artefacts which he asks you to suicidally seek out during some missions. These artefacts each equate to a single point on the Zerg and Protoss research trees. Now don’t get too excited, they’re more beanstalks that actual trees, as once you reach a certain level on either of the separate trees, you get to choose between a generally defensive or offensive piece of technology to help you further in the game. Choosing one denies you the ability to research the other at that level, and you must do your best to get as many artefacts as you can to actually get to the end of the research tree, so try your best to find those artefacts and choose your research topics wisely. Whether it’s pop-up flame turrets or a Zerg mind control emitter, each can help you turn the tide of war but aren’t game-winners in themselves and certainly aren’t useful if they’re not in turn backed up by good tactics.

Rory Swann, blatant scaled-up Dwarf, is the ship’s crack-mechanic. There seem to be no limits to what he can rustle up on board the Hyperion, which later in the game seems a little odd as he drops in a few units that technically shouldn’t fit on board. Minor niggles about his appearance and TARDIS-like engineering bay aside, he’s the man you’ll go to between missions and spend your hard-earned cash on various unit and building upgrades. This usually means slapping a gun on something that didn’t have one before, or slapping a bigger or better gun on something that already did, but there are some decent defensive upgrades available as well as the occasional health, armour and energy boosts. The money you’ll spend here comes from completing missions, some of which have additional bonus objectives that can net you a bit more cash, so be prepared to face a little (and sometimes a lot of) extra hardship to get a bigger paycheck.

Graven Hill, mercenary recruiter is the last person who you can spend cash with in exchange for a few hired guns. Once certain unit types are unlocked, you can head to the ship’s cantina and pull up a seat with Mr Hill to discuss mercenary contracts. Mercenary units are generally souped-up versions of units already available to you, generally having better weapons, armour or health that can certainly help if you’re low on units and in a bind. You do have to have built a Merc Compound during each mission in order to use them which eats up precious resources, but you may well be glad of them when the Zerg come knocking.

RTS Done Right

Blizzard apparently developed the multiplayer game prior to starting work in earnest on the single player. Far from being left with a campaign that’s a poorly strung together set of multiplayer maps we’re given many additional units and technologies only available throughout the course of the single player game in addition to the aforementioned unique mission types and all enhanced by some very well-scripted AI.

The interface itself is very intuitive if you’ve played other RTS titles. Most commands are straightforward left and right clicks to select and move units or add units or research item to the queue at a particular building, and the first few missions serve as a tutorial for the uninitiated. You can also gleam a few nuggets of wisdom from the obligatory helpful hints that appear on the loading screen prior to starting each mission which, in a rare turn of events in the world of gaming, are actually quite useful and informative.

Each race has its own themed interface as well as some interesting and unique commands and properties for various units. Many Zerg units can burrow for example, many Protoss units have defensive shielding which you have to get through before you even put a dent in their armour, and Terran units are backed up by a variety of healing units and secondary fire modes.

I was concerned before playing the game that I had been spoiled by playing too many RTS titles over the years, however the balance of each unit in this game and the balance between the different races means that every unit has its place on the battlefield and no enemy is to be underestimated. This constantly keeps you on your toes as you adapt to their changing strategies throughout the game. Granted, these strategies tend to be the usual offensive rushes or defensive stances that are typical in RTS gaming, however the changing units during the course of the game force you to constantly change your own tactics to suit the situation at hand.

The three races each mine minerals and gas with which to build units and structures, however they also have different methods and rates of building them as well as different strengths and weaknesses. This means that you can’t rely on the same tactics throughout, especially as more deadly and numerous foe are pitted against you as the game progresses. A mass of Protoss Zealots can be as devastating to you as a single mothership, whilst a swarm of Zerglings and Hydralisks knocking on your front door can be as terrifying as an armada of Mutalisks and Brood Lords flying around your defensive lines.

Missions generally begin with the enemy pitting a few cheaper units against your defences, trying to drain resources and wear you down whilst you hurriedly try to cobble together resources to build the larger structures necessary to construct the more powerful ground and air units to unleash upon each other. In the Terran campaign this culminates in the latter portion of the game in Mech-like Thor’s and Battlecruisers, both of which cost an absolute fortune, but when built in some numbers and backed up by the right sort of support units are practically unstoppable. There are also stealth units in the form of Banshees, which can fly into enemy territory and rain down fire on ground targets whilst cloaked, and of course Ghosts which are expensive, specially trained ground units armed with a powerful sniper rifle and which can call down nuclear bombs on targets - if you’ve survived long enough to actually build some.

The Terrans are particularly good at building defensive structures – a combination of bunkers manned with Marines and rocket-firing Marauders followed closely by air support from clusters of missile turrets is the general order of the day in the early portion of each mission if you don’t want uninvited guests tearing your Command Center to shreds. The Zerg do have some more ingenious defences that are generally spread a bit more thinly, however their faster moving ground and air units can be called back quickly if there’s trouble back at base. The Protoss are ruthlessly efficient and have a single defensive structure that can target both air and ground units alike. Combined with the devastating War of the Worlds-inspired Colossus units and a variety of shielding at their disposal, they’ve got an effective defense against both air and ground units.

There are some inspired voice acting moments in the Terran portion of the campaign, most notably the hilariously out-of-character pilot of the Thor – a massive Mech-like war machine – styled on Arnold Schwarzenneger who delivers such lines as “I’m Heavy Metal” and “I am here! Click Me!” which for any other unit would completely ruin the atmosphere of the game; however through his endearing thick Austrian accent, golden dialogue and the bizarre disco lighting in his cockpit he’s an instant hit.

I found the medic unit a little unfortunate however – the voice acting isn’t the issue, rather the lines she’s given present her as if she’s some perverse “masseuse” in disguise as a medic and the character seems to be this way solely to appeal to testosterone-fuelled male gamers. Interestingly the only other female Terran unit is that of the Medivac pilot, sadly making the female’s role in any Terran army a support unit. The exception to this is in the game the Queen of Blades, however she’s not exactly role-model material for obvious reasons. Some credit has to be given to Blizzard here though for including female units on the battlefield in an RTS game at all as I can think of several titles that didn’t even bother.

In a move that many of today's games are employing, StarCraft II features an achievements system whereby you pick up achievements for a variety of feats. These range from completing the campaign on certain difficulty settings to watching a certain amount of news reports or talking to a number of people throughout the game, as well as completing certain missions within time limits on harder difficulty settings. None of them are required for the completion of any one mission or the campaign as a whole, but they do help to stop gamers with shorter attention spans from skipping cutscenes or dialogue as well as adding more challenges that you can choose to take on on your own terms. Aside from smply being able to say you've unlocked X amount of achievements, you also get access to more avatars for your game profile - for example Jim Raynor's mugshot is available to you if you complete the campaign on Normal setting - and there are literally dozens to unlock. Blizzard have done an excellent job here in making sure the achievements are both challenging and fun so that even novice gamers can obtain achievements and give them an incentive to literally "up their game".

Evolving the Story

Completing each mission rewards you with a cutscene, be it one using the impressive between-mission graphics or the literally Hollywood-quality scenes rendered by Blizzard’s in-house cinematics team. These cutscenes more than anything else in the game propel the storyline along at deft pace as the game progresses.

Whilst the teams working on the separate cutscene styles did apparently converse with each other in an attempt to keep the tone the same throughout, there are several occasions where the high quality cinematics get a bit too arty (the final cutscene springs to mind), the in-game cinematics get a little dodgy (Matt Horner’s early “epic arm gestures are epic!!!” moment is a good one) and once or twice they both get cheesy (Dr Hanson’s exit upon successful completion of her mini-campaign is an especially fine example of vomit-inducing nonsense). Sadly, both are riddled with more clichés than you can throw a stick at, which seems somewhat endearing at first but feels a little lazy by the end. The high quality cinematics shine through all of this however, as all the biggest plot points were given to that particular team resulting in suitably epic scenes that give you a real sense of reward for your on-going efforts.

Through the use of humorously propaganda-laden news bulletins (remind you of any big US news stations?), discussions with your crewmates, confrontations with your enemies and of course the aforementioned custscenes, you’ll find the answers to many questions about The Queen of Blades, the ancient Xel’naga and their hybrids and more besides. In keeping with all good sagas though, you will have to prepare yourself for many more questions than answers as the first part in this particular trilogy unfolds.

Conclusions

There’s no doubt about it – Wings of Liberty is a near-perfect example of what RTS games should be. The actual RTS portion of the game is superb, comprising a wide-yet-manageable variety of units and upgrades along with enough surprises from the AI to keep you entertained and challenged in equal measure.

This shining example of excellent gameplay is let down somewhat by the story element at times which, despite great cinematics and a twisting plot, tries a little too hard to be a western in space, with some obvious efforts made to borrow a little atmosphere from the excellent TV show Firefly among others. That’s an admirable goal, however the writing and acting just aren’t as good as you feel they’re trying to be and, coupled with some occasional pieces of bad editing and extremely convenient plot points, it jars you away from an otherwise very immersive experience at times.

It also feels like Blizzard have missed a few tricks. Given the high quality of their in-game models the temptation to zoom right in to a during a battle or freely rotate the camera to get a better angle on a situation is ever-present and yet there is a minimal zoom ability and a very basic rotation option that snaps back to the normal angle once the button is released.

The decision points in side missions offered by the less important characters could have been given a little more scope as well, and it certainly would have been interesting to explore this further – for example in MechWarrior4 where pivotal decisions lead to up to three different sets of missions and eventually three different outcomes for the player that ultimately don’t affect the overall storyline but give you more sense of involvement in the story as well as a greater replayability factor.

Overall though these are pretty minor niggles with an otherwise excellent campaign, and with its impressive production values, near-flawless presentation and polished gameplay there’s a lot here to like.

Reviewer's Verdict: 8/10

 

Add Comment Comments

FullAuto\
3 Oct 2010 - 6:10pm
FullAuto
Did they skip on getting an actual writer to do the script again?  Devs keep doing that.
Pete\
3 Oct 2010 - 5:30pm
Pete
I must've slipped on my keyboard with that score in a rush to get the review up - it's supposed to be an 8 and has been amended as such.

On the plus side I've literally encountered no bugs, aside from an issue where SCV's can get stuck if you build too close to the corner of a map, but since you can technically pick them up with a Medivac I can't class it as a bug. The interface works well, there were no graphical glitches, the levels were balanced, it was actually finished prior to release (somewhat of a miracle in today's world) and it was really fun and has a lot of replayability due to the achievements and difficulty levels.

On the negative side I did have to mark it down for the story element and some lack of depth to certain parts. For a story campaign, there was a fair amount of cliche-riddled dialogue and I was getting the impression that the writers had watched a lot of good movies and TV shows that they were trying to borrow elements from, but it just didn't work that well when they tried putting it all together. I'd hoped the side missions would have more depth as well, and they did have their part in the overall story, but I just couldn't care less for Dr Ariel Hanson's colonists (seriously, she keeps moving to Zerg-infested planets and I just wanted to nuke them in the end) and her exit from the game - the one where she doesn't die (her set of missions had a decision to make at the end) is just the worst scene in the whole game.

I guess when I weighed up all of my negative observations though, most notably the hammy acting, cliches and somewhat let-down ending, the cutscenes in question amounted to maybe 10-20 minutes of game time compared to the actual gameplay, which is at least 10-15 hours with only one or two dull missions. That's how I got to my score.

The actual missions are great on the whole, but they really need to work on the dialogue and decide which path they're going down with the cutscenes too. In the beginning it felt like a western. Later on, it felt like an action film, which also worked, but there were a few bits where it tried to get arty and some were just downright dodgy.

It's still a great game though, and I know which cutscenes to skip on my second playthrough :(
FullAuto\
3 Oct 2010 - 4:29pm
FullAuto
Reads like a 7/10.

 

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Game Card

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty Box
Developer: Blizzard
Publisher: Blizzard
Released:27/07/2010

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Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty Video

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