Many video-game sequels have been accused of failing to push their respective series forward. Even the God of War and Madden franchises have been criticized for not evolving core design mechanics between iterations. Yet even with these criticisms, both series tend to be celebrated by critics and fans alike for their level of quality. And with the release of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, Blizzard Entertainment’s seminal RTS has now firmly established itself as a series akin to the God of War and Madden franchises. By following the same template of the original Starcraft, the game excels in its execution, but it doesn’t evolve the formula that it established more than a decade ago.
At its core, the Starcraft series boils down to three activities: gathering resources, building bases and units from those resources, and then seeing if your units can overtake your opponent. Using this template, Starcraft II presents two separate experiences: the single-player campaign and the multiplayer mode.
In single-player, you play as a rebel group of Terrans (the humans in the Starcraft universe), lead by the story’s hero James Raynor, as you fight an oppressive empire. Overall, the story keeps the player engaged to Blizzard’s well-crafted space opera with events like the resurfacing of the Zerg (an insect like creature that pillages planets) as well as having to allay with the Protoss (an ancient alien species).
Along with the expertly told story, there’s a wide variety of mission types to keep the player engaged. Even though these mission types still revolve around Starcraft’s basic formula, it’s those objective-based tasks within every mission that keeps the single-player experience from becoming stale. Whether it’s a train heist or gathering resources on a transforming planet, the game’s biggest strength lies in how it plays with the traditional formula in the single-player campaign.
In multiplayer mode, you still have three alien races to choose from (Zerg, Protoss, or Terrain) and three basic actions needed for victory (gathering, building, and attacking). And though very little has changed in terms of multiplayer design since Starcraft, the way players interact with Blizzard’s new multiplayer hub, Battle.net, has made the traditional formula feel fresh. Battle.net has integrated many aspects of online functionality that have made console online gaming very popular, such as an achievement system and ranked matches, and here they’ve essentially created a whole new online experience with multiplayer challenges that run the gamut from teaching players to solely use keystrokes for online matches to teaching how to use a particular race to the best of its advantage.
Also, Battle.net’s integration of the leagues system into Starcraft II’s multiplayer creates a flawless online matchmaking process. How the league system works is that the player initially plays five practice matches online. Depending how the player fares in these five practice matches, Battle.net will place them in a certain league of players. These leagues range from those that are for beginners (Bronze League) to those that are high level Starcraft players (Platinum or Diamond Leagues). The idea is that over time, as the player gets better by playing more matches and acquiring more wins, they move up the ladder to higher skilled leagues. This in many ways creates a seamless multiplayer experience, irrelevant to the player’s skill level, creating an online environment that evolves with the player’s skill.
Even though Blizzard has taken the safe bet by not evolving the second iteration of the Starcraft franchise, it’s the little things that make Starcraft II so special. Nuances like an epic sci-fi story and varied mission objectives in the single-player mode as well as challenges and a unique league system in the multiplayer mode has made Starcraft II stand out from it predecessor. So for some, change is inevitable. For Blizzard, change is overrated. And if Starcraft II is their argument, it’s a pretty strong one for why things should stay the same.