Hands on: StarCraft II limbering up for world-wide assault

Format: PC

Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment

Price: £44.99

Release: 27/07

‘We’re dedicated to creating the most epic entertainment experiences…ever’ opines Franck Pearce, co-founder of Blizzard Entertainment and Executive Vice President of Product Development, ahead of a presentation of the (more-or-less) final build of ‘StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty’ for PC. It’s a motto which screams all-American razzamatazz, enough to make the more derisive of the assembled British games press have a wry chuckle to themselves but, when push comes to shove, it’s impossible to knock Blizzard’s track record (‘World of Warcraft’, ‘StarCraft’, ‘WarCraft’), so why not flaunt it?

Blizzard’s latest is the long-anticipated sequel to real-time strategy smash hit ‘StarCraft’; boasting in excess of 11 million copies since its 1998 debut due to an unlikely, yet mammoth, South Korean. In the Far East multiplayer ‘StarCraft’ competitions are a competitive sport, upon the results of which huge sums of money exchange hands. Though the multiplayer side of ‘StarCraft 2’ has been in online beta testing for a while now, the single-player campaign has been restricted to just a few airings in public.

‘Wings of Liberty’ single-player action focuses on the Terran’s, the blanket term for the scattered factions of humanity still left in the universe. Expect their campaign to encompass internal squabbles as well as war with rival species the technology obsessed Protoss and the Zerg, a mishmash of ‘Star Trek’s’ Borg and ‘Alien’s’ xenomorphs. It has already been revealed that both Zerg and Protoss will eventually receive their own expansion sets as Blizzard concentrate on one species at a time; whether that’s a cynical move to squeeze consumers of every last penny or a genuine attempt to create distinctive, imaginative content remains to be seen.

Pearce confirms that ‘Wings of Liberty’ comes with some 29 missions in the box, each part of a branching storyline which sees the game’s protagonist, Jim Raynor, undertaking some tough moral choices. Graphically the game hits the high notes too, the in-game engine not only depicting the ensuing battles but also flexible enough to be impressively utilised during story revealing cut-scenes. We are also guided around Raynor’s battle cruiser, the Hyperion, from which campaigns are selected, upgrades researched and mercenaries hired. Clicking on the various passengers allows the player to enter into a story-revealing chat with them, there’s even an onboard cantina replete with TV tuned into the latest broadcasts so you can see exactly how your campaign is affecting the universe at large.

The highest presentation levels in the world would of course be for nought if the gameplay itself was turgid and lacking. Luckily Blizzard are well aware of this, Pearce explaining that the development team has gone to great pains to make missions as varied from each other as possible. Some of the levels present to play through illustrated that, one taking place on a volcano ravaged world where players must plan for constant lava flows as much as their enemy. Another mission sees the player protecting a giant laser drill from Protoss forces while it bores into an enemies stronghold. Luckily the drill can be ordered to attack the heavier Protoss units, the trick being to reach a compromise between forcing the drill from it’s main target and using it as a artillery unit.

The gameplay won’t be anything revolutionary to anybody au fait with the RTS genre but the interface has a sheen to it which makes ordering troops all the more intuitive. Keyboard shortcuts are also present; their use actively encouraged by tutorial missions which force the player to use them; a must when eventually taking to the competitive Battle.net hosted multiplayer field. Expect more on StarCraft as it inches its way to release, including a closer look at multiplayer.