Twelve years is an eternity is the video-game business. In 1998, the Microsoft Xbox didn't even exist, and games for the top consoles — Sony's PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 — were still regarded as kids' stuff in comparison with the more demanding fare you could play on a PC.
Blizzard Entertainment's science-fiction strategy epic "StarCraft" was one of the highlights of that year, and fans have been craving a sequel for a long time. Blizzard, however, has been busy, most notably with its blockbuster online game "World of Warcraft."
At long last, though, "StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty" ($59.99) has arrived, but Blizzard has made few concessions to the current marketplace. The sequel, again, is only available on the PC or Mac — never mind that consoles have gotten so much more powerful. And the core gameplay doesn't hold many surprises for folks who have been hooked on the original for a dozen years.
With a few exceptions, each of the levels in "StarCraft II" unfolds the same way. You land on a planet with a few buildings and a handful of robots. You gather the resources needed to erect more buildings, train troops and develop weapons. Then you pound the enemy with some good ol' shock-and-awe.
There are enough variations on this strategy to keep things interesting. You may be assigned to defend a landmark — say, a giant laser — from increasingly aggressive assaults. You may need to escort a group of civilians to escape ships. Or you may be asked to sabotage enemy trains before they abscond with valuable artifacts.
"StarCraft II" is described as "real-time strategy," meaning your enemies are in motion even when you're plotting your moves. I am not a big fan of the genre, so it's a considerable tribute to Blizzard's skill when I say I was thoroughly engaged throughout the 20 hours it took me to complete its solo campaign.
The plot revolves around the ongoing intergalactic war among the human Terrans, the insectoid Zerg and the technologically advanced Protoss. The human protagonist, Jim Raynor, is leading a guerrilla war against the Terran Dominion, which is led by a former comrade. Another old pal has been infected and transformed into the Queen of Blades, leader of the Zerg. Allegiances are constantly shifting, and there are suggestions that an even deadlier power is lying in wait.
The production values throughout are very high, with sharp, vivid animation and finely tuned controls. I did feel some disconnect between the precise, detailed missions and the melodramatic cut scenes that advance the story, but it's a solid tale with a few nifty twists.
"StarCraft II" tells the story just from the Terran perspective; future add-ons will tell the Zerg and Protoss sides. But if you want to play as one of those other races now, you can go online for head-to-head competition. The weapons available to the three races are well-balanced, and Blizzard's Battle.net does a pretty good job of setting up matches between equally skilled players.
Given its robust online play and its already announced expansions, it's clear that Blizzard expects "StarCraft II" to keep fans happy for a while. Perhaps not all the way to 2022, but we'll see. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
PlayStation is made by Sony Corp.; Xbox is made by Microsoft Corp.
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