StarCraft is kind of a big deal. People play it professionally. It is their job to play StarCraft! They play it on telly! Cyber café owners across Asia have been eating out on Blizzard's dime since 1998. There was rather a lot at stake when Blizz decided to make a sequel to one of the most important games the world is ever likely to see.
StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty is the first instalment of three announced releases under the StarCraft II banner and focuses on the Terrans; the SC universe's human contingent. The decision to release StarCraft II in three parts was a controversial one - seen as a cash grab by some - but I can assure you that there is plenty of game in Wings Of Liberty. The single player campaign is very substantial and will keep you busy for a lot longer than the story modes in most games on the market (I'm looking at you, every shooter released in the last year). It took me a full week of playing as frequently as my working life would allow to get through the 25 missions, but you can factor in the time I spent enjoying the jukebox in the bar.
After a sentence like that I feel obliged to remind you that this is a real-time strategy game. One of the many things that makes StarCraft II stand out from the crowd is the time the game lets you spend between missions; in a bar, on a battle cruiser, and, much later, a war-ravaged planet. In these environments the game takes on a point-and-click adventure feel with returning revolutionary Jim Raynor playing the role of Guybrush Threepwood. You'll find yourself on the bridge of a spaceship, in a cantina, or in a lab surrounded by clickable items and characters that will bring up menus, trigger contextual dialogue, or present a cut scene. If all of that sounds like a waste of time to you then you're quite welcome to go straight to the mission select menu and plough through the campaign as quick as you like, but you'll be missing out.
The characters you meet between missions are every bit as full of life as the environments they're in - and that's a compliment, I assure you. The game establishes a living universe with a detailed history of wars and political upheavals but time is also spent to familiarise you with normal people, like Joe and Jane Bloggs of Zoogleblorx V. Between news broadcasts on the cantina's television you'll see adverts for metal albums, personal firearms, and "Bubba's Gas & Grub." Everything is presented with enough polish to dazzle Mr. Sheen. The epitome of the little touches that go far beyond what's expected or required of an RTS is the afore-mentioned jukebox. Songs to get the most hardened space trucker crooning include "Terran Up The Night," "A Zerg, A Shotgun, And You," and covers of "Freebird," "Sweet Home Alabama," and "Suspicious Minds."
So I've gone four paragraphs without really touching on the RTS features of this RTS. That's because there are very few substantial changes from the original StarCraft and its expansions. This is StarCraft II: StarCraftier. We have the same three factions and many of the same units and it's clear that Blizzard have tried to demonstrate 12 years of progression in the genre without upsetting the careful balance that has kept fans playing a 12 year old game. With that said, StarCraft II delivers more than just a graphical overhaul. Experienced, competitive players will have strategies to tweak in light of the changes that have been made but casual players benefit from new features like the "autocasting" of skills that Blizzard introduced in Warcraft III.
StarCraft II clings onto the base building and economic control that were once common to all real-time strategy games and in doing so justifies its place in an RTS market that has largely moved on to small bands of units and RPG mechanics. There's merit in both approaches but if you miss the RTSes of old then StarCraft II is far and away the best option you have.
That isn't to say that Blizzard have been entirely resistant to new ideas. A number of the campaign's missions forego basebuilding entirely, instead giving you a small amount of units with which to complete an objective. You might typically approach this kind of task with the same level of disdain as an escort mission in an FPS but StarCraft II's baseless missions actually became my favourites. Without the concern of keeping the vespene gas flowing back home you're given more time to think about your units' individual abilities. At one branching point of the campaign you're given the option of controlling one of two kinds of stealthy commandos as you set out to sabotage a facility through the use of long range sniping and the occasional nuke.
After the campaign there's the multiplayer game, which may yet keep South Korea busy for another 12 years. The multiplayer scene is every bit as fierce and competitive as you've heard but through a series of placement matches the game tries to slot you into a ladder with players of a similar skill level. If the prospect of going up against people who can define terms like "6rax" and "bioball" scares you then the in-game Battle.net system has great friend list features to help you organise matches with your similarly inept mates. The option to populate your list with the StarCraft II players among your Facebook friends is an excellent way to expose the closeted nerds around you.
StarCraft II is just about a month old at this point and if you haven't bought it by now then you're either not interested or still on the fence. You do not need to be a hardcore RTS fanatic to enjoy StarCraft II, nor will you have to sink hours into multiplayer in order to get your money's worth. Give in and buy SCII not because it's the best RTS of the year but because it may well be the best game of the year.