What's clear is that StarCraft II will be a very new RTS when Blizzard finally releases it, but it will be a very new RTS grounded in RTS tradition. Blizzard's attitude with StarCraft II is, despite having a decade to think about it, if it 'aint broke, then don't fix it. It's refused to be tempted by the success of recent RTSs that have shaken to the core the very foundations on which the genre is built. Relic's removal of base building and resource gathering in the superb Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II lent both games a distinctly Diablo feel. Massive's excellent World in Conflict showed how accessible and action-packed an RTS could be, slashing the unit count and making micro-management easy. In the 11 years since StarCraft's release, the RTS has evolved, and yet Blizzard seems not to have noticed. We criticise RTSs that encourage the genre's stubbornness to evolve. Will we do the same when StarCraft II is released?
Perhaps the feeling of familiarity is exaggerated because the new 3D graphics engine gives the game a bright, colourful look with expressive animations rather than a photo-realistic, graphics card-melting one. The emphasis here, as with all Blizzard games, is not on the bleeding edge of technology, but on the art design, and it's realised so most PCs will be able to cope with it. This, for me, is no bad thing. In fact I absolutely adore StarCraft II's look and responsive feel. The protoss, in particular, have a mysterious other worldly design that's hard to pin down and demands further attention. Their units, more than those of the other races, catch the eye (although a mention must go to the terran's Merc Compound, a building that comes with a holographic pole dancer who struts her stuff on the roof). The maps, too, catch the eye, but because of clever design rather than insane graphical fidelity. Scrap Yard, which you've probably seen in the latest Battle Report, is little more than a rock in space, but when you can see stars and planets through the narrow gaps in that rock, you can't help but think, yeah, that's cool. Some might say StarCraft II looks basic when held up against the likes of World in Conflict, and there is a degree of truth to that, but when basic is this captivating, who cares?
That StarCraft II seems too similar at this point to StarCraft isn't a criticism, it's more of an observation. We know relatively nothing about Blizzard's controversial StarCraft II single-player campaign (the game will ship with a terran campaign only, with the zerg and protoss campaigns coming via expansions). Excitingly, the developer says it wants to “push the boundaries of storytelling and character development in RTS games” with it. It may well do exactly that. It may well revolutionise the genre. It may well throw up more surprises than a well coordinated protoss assault. Only Blizzard knows at this point.
And then there's the hotly-anticipated overhaul of Battle.net, Blizzard's online gaming portal. The key features have yet to be announced (keep your eyes on BlizzCon), but if what we're hearing off the record from Blizzard is realised, Battle.net's reimagining could be as exciting as the game itself.
Whatever your opinion on Blizzard's steadfast commitment to evolution, not revolution, you simply can't ignore the fact that StarCraft II will be a superb RTS. It will be played by millions across the world (some will even make a living playing it). Even though I've only managed to dip my toe into StarCraft II's intoxicating waters, I find myself thinking about playing it when I'm not. I find myself considering strategy, build order and counters. I find myself gravitating towards the protoss and their cool, slightly odd occult tendencies. I find myself with a StarCraft II itch that demands to be scratched, and that's got to be a good sign.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is due out for PC later this year. A beta is expected to launch soon. See what the pros think on the next page.