In an event that journalists all over planet Earth referred to as "sad times", Blizzard's recently released StarCraft II wasn't available to play before midnight on the day of launch. That means my usual trick of playing games a week or so in advance (so I can get a review out before the game is on store shelves) has been well and truly scuppered, leaving me up until the wee hours of the morning, and then straight back to constructing additional pylons after a few hours of sleep.
I've had about seventeen hours to play StarCraft II, and I spent a large chunk of that time sleeping and then fussing with my Battle.net account which, for some reason, wouldn't let me play until this morning despite having the game displayed prominently whenever I logged in via a web browser. Still, it works now. PC gaming is back, baby!
It also takes chuffing ages to install, though you're treated to a rather fancy recap of the first game as it chugs away. You'll need it, too: I've completed StarCraft a few times over the years, but was left scratching my head at some of the bits - did they really happen? Maybe I wasn't paying attention all those other times. There's also a patch you need to wade through, but once that's all done you're hot to trot.
The first thing you notice is that, while it might not be the most beautiful game of all time, there's a staggering amount of incidental detail scattered all over the place. I don't think I've ever played an RTS game with this much attention to detail - the art team at Blizzard have gone overboard on creating wildlife, fauna, billboards and architecture for you to click around. I'm playing it at max detail on an Alienware PC, and someone else in the office said it looked beautiful on his MacBook Pro, but the engine also scales well to fit on lower spec machines.
Most of my time has been spent plugging away at the single-player campaign, of which I have just cleared the eleventh level. Expect the following to be loaded with spoilers for the first(ish) half of the game, so you might want to avert your gaze for the time being if you're pretty big on your StarCraft lore.
It opens with a traditionally spiffing cinematic of a space marine (who later joins your posse) getting plonked into one of those sweet suits of armour, and then we're off to our old buddy Jim Raynor (the primary protagonist of the original) drowning his sorrows in JoeyRay's bar on Mar Sara - the same planet that the original game started on, for those keeping up. Bearded nemesis Arcturus Mengsk, king of massively corrupt human government establishment the Terran Dominion, pops up on the telly and subsequently incites Raynor to "kick this revolution into overdrive", which means you're off to Backwater Station to cause a ruckus.
Things quickly kick off. Mengsk's Dominion forces are digging up some kind of alien (Xel'naga, an ancient race who engineered both the Protoss and the Zerg) artefact, which is definitely not a good sign and (I am guessing) will absolutely come back in a big way later on in the game. All you really have to do in order to put a stop to this is click around on the screen a few times with your marines, but it's clearly a bit of a training level so it's okay.
A few hours later and the levels have picked up in both challenge and creativity. Welcome to the Jungle, for instance, has you trying to harvest seven containers of Terrazine gas while the Protoss are trying to deactivate seven geysers (there are 13 viable mining spots on the map) and The Devil's Playground plops you on a volcanic planet and forces you to venture on ground that gets temporarily flooded with lava every few minutes.
It's plain to see - even from an early stage - that it's a staunchly traditional take on the RTS genre, but there's something reassuringly comforting about a game that's clearly been so meticulously focused and determinedly chiselled to slot into a particular mould. Blizzard is supremely confident with its RTS mould, which marks a refreshing change in a genre whose major developers seem to spend most of their time panicking and inserting gimmicks. Case in point: Command & Conquer 4.
Anyway, the first few missions of the game have you shooting at Dominion forces - they're like you, but their suits of armour are a different colour - until the Zerg drop onto the planet and go about infesting it with their nasty tendrils and throbbing sacs. The third mission - Zero Hour - has you defending a base from attacking waves of Zerg, and you're finally given enough equipment to have a bit of fun thinking of creative solutions. I just built a massive army and went over to the other side of the map and blew everything up, but you might fancy trying another tactic.
Kerrigan - the nasty Zerg queen who used to be a hot redhead that Raynor was, like, totally in love with and might still be even though she's been all transmogrified - pops up at the end of the mission, and is now voiced by Tricia "that one from Battlestar Galactica" Helfer. That woman has totally found her new calling: cold, emotionless voice acting in sci-fi video games. She's evil, basically. Real evil, but Kerrigan makes an exit after that and doesn't pop up again for hours.
It's all irreversibly linked to the swank-o new Battle.net service, too, and throws up all sorts of magical achievements and fancy doohickies your way for doing stuff like playing the game for hours on end. What that means for you when you begin, however, is that you're limited to a selection of four dull profile pictures of the Hyperion's redshirts. If you want your face to be something totally awesome, like a Protoss, then you need to do stuff like win loads of multiplayer matches or completely rinse the single-player campaign.
Each level has three achievements associated with it, the first always being completing it and the other two for doing things with a little more panache. Cause a lava flood to drown a Brutalisk in The Devil's Playground and you'll bag yourself some more magic StarCraft points, and there's usually another achievements involving doing something more difficult while playing on Hard difficulty.
This isn't really intended as a review (I'll have one of those up later in the week), but if you're interested in whether I'm enjoying it or not, the answer is a definite yes. The level design is inventive enough that, while the game draws heavily on established tropes, it never feels derivative or repetitive. The game chucks in a set of RPG elements, too, allowing you to upgrade your equipment and beef up your squads. My bunkers have turrets on top of them, for instance. From what I've seen so far, StarCraft II has massive production values, clever design and an impressive eye for detail.
What's next? Multiplayer.