The Internet, taken as a sort of buzzing collective, can be hard on games. The Amazon ratings for StarCraft 2 have become a battlefield, with many rating the game based on features that gamers feel should have been included, or trashing the game because it’s only one-third of the full release; the Zerg and Protoss sections of the campaign will be released at some point in the future. Looking at Blizzard’s history with shipping games, we feel safe assuming that it won’t be a matter of months.
The question is a good one: is StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty a hobbled experience, cracked into three parts in order to feed the chubby god of Activision’s bottom line? We’re still spending hours each day playing the game to get ready for the full review on Sunday, but we have thoughts on the matter we’re ready to share now.
This is a large game
The original game featured 10 missions for each of the three races, for a total of 30. StarCraft 2 only has 26 missions, according to the archives terminal on your ship’s bridge. Did Blizzard think we wouldn’t notice the missing missions? For shame! I’m off to rant angrily in the comment sections of popular online retailers! One gamer complained in our forum that he was able to beat the single-player campaign in a single sitting. One 17-hour-long sitting [Update: this person has since contacted me to explain he wasn’t complaining, he played this long because he was engaged with the story.]
The number of missions nearly matches the entirety of the first game, but that’s only half the story. The single-player missions in StarCraft 2 are nowhere near as formulaic and repetitive as we’re used to. Each mission has at least one gimmick, one trick, or one new unit to introduce to the player. Lava that rises and lowers? Zombie-like enemies that only come out at night? Trains to attack while you avoid a roving death squad? Weapons to steal and then use against the enemy? These missions are much more involved and creative than most real-time strategy games, and that level of care and design doesn’t happen quickly.
Most missions take around 30 minutes to complete on Normal difficulty, so even if you beat each one the first time you play, and never go back for the secondary objectives, the game is 13 hours long. In reality, each mission has secondary, and even tertiary, goals; you’ll rarely be able to do everything during your first attempt. That’s not counting playing each mission across the difficulty levels, which will force you to use different strategies to succeed.
That’s only part of the story here, as there is a significant amount of content in conversations, flavor text, upgrade choices, research options, mercenaries to hire, and TV news reports to watch in the hub areas of the game. The game shares some similarities with Mass Effect and Wing Commander in this way; moving your ship around and interacting with the world is a good time. The game also takes some artful jabs at Apple and Fox News. If you aren’t willing to spend some time between each mission you’ll be missing out on a big part of the game. So we’re up to what now, 15 hours? 20?
You can also play competitive games against the AI to practice your strategies before venturing online, and the game features an array of challenge missions to build your chops. The great thing about these challenges is that they give you a safe place to build up your skills in the game, allowing you to learn the higher-level tactics and tricks at your own pace. Here’s a basic challenge:
Test your knowledge of Protoss units and what they counter. Defend your Pylons from all three waves, and try to keep as many units alive as possible.
On the expert end of things, you’ll be asked to kill enemy units using only hot keys. These challenges aren’t easy, but mastering them will give you a deeper understanding of the game. Nothing like this was available in the first game, and it adds hours upon hours of single-player time to the game. There are nine challenge missions, with 27 achievements to earn.
There is a full game’s worth of story and single-player content here, no question. We’re dealing with a game that ships with much more content in the box than its predecessor, and we’re complaining that it’s being kept artificially short? Come on.