Starcraft II, probably the most anticipated game this year (well at least for 4.5 million Koreans). Thanks to Dave I snagged this one as a wedding gift (Choice!) and for awhile I was worried since if the game ended up as a big disappointment, I couldn't exactly criticise a gift I received from a best mate, surely? Thankfully, those fears were abated once I played the game.
The audio is as good as the original where heaps of hilarious pop culture references abound. The voice acting in general is pretty good too with a couple of the old crew returning (Robert Clotworthy as Jim Raynor and James Harper as Arcturus Mengsk) along with some new ones (Neil Kaplan, Ali Hillis, Tricia Helfer, Fred Tatasciore and Michael Dorn to name a few) but sometimes the voice acting does sound a bit lazy (e.g. the Vultures don't sound as "in-your-face" as the old ones and some cut-scenes with Jim Raynor sound like he and his compatriots are half-asleep).
I'll go out on a limb to say that the music in Starcraft 2 is probably my favourite video game music for the year. Sure Mass Effect 2 has got a pretty awesome soundtrack but the Country 'n' Western/Rock style pioneered in the first game has been expanded upon in this one and, dare I say it, improved. The music feels right at home for what genre the game represents which is a Space Western (well at least as far as the Terrans are involved). Glen Stafford, a Blizzard vetern has done an excellent job and the only thing that annoys me is that I can't find a way of acquiring it without having to go through iTunes :(.
Starcraft 2 Singleplayer Gameplay Video 1
If there are any major areas to fault in Starcraft 2, it would have to be the graphics. You wouldn't really be able to tell that this is a 2010 RTS just by looking at it, since you don't have the ability to rotate the camera, there are low polygon counts with the units and it looks almost the same as the original. Yes, the game is now in 3D and yes the graphics are sharper at the very least but it doesn't seem that too much work was done. Mind you, to Blizzard's defence this was obviously an intentional move to win over hardcore fans of the original plus it does make the game more accessible to the masses since you don't need as high-end a video card as you do for some other games.
Starcraft 2 Singleplayer Gameplay Video 2
The game has an excellent plot - but then again maybe I'm biased since, as I've mentioned before, I love sci-fi - especially Space Westerns! The game is a big tribute to the fans of Starcraft since you have many returning characters plus it develops on the backstory of the original. Basically, Wings of Liberty tells the story of Jim Raynor, an ex-Marshal of a backwater planet known as Mar Sara, a few years after a huge war that was fought between the Terrans (human exiles from Earth), Zerg (a nightmarish swarm of aliens with a hive mentality) and the Protoss (an honourable alien race with advanced technology). Jim Raynor is at a low point in his revolution against Arcturus Mengsk of the Terran Dominion but it quickly becomes clear that Raynor's plans of revenge are not the only thing the Koprulu Sector have to worry about.
Starcraft 2 Singleplayer Hyperion Video
If you've played the original Starcraft, you'll know what to expect here. The gameplay is pretty much identical except for the addition/removal of some units. It's your typical RTS where you build a base, gather minerals, build an army and then attack your enemy's base. Last man (or team) standing is the winner.
The biggest changes to gameplay are actually to be found in the singleplayer. Blizzard have decided to incorporate some point 'n' click adventure or role-playing elements to the game in-between missions. Now you can wander around your spaceship to the bar, listen to the jukebox, watch the news, play an arcade game or just chat with the crew. If you visit the Armoury or Research Lab, you can upgrade your units by spending any rewards you gained by completing missions. This means you can tailor an army to suit your playing style, which is a nice touch. Also, at a few points in the game you're able to side with one person or another which will result in you playing an entirely different mission. These role-playing elements, the ability to make different choices should be encouraged in traditionally linear games.
I guess the only criticism of the game is that since the gameplay hasn't changed much the game suffers from the same cons as the RTSs of yesteryear, namely rushes. Other contemporary RTSs (e.g. Company of Heroes) have found ways to discourage early rushes. Mind you, I was a tank rusher at heart back in the day since I was brought up on C&C RTSs so it's not exactly a deal breaker to me.
Starcraft 2 is probably the most replayable RTS out there at the moment. Thanks to you being able to make some choices during the singleplayer campaign, you actually have more missions to play with than the twenty-six on offer (and one of them is a secret mission) and then there is multiplayer. There are huge number of multiplayer modes to choose from. Amongst the ranked match options there are 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, 4v4 and Free-for-Alls. You're also placed in a league depending on how well you play and apparently you'll always be matched with someone as close as possible to your skill level. Amongst the unranked options you've got your usual Custom games and compstomps (i.e. Cooperative games versus the computer). There is even a practice league for players new to competitive multiplayer.
Stacraft 2 wouldn't be a game of the noughties if it didn't have achievements and there are literally hundreds of achievements you can hunt for (I wouldn't be surprised if there's a thousand of them to be honest); so for those who love achievements, this is another way the game's replayability is enhanced.
Unfortunately this is probably the least polished Blizzard game to date, which is shameful really considering (a) the formula for the game hasn't exactly changed by leaps and bounds, (b) they took over 10 years to develop it and (c) there was some thorough beta testing involved. One serious example is when it was reported that on some video cards, Starcraft II was actually responsible for frying them thanks to some screens overtaxing the cards. This was because they didn't decide to cap the framerate on these screens.
Also another niggling problem for me, in a game that is quite heavily story-driven, is that you're capable of skipping some cutscenes but you can't review them. Yes the major cutscenes you can replay but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the little ones after missions. I found myself in one situation accidentally skipping the menu since I actually wanted to pause it. Consequently I missed out on some potentially crucial info to the plot. Thankfully though, this is a relatively minor problem.
Overall - 9/10
Blizzard have taken the usual "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach and even though the graphics and gameplay haven't changed much, the epic and immersive sci-fi story more than makes up for it. Bring on the expansions (hopefully at a decent price)!