If you were to ask me at the time of Starcraft II's announcement what I felt, my answer wouldn't have been excitement or joy; I would have answered “trepidation”. Why? Because I simply couldn't picture it. I couldn't picture a second Starcraft.
Sure, I saw the screenshots and videos, I understood what they were making and what they were going for, but Starcraft had become something so much larger than the original product. “Starcraft” was professional games airing live on tv, “Starcraft” was an entire nation of devoted followers, “Starcraft” was illicit gambling rings and celebrity gamers. There was an entire world surrounding Starcraft that was thick and impenetrable. Telling a person you played Starcraft was like telling them you were a Buddhist monk, it may garner you their respect but it would also make you something “else”, something of a different world.
I didn't know what to expect at first, but now I can see it plain as day. Starcraft II is Blizzard outstretching its hand to everyone, Starcraft fan or not, to come join in on the gritty, intense fun, to come join that “different world”. Starcraft II has something for almost everyone. Even if they aren't fans of RTS, pc gamers or not, hardcore players or casual, Starcraft II has more enjoyment packed in it than you can shake a stick at, regardless of what your preconceived notions of RTS or online competition may be.
For starters, the singleplayer in Starcraft II is one of the most lavish presentations for an RTS I have ever encountered, with fully rendered CG cutscenes interspersed with detailed in-game 3d models. And when I say “in-game” I'm not even referring to the RTS part. I'm talking about the game within the game, where you traipse about your flagship, the Hyperion, upgrade your units, talk to your crew and access missions. Much of the game's character interactions are handled this way and it is really effective in drawing you into the experience. For the first time in Starcraft history you see more than just the characters' faces; you get right down into the gritty, pinup-on-spacesuit details. In this way, the singleplayer's narrative becomes almost Mass Effect-like in that you collect crew members, meet new people, and conduct missions on various planets. The early game story takes a backseat as the game just lets you soak in all of the Starcraft.
Speaking of which, did I mention the Starcraft? Because, hey: Starcraft. Starcraft? Starcraft . This game is called Starcraft II and let me tell you what you do: you start the game with some buildings and an objective and you build more buildings, build units, then you complete the objective. Somewhere in between you will require more vespene gas. Not quite sure what I'm saying? Let me translate: Starcraft. If anyone had any doubts that this game would not be Starcraft please come visit me, I would like to study you and find out exactly what goes on inside your head. Starcraft II is like Starcraft but 2. I hope I'm not belaboring that point, but it needs to be said.
However, that being said, there is still more to be said, there is a lot to be said about Starcraft. There are tomes to be said about Starcraft. There are exactly 6.86 gigabytes of new things in Starcraft II. Already mentioned is the elaborate presentation of the campaign story and the intricate character interactions, but that's not the only thing that is new in the singleplayer. You have access to a wide range of units not available in multiplayer that adds a certain feeling of “ownership” over your army, as if these really were “your” units on the field, units you fought to get. The singleplayer has a total of 29 missions you can play, 6 of these missions force you to choose between one mission or another, and one mission is a secret, so your first playthrough will likely have you play only 25 of the total 29. In my first playthrough on hard I spent 15 hours; that was without completing the secret mission or exploring what would have happened had I chosen the other choices. 15 hours of unique, interesting scenarios. Every mission felt fresh, if occasionally frustrating (looking at you, forest fire mission). The singleplayer doesn't stop when you're done, however. The battle.net achievements for the game are there, enticing you to play through again to get them, and then there are those 4 missions you haven't played yet... and of course there are all of the different tech choices you could have taken. I've only beaten the campaign once and already I plan to come back to it 2-3 times.
A certain amount of “cheese”, however, has found its way into the fiction. The story smacks at times of the plot of Warcraft III. The pacing of the game feels off as well. In the first games you felt a sense of pressure and constant plot progression, however Starcraft II feels like you are simply twiddling your thumbs for the larger part of the first two-thirds of the game. Even the ending is... confusing. The romantic interest between Raynor and Kerrigan in Starcraft II feels fairly forced as that never seemed to be as major of a plot point in the original, if it was there at all. And finally, just a minor complaint, I never got as much Terran on Terran violence as I wanted. The game is mostly you fighting the Zerg or the Protoss.
All of that being said, however, I found myself playing the singleplayer long after midnight three days in a row. If you're interested in Starcraft II solely for the singleplayer experience I feel confident in saying that you will be satisfied with what you get.
Now let's get serious here. You may be surprised to hear this, but Starcraft II has a fairly heavy competitive following. I am going to talk about the multiplayer. If you are not interested in the multiplayer I urge you to keep reading anyway, I want you to like the multiplayer because I like the multiplayer. The multiplayer is great. Blizzard is a smart company and it turly shows with how Starcraft II's multiplayer is set up. You won't find a more accessible version of Starcraft than this. The challenge missions make it much easier to prepare for the rigors of online play and the league divisions are smartly done. Whether you're bronze, silver, gold, platinum or diamond you'll still be able to experience the strenuous yet immensely rewarding feel of winning a multiplayer match in Starcraft II. I've had friends who have started in the bronze league and have climbed up to gold, telling me how surprised they are to actually be enjoying the online. If you are ready to apply even slight effort, you'll find it to be an immensely rewarding experience, one that'll turn that 15+ hours of singleplayer play into hundreds of hours online.
Explaining why Starcraft's multiplayer is so intense and satisfying is a difficult thing to do, and one that I feel is unnecessary. You've seen the gameplay, you've heard the concept, you may have even watched a match or two. Each race plays to a very unique style and each is balanced in so many ways it boggles the mind. There may be a very select few people who will play Starcraft II and find nothing to like in the multiplayer, however the odds of that being you are low. You may not have the time or energy to put into it, that I can concede, but if you do you'll find a game that'll reward you with hours upon hours of gripping and spine-tinglingly rewarding entertainment.
Battle.net brings a cohesiveness to the game that makes it one, singular experience as well. Everything you need is enclosed within the new battle.net. Friend chat, achievements, game statistics, replays and more are all stored in the well organized and easy to use menus. The cryptic code speak of the old Starcraft battle.net system, where you would type in pidgin code to add friends and talk to groups is over, everything is integrated and a breeze to use. The only major disappointment I have is that you can't play cross-region in Starcraft II, which means I can't play with any of my friends from Europe. As much as that bothers me, however, the game provides a lot that I can be doing otherwise, whether it be climbing league ladders, playing custom matches or just having a grand, silly old time in FFA.
The end product is a giant of a game, with more content than I've ever seen in an RTS. You can spend hours with Starcraft II and enjoy each and every one. Then you could come back again and spend all those hours all over again, and again. The multiplayer community is one of the most active ones currently on the RTS scene, and both the multiplayer and singleplayer each are easily one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences of any genre to have come out in years. If you've never played RTS and want to start, you can't go wrong picking up Starcraft II. If you've played RTS for years, then ignoring Starcraft II will be doing yourself a major disservice.