Worth the wait

Starcraft II took a while to get here, but the new version is right on target

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StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

(Blizzard Entertainment)

PC, Mac OS X

Even for a company known for its notoriously long development cycles, Blizzard took its sweet time with StarCraft II. Though thousands of people now have their fevered hands on a copy, the reality of its arrival hasn't really sunk in. Playing it feels like the first time I listened to Chinese Democracy, except with fewer unnecessary keyboard tracks.

When it came out in 1998, the original StarCraft was a big hit, selling 1.5 million copies in its first year. In the 12 years that followed, it turned into cultural behemoth; total sales now top 11 million — 4.5 million in South Korea alone, where it became a wildly popular pseudo sport.

With this massive success in mind, it's no surprise that the Irvine wunderkinds at Blizzard avoided revolutionary redesigns. The gameplay is still built around the three real-time strategy pillars: resource-gathering, base-construction, and frenzied tactical combat. Players will still choose between the meticulously-balanced rock-paper-scissors of the game's three factions: Terran, Protoss, and Zerg.

Considering its endless wait time, the game's detractors can be forgiven for complaining that the title shipped with only one faction's single-player campaign (the Terran's), or that it amounts to little more than a 3-D re-skin of the same old game. But Blizzard was never going to please everyone, and it's clear that it eschewed this impossible task in favor of perfecting what it could, which was a lot. The production values are simply astounding, and consistent across a range of categories — the animation, voice acting, sound design, user interface are all impeccable. For a media subculture (gaming) that has made taking the good with the bad something of an art form, a title in which every decision has been carefully considered and executed is truly to be treasured.

The single-player campaign is narrative-driven and exciting, and rife with entertaining cut-scenes that play up the game's drawling, honky-tonk version of the future. Looking back, it's clear that the StarCraft series was a sci-fi Western four years before Firefly hit the airwaves.

Multiplayer, of course, is the real draw, and Blizzard's online utility Battle.net has been overhauled to bring gaming and social networking together in a way that isn't totally stupid. The way the company is preparing to bind your life together with the sinews of Facebook, StarCraft II, World of Warcraft, and the forthcoming Diablo III would be terrifying, if it wasn't so goddamn fun.

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