How do you improve upon one of the best RTS games ever made? Ask Blizzard. Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty stays faithful to its roots while surpassing its predecessor on virtually every level. It's easily one of the best games of 2010, and possibly one of the best RTS games ever made. (But is anyone surprised?)
Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty does something few sequels manage to do: introduce countless innovations and new features while staying completely faithful to everything that made its predecessor nigh-perfect in the first place.
Sure, Blizzard had more than ten years of technology and gameplay innovations to work with in creating the sequel. But they also had to tread lightly and not mess with the core formula too much, lest they draw the ire of fans and probably cause the total collapse of South Korea's gaming community. Balancing ten-year old gameplay with modern innovations is a tricky balancing act.
But they did it.
Protoss forces attacking a Terran base
Aboard the bridge of the Hyperion, in between missions
This isn't looking too good for the Protoss...
Zeratul brings a dire warning to Jim Raynor.
All the stuff you liked is still there
The real-time strategy missions—the essence of the game—still feel and play pretty much just like the Starcraft you remember.
Sure, there are lots of new units (as well as some old ones), and you still mine crystals and vespene gas, build up your base, research a tech tree, and ultimately work to rain destruction down on your enemies.
You get to play against Zerg, Terran, and Protoss forces, and while there is still plenty of build-up-and-destroy-your-foe missions, every mission also has various side objectives and some enough diversity to keep things from feeling repettitive.
RTS meets virtual play space
In between missions, you (Jim Raynor) are aboard your ship the Hyperion, and this is where the bulk of the game's many gameplay and story-telling related innovations are experienced.
Aboard the Hyperion, you can venture to different locations, talk to the game's many characters to learn more about the story and the Starcraft universe, and (most importantly) buy permanent upgrades for your units, vehicles, and structures.
The Hyperion has four locations: the Bridge, the Cantina, the Armory, and the Laboratory. In each location you can talk to various characters (such as Tychus Findley, for example) and enjoy numerous short cutscenes and conversations that enrich the story of Starcraft II. This is all entirely player-driven, however, so if you just want to buy your upgrades and plow through the missions, you can do that too.
In the Cantina, you can hire mercenaries, which gives you access to new elite units that you can build during the RTS portions of the game. You can also click on the TV in the cantina to get (often humorous) news reports providing more background for the story. Or you can relax and play an old-school arcade shooter by clicking the arcade machine in the corner of the room. You can even interact with various objects around the room.
The Armory is where you buy vehicle, unit, and base upgrades, and as new units become available (such as the Firebats, Marauders, Siege Tanks, etc.) they will appear in the armory in fully rendered 3D glory. You can click on them for a better view and to read more about them. Again, this serves to just enrich the Starcraft universe, and some of the descriptions are actually quite funny. (Read about the Firebats and Maruaders.)
The Laboratory is where you spend Research Points, which you acquire by completing side-objectives in missions. There is both a Zerg and Protoss tech tree, and you can earn both Zerg and Protoss research points to spend in either of them. There are 25 total levels (points) of research for each tree. Every 5 points you gain allows you to pick 1 of 2 available upgrades for that level—but once you pick one of the upgrades, the other is no longer available. (Minor spoiler: later in the game, you also gain access to a special item housed in the Laboratory that lets you play through special Protoss missions.)
And finally, there's the Bridge, where you select and launch the RTS missions. You can also view achievements, and if you like replay any mission you've already completed (to claim unearned achievements or research points).
The real brilliance of Starcraft II is that it improves virtually every aspect of the original game while enriching the Starcraft universe through superior story-telling methods and modern gameplay innovations.
The gameplay has been carefully tailored to be player-driven at every level. If you don't care about the story, you can ignore the 'virtual playspace' aboard the Hyperion, just buy your upgrades and choose your next mission.
In addition, you get to make real decisions that affect the story. For example, after launching a particular mission, (minor spoiler here) you'll have to choose which side you will support in the coming battle—support your friend and protect innocent civilians, or support the Protoss?
Even the tips displayed on the mission loading screen are useful and directly relate to the mission you're waiting to play. In-game directions during missions give the missions a near-perfect balance of removing some of the guesswork and frustration of "figuring out" a mission while leaving sufficient leeway for you to experiment. Starcraft II also autosaves at key points during missions, but still lets you save your game at anytime.
And finally, Starcraft II offers around 15-20 hours of single player gaming alone, plus plenty of replayability through achievements. You can replay any mission at any time if you want to go back and earn missed achievements or research points. And of course, there's multiplayer and a fully fledged set of tools for creating your own missions.
When it's hard to write a review because it feels likes there are just too many good things to write about, then you're not just writing about a good game, you're writing about a best-of-class experience. Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is hands-down one of the best games of 2010, and possibly (if not probably) the best RTS game ever released on the PC.
Combined with the newly revamped Battle.net (video link) and its many new multiplayer features, Starcraft II is a no-brainer recommendation, even at its $60 price tag.
But you probably already knew that, so just go buy the game already.