No Surprises, Just Epic Warfare, in 'StarCraft II'

CONFESSION TIME: I never played StarCraft. Not once.

I know, right? Eleven million copies sold, and I own exactly zero of them. What am I even doing here? Surely there's a geek card somewhere that I should be handing in right about now.

StarCraft's absence from my repertoire was just a question of bad timing. My early real-time strategy experience consisted solely of Bungie's Myth series, and by the time I got around to developing any interest in RTS games lacking a swords-and-sorcery backbone, StarCraft had been eclipsed (at least from a technology standpoint) by the Dawn of War series, which offered more playable races, better graphics, a slower pace, and an established (and deliciously ludicrous) pedigree.

Long story short, the last year or two have found me more or less immune to StarCraft II's considerable hype beyond noticing said hype's existence. I filed it away as what I was sure it would be: a typical Blizzard release, stuffed to the gills with content, tweaked beforehand to accept copious future installments, and precision-targeted toward a demographic whose tastes Blizzard has learned through years of experience—but nothing more.

I was right, of course. Blizzard hasn't become the go-to for the few World of/War/StarCraft-ish things that Blizzard regularly does (with a few Diablos thrown in for flavor) through sheer chance alone. StarCraft II is a fast-paced, compelling example of a genre deemed the be-all and end-all by some, and entirely too intricate to be bothered with by others.

But what exactly is StarCraft II? Eleven million sold or not, the specifics of a franchise that nearly stole away an entire generation of South Korean gamers is surprisingly hard to pin down for the uninitiated. "Warcraft in space" doesn't make sense to those unfamiliar with the genre; "SimCity meets Halo" is even worse.

If you're completely lost, think of it as a ridiculously complex version of Farmville in which space Marines are grown instead of corn and occasionally your Facebook profile gets its ass kicked by a horde of Martians. To grossly oversimplify the process, players build structures, outfit armies, and then send them in waves against computer-controlled opponents (or far more likely, each other) in microcosms of warfare.

Then they do it again. Then they form groups and hold tournaments and before you know it, a significant chunk of a perfectly good subculture is communicating to itself in a language of chronoboosts and blocked ramps so arcane that even regular, unspecialized nerds can have trouble deciphering it.

Fortunately, that learning curve is largely superficial; StarCraft II is an exercise in familiarity for anyone with experience with any Blizzard title. Blizzard's style—from its artistic flair to its musical cues to the ins and outs of any given plotline—is nothing if not consistent. Cartoonish armies play rock-paper-scissors in battles across landscapes that manage to be both cheerily colorful and vaguely intimidating. Protagonists and antagonists alike occupy roles patently unmistakable in vaguely apocalyptic plots that lack nothing but ambiguity. It's all very epic, very simple, and very Blizzard.

Despite its copious polish, StarCraft II makes no great leaps beyond the parameters established by its predecessors. Even a StarCraft neophyte like myself can see that this is a game designed from the ground up as the culmination of Blizzard's desire to tap into the series' rich veins of fan service and mine them for all they're worth. The single-player Terran campaign practically rams this into the ground, giving each unlocked legacy unit or revisited locale a welcome exaggerated enough in its warmness to make a long-lost friend uneasy.

On the other hand, a lack of experience with the franchise leads to a few unanswered questions. Nothing as obvious as a need for a brief history of the franchise, mind you—StarCraft II joins its story already in progress more or less seamlessly, with a minimum amount of historical legwork necessary to understand it.

No, the questions Starcraft II inspires are of a different sort altogether. Was the original StarCraft this frenetic? Was the ability to build up a massive multi-front army in an amount of time an order of magnitude shorter than its RTS peers always such a necessary skill? Was there so little room for error, so little time to rest on one's laurels before leaping headlong into the next woefully mismatched encounter?

Perhaps this is why StarCraft flourished long after its contemporaries fell to obsolescence, and why StarCraft II will inevitably have the same success. In a genre rife with titles eager to help players leisurely build their way into nigh-invulnerable stalemates, StarCraft II, despite being a return to form from which it may have never left, is refreshing for its willingness to empower its players' desires to quickly and thoroughly beat the hell out of one another. Winning all the time is boring, anyway.