When "Improved" doesn't necessarily mean "Better"... In-depth, long review, with good grammar :)
Maybe I had my hopes too high after the hype. Maybe its predecessor set the bar too high, but for some reason, I don't find this game all it is cracked up to be. So, given my tendency to ramble on when I write a review, I'm going to break this into subjects so I can more easily explain myself.
- The Gameplay and Story
Well, as many of you have already guessed by seeing the other reviews, the campaign is a blast. The characters have loads of personality, and are voiced superbly. However, the insight we get from their pasts is poor at best. Matt Horner just popped out of the blue, and while Tychus Findlay's story with Raynor seems to go a long ways back, we never hear much about it. Other characters are even more mysterious, which feels like a thorn in the story, constantly reminding you that this is just a portion of the game. While I understand it is a trilogy, there's no reason to not shed some light on characters origins. This is the first part of the trilogy after all.
In between missions, you see one of the biggest changes to the game interface, and that is the point 'n click adventure style with which you handle upgrades, research and dialogue during the campaign. While it doesn't really add lots to the gameplay, it sure is a feast for the eye (more on that on the Graphics section). In game, you resume the traditional top-down perspective Starcraft is famous for. The game is fast and furious, just as Starcraft's was, with loads of improvements to AI, for both your units and the enemy's (harvesters don't need to be individually assigned, units move to let others pass and so on). The missions in the campaign are varied and interesting, but, except a couple of them (there's 26 missions), they are either incredibly short (map size has been reduced), or devoid of intrincacies that make them go beyond "base defense" and "enemy obliteration".
Single player wise, the campaigin is complemented by a series of "challenges", that unlock achievements and put your skills to the test in particular scenarios, like wave fending and Zerg rush. These are well crafted missions, which present fun and often tough conditions that are enough to entertain for a couple of hours minimum.
Multiplayer has oodles of new features, like achievement tracking, matchmaking, league and team ladders, customizable portraits (á la Warcraft III) and even voice chat. All of these are going to be very welcome for big pros and aficionados.
- Graphics and Sound
In the technical side is where Starcraft II starts showing it's most glaring flaws. One of the things I couldn't help to think is just how similar the graphics are to Red Alert 3, with its cartoony outlines, bulky models and weird color palette. While this is partly a compliment (I loved Red Alert 3) it becomes a bit of a flaw in the sense that even with all the bells and whistles turned on, the game looks at least 2 years old (despite extremely fancy shadow effects). Another thing is that the units have shrunk in size. While Terran and Protoss are more distinguishable amongst themselves (barely - a Reaper looks the same as an SCV), Zerg units have serious identity issues, specially when you start swarming units. Everything is purple with tiny spines, and when you thought you clicked your larva, you just clicked a drone, or the xergling hiding under the mutalisk wing, and myriads of this issues. This isn't helped because of the fact that some units overlap themselves, and while on Starcraft's sprites it wasn't much of an issue, the chaos of all those little tiny 3D models competing for the same spot turns rather daunting.
On the other hand, we have the "adventure parts". Here I thought "If they made Starcraft: Ghost with this engine, they would have another king of something". The graphics are just beautiful on the cutscenes. So good, in fact, that many cinematics are actually done in engine, to almost no detriment to visual pleasure. However, this allows the sensation that two separate teams worked on this game. One went for ultra realistic art and modeling for cutscenes, while the other went for abstracted and functional design. While I understand the need for scalability in this competitive game, the difference is staggering.
Sound is the black sheep of the game. While Terran voices and characters are top notch (this is the Terran campaign, after all) the other races leave something to be desired. Protoss units are all good, but their mechanical units have very quiet sounds, specially the observer and the colossus. This forces you to verify with the portrait if you selected the right unit in the heat of battle, since the HUD icon for units have also shrunk it's size to allow 32 units in one pickup. The Zerg sounds, however, are all terrible. Long gone where the distinctive buzzes of the drones and the tiny roars of zerglings. Now everything (except the Hydras and Mutas, which remain largely unchanged) has nasty gurgling sounds which may be recognizable for other Zerg, but the human ear still has issues to make them instantly recognizable. That coupled with some balance decisions that don't work too well (changing icons positions, switching Hydras to post-Lair and some other nuisances) guarantee that those of us who were good at Zerg, have to relearn lots more than those who play Terran or Protoss.
Music-wise, the game is all over the place. There are a couple of decent Terran songs, the Zerg music is outstanding, and the Protoss music crossed the line of "ambiental" to become "subrepticious". The loading screens music, though, is absolutely dreadful, with no discernible structure, uneven tones and odd metrics (I listen to Venetian Snares, so those don't discomfort me - when done right), which becomes torture since the game takes ages to load.
On a side note, I noticed a particularly annoying bug on the Real ID system. The game requires internet connection to collect achievements on the single player modes, a concession I allowed. However, if the connection for some reason drops, you will have to leave the game you're in back to the main menu and connect manually despite the in-game Real ID window telling you "Reconnecting". It just freezes there. But that reaches just annoyance.
So, after analyzing my experience of the game, I don't feel precisely disappointed, but I am not a bundle of joy either. The game tries too hard to be the original Starcraft, bringing absolutely nothing new to the table. After twelve years of other marvelous RTSs like Warhammer 40K: Dawn Of War, Red Alert 3, Company Of Heroes, Supreme Commander, heck, even Homeworld, one would expect something more groundbreaking. I like to compare this game to Quake 3. When Quake 3 came out, it was the multiplayer bomb. No other game could match it's multiplayer capabilities. However, all other games that have tried to emulate it exactly (Warsow doesn't count) tend to fade in the mist of time. Why? Because we only need one Quake 3. Same happens here. Starcraft II is more of the same, and after 12 years of playing Starcraft, it does get a little bit long in the tooth, specially when nothing's new but everything is different.
Also, no LAN? What they were thinking?!?