Here are the things that make StarCraft II great: it is an improved StarCraft, adapted to modern technology and paired with a superb matchmaking service, and bolstered by a huge player base. It is also a very much aimed at sustaining the original game's success as an e-sport.
Those virtues are also problematic when I try to render a critical judgment. StarCraft II does not feel like a new game, but a lavish new edition. Thanks to StarCraft II, I'm playing StarCraft again, and for that I'm grateful. But when I look at its accomplishments as a design, I mostly see achievements Blizzard attained twelve years ago.
I admire the skill with which Blizzard has updated and improved a classic game without yielding to the temptation to fix what was not broken. StarCraft needed restoration, not re-invention. But that also leaves StarCraft II without a distinct identity. It comes wearing hand-me-down greatness and the thick coat of polish that Blizzard has always used in place of daring.
Re-creating a classic 1990s strategy game also required imposing some painfully artificial limitations. Though I've gotten used to StarCraft II's claustrophobic zoom-level, I still find myself vainly spinning my mouse wheel in an effort to get some distance on the action. Armies move and fight like the Keystone Kops, shambling around in disorganized hordes and coming to a dead stop when engaging targets, leaving trailing units bumbling around out of range. I've had 10 years to get used to RTS armies moving and fighting in formations, and doing battle with some rudimentary common-sense. StarCraft II forces all that unwelcome micro-management back into my hands.
This is not a stand against over-simplification. StarCraft II is not any richer for making the player directly responsible for the actions of every last zergling. In point of fact, combat in StarCraft II is less complicated than you find in many other RTS games, and features commensurately reduced tactical variety. StarCraft II's conspicuously primitive controls and unit AI are not really about game design at all, but a familiar battle between technology and sport.
A few years before StarCraft came out, Formula 1 racing was at its technological pinnacle. Active suspensions adjusted the car setups during races, responding to feedback thousands of times a second to provide the best handling possible. Traction-control and anti-lock brakes smoothed away the rough edges of drivers' techniques. At the start of each race, launch-control managed the power to the wheels, so that everyone left the line smoothly. This was F1 at the forefront of computer-assisted racing—and there was a huge backlash. The next ten years were about taking tools away, forcing drivers to manage tasks that a computer could handle better. It remains controversial. On the one hand, the point of sport isn't efficiency, but skill. On the other hand, sport is also about performance, and artificial challenges can impose frustrating limitations on what is possible.
StarCraft II struggles with that dilemma, and errs on the side of caution. Its interface and controls are designed to fight back rather than facilitate mastery. It cannot be more user-friendly than it is, because all that endless multitasking is the source of its depth. It is the skill that competitive StarCraft is meant to exhibit. Ungainliness is part of the sport. Still, a good sport does not necessarily make for a good game. Designed to be a platform for high-level competition, StarCraft II has become less satisfying as recreation.
StarCraft II still provides a great multiplayer experience, but I'm unconvinced the game deserves credit for that. The Battle.net interface and matchmaking are excellent, but ultimately StarCraft II's strength derives from the sheer number of people who are playing it right now. The community that Blizzard won over in the late '90s has re-coalesced around this game, and it is that community that ultimately makes StarCraft II a multiplayer joy. How could it not be, when I can log onto Battle.net and see a half-dozen friends waiting to play? But if another RTS, say Rise of Nations or Dawn of War had such a community, I suspect I would be playing that.
Nevertheless, I suspect StarCraft II's community is likely to thrive in a way few other RTS games ever have, and for that Blizzard will deserve full credit. A couple months ago on Three Moves Ahead, Julian said he didn't think most game developers "believe their games are long-lasting enough or important enough." He pointed out that while people will be playing chess a hundred years from now, nobody will be playing StarCraft.
I replied that I wasn't sure, because "we are seeing an RTS begin to develop the sort of community and the sort of existence as an intellectual pursuit that I really only see reserved for games like chess. So for the first time, we're seeing bodies of work develop to explain and deepen the game." Having seen the finished product, I think I was right.
Blizzard created a game and service that invites, encourages, and practically demands that players take part in competition. With just a few clicks, you are playing ranked matches in StarCraft leagues. And when you're done, for good or ill, you can reload the game film and analyze every aspect of a match. You can review film from other matches. If Blizzard sacrificed some of the gameplay in favor of creating a competitive sport, they also made something that makes sportsmen out of gamers.
StarCraft II has many facets, and they are not all complementary. I thank heaven I don't have to review it or assign it a score, because I have no idea how to weigh the factors I outlined above. But one thing, I think, is clear: StarCraft II is the product of awkward compromises and contradictory goals. As such, it is not and never could be an unqualified triumph. It had too many constituencies to satisfy. Ultimately, how you feel about StarCraft II comes down to how you feel about the bet Blizzard made: Are strategy gamers ready to get off the sidelines and onto the playing field?