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PERFECTLY CRAFTED; Blizzard's title just blows away the competition.

STARCRAFT II ***** 16+ PC/MAC

REAL-TIME strategy games are something of an acquired taste, but that hasn't stopped hundreds of thousands of gamers going nuts for Blizzard's StarCraft II.

The original title has long been hailed as a perfectly balanced example of the genre and it is still incredibly popular in South Korea.

There, multiplayer face-offs are televised, while thousands cram into arenas to watch top professional players battle it out for cash prizes.

So the sequel has a job on its hands if it hopes to usurp its 12-year-old sibling. Thankfully, the team at Blizzard have dissected the original, tinkered with the game mechanics, overhauled the visuals, lengthened the story mode and integrated their Battle. net system for a near flawless multiplayer experience.

StarCraft II features three races: Terran, mech-suited humans with access to a hefty arsenal; Protoss, an alien species with telekinetic powers; and the Zerg, multi-limbed, fast-moving abominations.

Much like the original, the core gameplay revolves around gathering materials to construct buildings and units, before despatching them in waves to conquer rivals or complete set objectives.

There is an incredible amount of depth to StarCraft II. The sheer amount of units and tactics at the player's disposal ensures that no two matches play out the same way.

The single-player campaign mode is perfectly pitched to cater for new players and veterans of the series.

Taking the perspective from the Terran side - the Protoss and Zerg campaigns will be sold at a later date - you command Jim Raynor, a freedom fighter who is drawn ever deeper into an all-encompassing galactic war.

The missions are well-balanced, each sliver of action introducing the player to new units and combat tactics.

Whether you're defending a convoy of civilians, sneaking in to swipe an alien artifact or repelling Protoss forces, each chapter mixes up the objectives to keep the player on their toes.

The storyline might be a little on the weak side but the way it has been presented is fantastic.

Between missions, players can interact with various locations on board Raynor's ship, the Hyperion. Along with researching unit upgrades and hiring mercenaries, the player can play previously completed missions and talk to key members of the team.

While this mode is polished entertainment, StarCraft II's main draw is its multiplayer. A range of options and modes are open to the player. From delicately balanced oneto-one encounters, to four-player skirmishes, hundreds of hours can be ploughed into the game.

While each of the three races is radically different, all are well balanced to ensure fair play. Although you may stumble across a seemingly unbeatable strategy against a friend, you'll find those same attacks thrown back in your face by another player. Mixing strategies up and having a few key plays up your sleeve always pays off.

Beginner maps are constructed to ease first-time players into the action, and although the online experience can be daunting, these are a blast to play. Be prepared to lose a lot, though, as being successful at StarCraft II requires dedication.

To get to grips with the multiplayer modes, Blizzard have included challenge scenarios. These detail troop movements, hot-keys and basic strategies to get you on your way.

Blizzard's mantra of easy to learn, but difficult to master has been adhered to, making the game utterly addictive. I found whole evenings slipping away as I experimented with tactics and mixed up unit sets.

Multiplayer match-making plays a vital role, with Blizzard's Battle.net service used to find online mates and personalise your StarCraft experience.

Scores of built-in achievement points can be displayed for the world to see, while 90 personal profile pictures can be unlocked by completing a range of objectives.

However, this range of customisation comes at a price. You have to be online to play StarCraft II, even if you only intend to play the single player campaign. While the majority of gamers will be already be online enabled, it's strange to make it mandatory.

However, for the multiplayer focus, Battle.net does a sterling job holding the various elements together. Finding pals is a piece of cake, while the transition into the skirmishes is hassle-free.

Believe the hype. StarCraft II is one of the finest titles available on PC.

Polished and packed with enough content to last for years, it's an absolute triumph.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Aug 6, 2010
Words:720
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