It’s hard to imagine a more anxiously anticipated game than “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.” Since its prequel’s release and subsequent addition to GameSpot’s “The Greatest Games of All Time” list, fans have been talking nonstop about how they can’t wait to get their hands on the sequel to the gold standard of real-time strategy games.

“StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty”

Activision Blizzard

But of course, that was back when Bill Clinton was still the president.

After 12 years of anticipation and false alarms, the second installment of “StarCraft” was finally released at midnight on July 27. When you’ve been waiting that long for a game, even the eight-hour download time doesn’t seem that bad.

“StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty” opens with a very intense, high-quality movie that introduces the new plot, which focuses exclusively on the Terran race. The graphics of this video are really quite astounding, almost indistinguishable from a movie like “300.” Needless to say, technology has come a long way since 1998.

But the stellar introduction video quality is in stark contrast to the rather lackluster in-game graphics. While they are undoubtedly leaps and bounds ahead of the original “StarCraft,” it seems like Activision is just trying to bring them to a minimal standard of acceptability for today’s gamers, not hit a home run. One level’s surges of lava recall the crowds in old “Madden” games — heavily pixilated, easily noticeable eyesores. Considering the hype “StarCraft 2” received, the between-mission movies are also fairly lackluster. Again, the video quality disappoints, with occasional holes in characters’ hair and speech that matches lip movements about as well as a 1980s kung-fu movie.

Perhaps the most bothersome aspect of the game is the over-the-top, stereotyped settings and characters — including a galactic Rastafarian — that play prominent roles. During some of the between-mission experiences, it almost feels like the plot developers just took the script of the terrible Western “Appaloosa” and set it in space. And no space-age Western would be complete without a holo-stripper dancing next to a jukebox as it blares, “You grab your Zerg and beat it in the head —”

But “StarCraft” didn’t build its massive following through its plotline and graphics — it did it through offering the very best gameplay available. And in that respect, “StarCraft II” is a smashing hit. The general way the game works — gather resources, build an army, kick some ass — is the same. Players can still “Zerg” their opponents (i.e., rush them with a massive wave of weak, cheap units early on), the Protoss still leverage their psychic abilities and the Terran continue to use technology to best their enemies. New units have been added to all the races, along with tons of new skills and abilities.

And while not much has changed overall in terms of basic gameplay, a whole new dimension of interaction has been added to the experience. Between levels, the player can go to different parts of the spaceship to accomplish tasks. In the armory, credits obtained by completing missions can be used to buy mercenary units. In the laboratory, research obtained in hidden spots in certain levels outfits various buildings and units with unique, customizable skills. In another area, the player can watch surprisingly comical news broadcasts from the home planet, play an arcade game, talk to other characters and more. This level of user interaction was not at all available in the original “StarCraft,” and while it can be confusing at first, it’s a welcome addition.

Although some traditionalist players will surely be irked by the replacement of the LAN-based online gaming network, the new system doesn’t have very many drawbacks. The options are diverse, the speed is vastly improved and it offers an altogether positive medium for social gaming. But as with any online game, there are at least two million users with names along the lines of “Noobkilla,” “mastern00b” and “Igor the N00beater.”

“StarCraft II” has some big shoes to fill. While some of the graphical inconsistency and awkward storylines can distract from its positive points, the stellar gameplay that earned the “StarCraft” name its notoriety has been maintained, and the new dimension of user interaction is a positive addition. Above all, it’s just as addicting as the original.

And with expansion packs for the Zerg and Protoss campaigns already in the works, it looks like fans won’t have to wait another 12 years to take on new challenges.

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