StarCraft II’s weakpoint: a mediocre story (spoiler-free)

I've just finished StarCraft II's single-player campaign. I know I'm late to that party, but between slogging my way through the game on Hard difficulty (earning all the achievements along the way) and the constant harassment over to quit playing the single-player and join in a multiplayer match, it took some time to complete.

Having now finished, it's astonishing to me that, after so many years in development and so much masterful game design, the story of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is so pedestrian. Don't get me wrong—it's far from the worst thing I've ever seen (action movies set a very low bar when it comes to intelligent writing), and everything is beautifully presented, so that makes up for a lot. But with all the effort that Blizzard went through to create the high-quality cinematics and adventure game-style story mode, and the studio's huge budget and proximity to all the writing talent that Hollywood has to offer, I was expecting something grander than a giant helping of bland action cliché.

The tale is pretty straightforward: rebel leader Jim Raynor wants to overthrow Arcturas Mengsk's Terran Dominion and restore his Zerg-infested love interest, Sarah Kerrigan, to human form while stopping her genocidal rampage. There's only one real twist to the tale, when it's revealed who is controlling the mysterious organization who's been paying Raynor to collect ancient alien artifacts; the rest is mostly tangential side-missions where Raynor builds up his army to take on both adversaries, then heads into a climactic battle.

A run-of-the-mill story can be enjoyable if the characters are there to support it, but Raynor himself is only barely interesting enough to carry it. Next to all the great space-cowboys that have come before (most notably Star Wars' Han Solo and Firefly's Malcom Reynolds) he's nothing special—just one gruff hero stereotype after another. As the one guy in the cast with an ulterior motive, Tychus Findlay's probably the most interesting one in the mix, but his actions are telegraphed so far in advance it's impossible to be surprised by anything he does. And arch-villain Kerrigan is almost as much of a non-character as Stetmann, the resident pimple-faced science nerd aboard the Hyperion. She has no grand plan, executes no treachery—if not for all of her generic smack-talk (“You're meddling with forces you can't comprehend!”) she might as well have been an asteroid in a Michael Bay movie.

The character who bugged me the most, though, was Captain Matt Horner. He's Raynor's right-hand man—the guy Raynor says he'd leave in charge of the rebellion if he ever decided to step down, and commander of the flagship Hyperion. He's the man that Raynor confides in during his moments of self-doubt, and the (totally ignored) voice of reason when Raynor decides to do something on the border of heroism and stupidity. So he's a fairly important guy to the story, right?

But Horner has all the personality and charm of a Styrofoam cutout. Even in the comic relief scene dealing with the pink-haired mercenary Mia Han, (to whom, it is revealed in supplemental story materials, Horner was once married) he's as stiff and dull as a wooden spoon. He reminds me of the part in the famously damning review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace by Red Letter Media, in which people are asked to describe the characters of Qui-Gon Jinn and Princess Amidala without describing their role in the movie or what their costume was . Matt Horner would fail this test—miserably.

I don't think that StarCraft II's story was terrible (it's miles better than, for example, the jumbled mess of Supreme Commander 2's story), and I do think it's a great game with fantastic single-player campaign mission design, I just think that it's a huge wasted opportunity. It had all the tools to tell one of the greatest stories in gaming history, but it used them to tell a mediocre one.

What do you think? Were my expectations too high?