SC2 Week: The Final Push

PC Gamer

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As part of our ongoing celebration of all things StarCraft, we're hosting a Starcraft smörgåsbord, with a different theme for each of the days leading up to and the week following SC2's release. This article is a part of the "Everything We Know About StarCraft Day", the first of the bunch, and was the single largest feature we did on the game. Packed to the brim with analysis, beta experiences, interviews, and tips, we're going to break this one up over a couple articles.

The Final Push

Starcraft II, the return of the most popular PC strategy game in the world, is almost upon us By Rich McCormick

Some of you will be lucky enough to play the StarCraft II beta. Many more of you will not. A good portion of those forced to go without will be howling, denied early access to the eagerly awaited sequel to the world's most popular PC strategy game. To both these groups of people—the haves, and the have-nots—Blizzard have some news: that beta people are playing? It's definitely not StarCraft II.

“People are using the beta as a demo,” says Chris Sigaty, SC2's lead producer, “and that was never really our intention. It was specifically to test our new hardware infrastructure, as well as the balance of the game at the various skill levels.”

Integrated with a revamped Battle.net client, which arranges 1v1 and 2v2 matches between players of comparable skill, this pre-release version is tightly focused. Games against the computer are only available at the incompetent “very easy” difficulty level to allow players to experiment with tech trees and build orders while the AI dribbles and blunders into walls.

Sigaty is very keen to assure me that these features are but one facet of the perfectly cut diamond StarCraft II will eventually become. “We're trying to direct players, to say 'hey, go try out the single-player thing, look at our challenges, check out the map editor, go play cooperatively with friends against the AI, or indeed go play this competitive multiplayer.'”

So, good news all around. The lucky few who Zerg-rushed their way into beta access have but scratched the surface; those who were passed over can look forward to a more balanced game that no one has truly played yet.

What will that game be like? Let's crack open the carapace of StarCraft II, and see what we can find in the gooey mass within.

Designed to both please legions of existing fans and appeal to a new generation of gamers, StarCraft II is described by Blizzard as a “new game for old players.” Its single-player campaigns will be released as a series of three packs, the first of which—Wings of Liberty—will focus on the Terran story. The campagin for the insectoid Zerg—The Heart of the Swarm—will follow roughly 18 months later. The third race—the space-elf Protoss—will get a set of missions to call their own at an unspecified time after that.

The first StarCraft was so stupidly fun as a competitive multiplayer game that it's been co-opted as a heavily televised national sport in Korea. Is there a danger that these single-player campaigns could prove nothing more than glorified tutorials, a stepping-stone to the multiplayer?

It's a worry Sigaty has heard before. “Some people are under the impression that single-player is the training ground for multiplayer, and we actually don't view it that way. We're taking single-player in very different directions this time—each mission is its own minigame in many instances.”

We've seen examples to back this up. In one, a small band of Terran workers is desperate to get offworld before they become soft, fleshy Zerg-munchies. The problem: they're in the south, the spaceport is in the north, and between the two is a road infested with hungry Zerg.

Who's bad?

Fortunately, badass Terran space-hero Jim Raynor is in the vicinity. (That's you.) Facing off against increasingly bitey waves of the swarm, you must provide safe passage for the evacuation convoys.

Some of the forces provided are unique to the single-player campaign. The Firebat—a pressure-suited flame-chucking assault trooper from the first game—has been excised from multiplayer due to balancing issues, in favor of the similarly beefy Marauder. But in the single-player campaign balance isn't an issue, so the fan-favorite Firebat resurfaces, ready to pump napalm from his dual flamethrowers.

Sigaty tells us that's just the beginning. “We've got a bunch of other things in single-player, like tech purchase and research, and a detailed story mode.”

It's this story that breaks most with RTS tradition, offering a spaceship-set hub—Raynor's battleship Hyperion—where players will roam between operations. It's the home of Raynor's Raiders, the freedom-fighting mercenary group you'll lead as noted badass Raynor. The vessel offers conversation a-plenty with other Raiders, upgrades and, most interestingly, the chance to accept or decline missions. Take on worthy operations from characters such as humanitarian doctor Ariel Hanson, for example, and your Raynor will align himself with good. If you just want to get stuff done and steal alien artefacts for your own swag pile, you'll want to listen to that amoral marine Tychus Findlay.

Edu-tainment

Between the twin pillars of single-player and multiplayer lies a new entity: a set of tests that Blizzard dubs Challenge Mode. Sigaty explains: “They're missions that go into very specific ways of playing. Things like rushing, using spellcasters effectively, unit countering.”

Challenge Mode acts as the real bridge between the other two styles of play, and will explain and then test a player on the advanced concepts used by the pros. (Here's hoping for one that teaches you how you're expected to click 150 times per minute without a mouse-finger like a bicep.)

According to Sigaty, Challenge Mode is like being back in school, albeit a school where you're given control of murderous bugs and asked to run up to heavily armed teachers and eat them before the bell rings for lunch. This intensive schooling will, Blizzard hopes, prevent people from feeling put off by their first steps into the whirling, dizzying online experience, as potential players have been in previous games.

“Challenges attempt to teach some of those things other players pick up by stomaching a number of losses. We try our best to help people not go in there not knowing anything and then have bad losses a few times in a row and say 'this isn't for me.'”

What to do with all of these finely honed counter-rushes and warping-sneak attacks once you've drilled them into your head and your index finger? There's only one place left to go: the toe-to-toe, pause-and-you'll-die, oh-god-the-panic multiplayer.

“It's a stressful but fun experience,” says Sigaty. “I compare it to playing an FPS. We were getting games where you have landslide victories, and now we're at a point where you're either effective or could've been effective if you'd just realized a few things.”

Sigaty maintains the beta is nothing yet but a balancing act to test the resilience of the newly revamped Battle.net system, and the game's race vs bigger race vs race-with-more-legs asymmetry. Standing underneath the lopsided pile, propping it up with quicker reload times or unit prices is Blizzard. Keenly aware that one slip, one mildly overpowered unit, could bring the whole house of hardcore multiplayer crumbling down amid cries of “OMG OP!!!” the team is churning out patches to tweak core aspects of the game and the little dudes you control.

The biggest change in beta balance so far has been to the Terrans. “They were buffed up fairly intensely, and we're continuing to look at that. We're still seeing some people feel like they're still not there yet,” says Sigaty.

Patch notes reflect this concern, reducing the time of infantry upgrades—vital to defend against early rush gambits—by a significant 30 seconds. Bringing long-range weaponry to bear earlier levels the playing field significantly.

These tweaks work both ways. I asked Sigaty about his approach to overpowered strategies, and that StarCraft staple, the rush. “People will figure out rushes, and we need to make sure they're not too abusive, but we don't want to shut down the rush as a key part of the game. Another example: we're seeing a lot of use of [Protoss] warping right now. We're coming up with ways to make it part of the Protoss arsenal but not make it overpowered.” Shortly after our interview, a beta patch sapped the shield strength Zealots—the base Protoss melee units—from 60 to 50. It's the little things.

Net gain

The ease with which the very best StarCraft players can slip into SC2's multiplayer is evident from the dominance of familiar names in the upper echelons of the beta ladders, but the steps taken to allow the participation of those who would stare blankly at a Baneling with no idea how to use it are impressive.

The revamp to Battle.net, which integrates online multiplayer tightly into StarCraft II, is a core reason for some lengthy delays, but Blizzard belives it'll be well worth waiting for. For the first time, it's offering a wide-open window to new players, one previously held shut by the twin arms of ignorance and fear of the hardcore. Sigaty reckons this will help pull new players into to competitive play: “Battle.net was a place you went to, and it had this perception, I think, that it was a hardcore place, and you only went there if you were really into the game. But now the online experience is integrated, you're always online, your friends are always there, so it's not a scary thing.”

The lessons of will be reinforced through video tutorials and match replays that you can view through Battle.net, Sigaty says. “Our intention with SC2 is to save replays up to the network and let people download and watch them, paying attention to the pro and platinum leagues and what players do so they can learn.”

Battle.net's ubiquity extends beyond hosting games and replays. Its robust friends and matchmaking systems is to be complemented by support for modders tinkering with the code. Blizzard understands the importance of modders and mapmakers in extending their games beyond their typical lifespan. “Our hope is that there's going to be entirely new styles of games coming out of StarCraft II. Warcraft III's tower defense maps were a phenomenon, and we want people creating things like that,” says Sigaty.

With time pressing before the game needs to be rubber-stamped and shipped, Sigaty outlines how his team is trying to squeeze in as much useful content for those with the knowledge and inclination to fiddle with the base game. “We're trying to also include examples of things that people can look to as roadmaps for games they can make, things like tower defense maps or (another Warcraft III hero-on-hero RTS) Defense of the Ancients maps.”

The desired result will be these industrious types uploading maps, tweaks or even entire game modes to Battle.net, and letting others download them and add to the game's legacy.

[MPU]“We've seen some amazing stuff without a centralized download location, so we think sky's the limit once we're able to bring in something like that online.”

Sigaty takes community seriously—when I quizzed him he was up to speed on all recent strategies, namechecking tactics like the Planetary Fortress rush (fly your moveable Terran fortress outside an enemy's base, set it down, build massive cannon on it, win) and speculating on areas the community might expand into next.

“We're totally paying attention. We have community teams in every region and we're reading through our forums constantly.” By the time you read this, Blizzard will have implemented a feature suggested loudly by beta testers: the ability to refocus the camera on a specific spot of the map you're interested in, and call it up with a keystroke. You don't get this kind of player/developer interaction from many other game makers.

At the time of this writing, StarCraft II sits tantalizingly close to release-worthy perfection—in fact, most developers would have shoved it out the door long ago and tuned balancing based on the feedback of paying customers. It's this meticulous attention to detail and quality that make Blizzard's games so anticipated—and so difficult to wait for.

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