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 is an online release of our exclusive announcement of the game's existence way back in our August 2007 issue.
By Dan Stapleton
In the first of what will certainly be many theater-quality animated cinematics, a still quiet is broken by the unlocking of a heavy metal door that opens to reveal a brutishly muscled man wearing leg irons and puffing on a fat cigar. Without a word, he strides purposefully into a room full of high-tech industrial machinery and steps into snowboard-style boot clips on the floor. The machines spring to life, and with a shower of sparks, several sets of long, thin robotic arms go to work. His shackles are removed, heavy metal armor is attached to ports on his skin and welded into place, and his arms reach into massive robotic gauntlets many times the size of his own hands. A series of images flash on the screen—images of monstrous alien creatures, weapons of war, and bloody battle. As they finish, a computer voice comes over the loudspeaker: “All marines, prepare to launch.” The man, now encased in full Terran marine battle armor and holding a gun as big as his own unarmored body, turns to face us. “Hell,” he says, “It's about time.”
“I hope they get the joke,” remarks Chris Sigaty, StarCraft II's lead producer, who stands behind me as I watch the trailer in his office. It's a few days before the game's May 19 public unveiling in Seoul, South Korea, but we were invited to Blizzard's Irvine, California office to get a private first look at it, along with exclusive information about the Protoss side that wasn't revealed at the launch event.
I assure him that the joke won't be a problem; it's been nine long years—practically an eternity in the still-young games industry—since the release of the world's most famous real-time strategy game, and only now do we catch our very first glimpse of its successor. About damn time, indeed.
So, what took them so long? It was getting to the point where even the faithful were wondering whether the second coming of StarCraft would happen during their lifetime. But there's
actually a pretty simple reason, and it's the same reason that Blizzard's games are consistently of the same high quality: Behind all four of its hugely popular real-time strategy games and their expansions, there is just one team of elite developers. What's more, it's a shockingly small group of just 39 people—other major RTS development teams have been known to grow to three times that size—and that headcount contains a high percentage of the same talent-rich brain matter that created StarCraft, SC: Brood War, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, and WCIII: Frozen Throne. The group also includes the exact same art team that produced some of the most amazing and memorable 2D game art ever. The team began throwing around design concepts shortly after production ended on Frozen Throne, but began the real journey to bring StarCraft into the 21st century two years ago, right after Blizzard's company-wide crunch to launch World of Warcraft finally subsided.
That's also when Blizzard hired Dustin Browder—who helped create Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, C&C: Generals, and Battle for Middle-earth—as the game's lead designer. While the shoes of the original StarCraft designers, such as producer Bill Roper, founder of Flagship Studios (Hellgate: London), and campaign editor creator Jeff Strain, founder of ArenaNet (Guild Wars 2), are nigh-impossible to fill, Browder definitely has the proper reverence and respect for the source material. “[StarCraft] is such a great game that we really don't want to mess that up,” he explains. “We have such a huge responsibility now, as a developer and as enthusiasts for this game, to get it right, to hit the mark and give everybody something that really feels like, 'Ah yes! This is the game I wanted this whole time!'”
Browder points out that when making a sequel to one of the all-time greats of gaming history, it's just as important to consider what you're going to keep the same as what you're going to do that's new. “We've seen a lot of really cool stuff [in the RTS genre] in the last five or six years, but in this case, we're just looking back at the original StarCraft for a lot of our core inspiration, and some other Blizzard titles as well.” So, while you can be sure you'll see a lot of new tricks on the next few pages, the team is going to great lengths to ensure that what makes StarCraft so definitively StarCraft isn't lost in the transition.
Four's a crowd
For example, one of the biggest potential changes was quashed right away: StarCraft II will not be adding a fourth faction. This news will come as something of a surprise to many fans, considering that Blizzard once revolutionized the RTS genre by introducing three sides in StarCraft, a move that was hailed as a huge leap forward in game design and balancing.
On the other hand, limiting StarCraft II to three races makes a lot of sense. In the years since the first game's release, the “race race” has escalated to laughable proportions, with games tacking on extra races simply because they can. Even Blizzard added the Night Elves and the Undead to Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, for a total of four playable sides. But with the decision to remain focused on the established Terran, Zerg, and Protoss races, Blizzard avoids watering down the game's uniqueness for the sake of an extra bullet point on the back of its box. “We didn't want to [add a race] for the sake of doing it,” says Sigaty. “One of the great things about StarCraft originally was how different and diverse the races were, and we wanted to play that up.”
The team was also quick to acknowledge that, despite their similarities, StarCraft and Warcraft are two very different games. Unlike Warcraft III, which took the franchise in a new direction by adding role-playing elements to the hero characters and emphasizing intense micromanagement of a smaller number of units, Browder proclaims that StarCraft II will still be a game that concentrates on pitting large armies against other large armies. Hero units won't require nearly as much attention or be as important as they are in WCIII, and current plans call for the unit cap to remain at 200 per player, a number that produces some impressive large-scale battles in StarCraft.
– Chris Sigaty, Lead Producer, Blizzard Entertainment
So, let's say you've been in an alternate dimension for the last 10 years and just don't know what all this StarCraft fuss is about. First of all, you should know that the sci-fi RTS StarCraft and its expansion, Brood War, have sold a staggering 9.5 million copies combined and dominate the world of competitive strategy gaming.
StarCraft's storyline revolves around three warring races: the Zerg, the Terrans, and the Protoss. Here's a breakdown of the three sides:
The Zerg is a race of organic insect-like aliens ruled by a central mind. Its strength is in speed and numbers, sending swarms of units to overwhelm its enemies, especially in the early game. All of its units begin as larvae spawned at a fixed rate from the main building, which can then be mutated into a Zerg soldier or worker drone. Rather than building structures, the Zerg drones themselves mutate into base buildings, but can only build on an oozing substance known as “creep” that's secreted from the main building.
The Terrans are the most conventional of the three sides, fielding armored space marines, flamethrower-equipped firebat infantry, siege tanks, and cloaking fighters. Besides a slight economic advantage, their unique ability is in their structures—they can be built anywhere on the map, and most can pull up stakes and fly away when threatened or can relocate and produce units closer to the front lines.
The Protoss is an honorable warrior race. Its units are the sturdiest of the three factions, thanks to powerful shields on every unit and structure, and its flying carriers and Archons (energy beings created by merging two templar spellcasters) are some of the deadliest in the game. The Protoss' power is kept in check, however, by the power requirements of its structures, which can only be built within range of a power pylon. By destroying a few key pylons, an attacker can shut down its base defenses.
The Korean Connection
Blizzard chose to reveal StarCraft II in Seoul, South Korea because of the Koreans' unparalleled adoration for Blizzard's games. Make no mistake: as much as American gamers love 'em, we've got nothing on the Koreans. The country is home to more than 25,000 PC baangs—the Korean term for a cybercafe where patrons can play PC games for a few dollars per hour—and its professional competitive gamers can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and are treated like rock stars.
It's this atmosphere that allowed Blizzard's third World Wide Invitational event (which featured professional Starcraft and Warcraft III competitions) to draw a crowd large enough to fill an Olympic stadium. The crowd went nuts when the StarCraft II announcement was made—each demonstration of a new unit or ability was met with oohs and aahs from the audience. Outside the stadium, there was a general party atmosphere, complete with carnival rides, costume contests, and autograph signings by Blizzard developers.
Meet the new interface, same as the old interface
While the designers of many newer RTS games have gone out of their way to reinvent the interface, Blizzard is applying the “if it ain't broke” approach to StarCraft's original design. Every potential alteration is hotly debated within the team, from camera zoom levels to the number of units selectable at one time (currently, the team is testing the option to let you select an unlimited number), in order to fiercely prevent the StarCraft feel from being diluted with unneeded changes. In the Protoss-styled interface we saw (Blizzard stresses that everything it has showed us is still in alpha and subject to change), the only difference from StarCraft's classic design is the addition of RTS staples like idle peon buttons and control group tabs displaying what units are bound to each number.
On the multiplayer front, Blizzard is taking great pains to guarantee that StarCraft II becomes every bit the competitive game that its predecessor is; the original remains the de facto multiplayer RTS tournament gold standard. (StarCraft: Brood War is once again an official game for World Cyber Games 2007.) To that end, the team has already consulted with some of the top competitive StarCraft and Warcraft III players from Korea for the balance and design process, and are taking their needs into account. “I love to watch these guys play at a level that, at least back with StarCraft and even with WarCraft III, we didn't intend for you to be able to do,” says Sigaty, adding that he fully expects to see players use StarCraft II's new units and abilities in ways the team never imagined.
– Dustin Browder, Lead Designer, Blizzard Entertainment
Evenly matched opponents may battle for longer, but the ideal StarCraft II multiplayer match will last less than 20 minutes, says Browder. “You're in, you're fighting, you've won, you've lost, you're done. 'Hey, you know what I wanna do? I wanna play another [match].' We want to keep the pace up so you play a lot of different games, you can see a lot of different stuff, and you can try a lot of different stuff.”
On the back end, Browder and Sigaty promise “big things” in store for BattleNet, Blizzard's multiplayer online interface and matchmaking system, and hint at improved ranking and spectator capabilities for StarCraft II.
If you're worried that Blizzard's success in the multiplayer arena means that the single-player campaign will be neglected, have no fear. According to BattleNet statistics, a large portion of people playing StarCraft, even today, play its single-player mode exclusively, which is all the motivation Blizzard needs to put a lot of effort and ambitious planning into the single-player experience. The team isn't ready to talk about the campaign's storyline yet, but we were able to glean that it will pick up 10 years after the events of Brood War (what a coincidence—it's been almost 10 years since the game came out), and that some familiar faces will show up. Judging by their sightings in early trailers and concept art, appearances by the Zerg-infested human Kerrigan and the Terran hero Jim Rayner are pretty much guaranteed.
Zealot: Zealots are the standard infantry unit of the Protoss from StarCraft. Still equipped with a pair of glowing psionic blades for melee combat, the Zealot will now charge the enemy to close distances with ranged units quicker than before.
Stalker: Stalkers are a new type of dark dragoon. They're fast moving and lightly armored with a powerful anti-air and anti-infantry weapon, but their secret weapon is their “blink” ability that will allow them to teleport anywhere in visual range in an instant.
Immortal: A new type of heavy dragoon, the Immortals will be equipped with a shield that activates only when hit by heavy weapons like siege tanks, making them excellent for assaulting heavily defended positions but weak against raiding parties with light weapons.
Observer: The invisible flying eyes of the Protoss are back. We can confirm they'll be in the game, but further details are shrouded in secrecy.
Colossus: True to its name, the Colossus is an enormous four-legged walker that rakes the ground with a heavy beam weapon. They'll be extremely effective against small swarming units like Zerglings or marines—their beams target one unit at a time, and instantly sweep to a new target when the first is destroyed. Using their long legs, they can step up and down ledges with ease.
Phoenix: When its standard fighter weapons won't do the job, the Phoenix will be able to activate its overload ability to damage all enemy air units nearby, which also disables the Phoenix itself for a few moments. If the overload doesn't demolish the enemy, you'll be a sitting duck.
Phase Prism: The new Phase Prism will serve as both a troop transport and a mobile power pylon, allowing you to restore functionality to a base when your pylons are destroyed by raiders or when you build away from your base. Combined with the warp-in tech, you'll be able to use them to create an army anywhere on the battlefield.
Warp Ray: These flying weapons inflict additional damage the longer they fire on a single target as they bring more beams online, which will make them extremely powerful against large targets like Battlecruisers and structures. Their focused fire also makes them vulnerable against swarms of small anti-air units like marines.
Mothership: At the top of the tech tree, you'll find the Mothership. It comes equipped with a “time bomb” field that stops incoming projectiles, Matrix-style, in mid-air. When the field shuts off, all attacking missiles will fall harmlessly to the ground. Like any good mothership, it'll be able to fire a devastating planet cracker beam straight down to annihilate ground units below. Finally, it'll be able to generate a mini-black hole to suck enemy air units into oblivion. There's nothing quite like watching a fleet of enemy Battlecruisers circle the drain!
High Templar: The High Templar is back, and he'll bring his powerful psionic storm area attack with him. But he's gotten a handy new power: he'll be able to create a force field to trap units temporarily, or to create barriers. Blizzard says internal testing has revealed some extremely effective bottlenecks tactics using him. The ability to say, 'you can't go there anymore' will be extremely powerful.
Dark Templar: Just like in the first game, the Dark Templar is a stealth melee unit that wreaks havoc on any force foolish enough to leave home without a detector. Any new special abilities have yet to be revealed.
Twilight Archon: Blizzard hasn't exactly worked out what it's doing with the Twilight Archon in terms of his powers, but the team promises that he'll be just as powerful as he was in the original StarCraft.
Tempest: The Tempest is a dark carrier with disc fighters and a strong shield that activates only when attacked from the ground. It will have no defense whatsoever against air attacks.
Soul Hunter: Soul Hunters are anti-infantry units that float around on hoverboards and suck the souls out of enemies. The more souls they consume, the more powerful they'll get, going from firing one beam at a time up to three. They'll be effective against small organic units, but practically useless against robotic units like the Protoss' own Reaver.
Reaver: The armored slug-like Reaver artillery is as nasty as ever. While we didn't see any upgraded abilities, we witnessed a new version of the old 'reaver drop” attack (putting one right in the middle of an enemy's resource collectors and watching the fireworks) when combined with the Phase Prism.
Phase Cannon: This stationary base defense is no longer stationary. The Phase Cannon can now convert into energy form to relocate and redeploy, as long as you stay in pylon power range. But if the pylon is destroyed while the phase cannon is in energy form, it'll go poof!
Star Relic: When it comes to casting spells, the Star Relic makes the High Templar look like an amateur. It'll be able to create a cloak field that will conceal even buildings, and fire a fusion beam that slowly damages a target until it dies—and when it dies, it'll explode and cause damage to everything around it. Remember: The larger the target, the bigger the boom.
Marine: The gruff-talking, alien butt-kicking armored backbone of the Terran forces is back in action. We spotted a group of marines sporting riot-style shields in our demo—the shields are a possible upgrade the devs are considering.
Says StarCraft II's lead designer, Dustin Browder: “Every time I see that [teaser cinematic] I think, 'Wow, that's a lot of work for 50 minerals and 40 hit points.'”
Siege Tank: When marines just won't cut it, you call in the Siege Tanks. Just like in the first game, this heavy weapon will deploy stabilizer legs that allow it to fire a larger projectile at a greater range, but also immobilizes it to one spot.
Reaper: The only new Terran unit Blizzard showed off is the Reaper, a fast-moving jump jet infantry armed with dual pistols. They'll be able to hop up or down ledges to assault bases or slow-moving units from any direction.
Battlecruiser: Also back for round two is the Terran Battlecruiser, armed with its signature Yamato gun that'll be able to destroy most smaller air and ground units in a single blast.
Zerglings: The dreaded Zerg rush is alive and well. But the Zerglings, small melee attackers that swarm a target and overwhelm it through sheer numbers, will no longer be one-trick space ponies. They'll be able to evolve into at least one other form: the Baneling, a suicide Zerg filled with corrosive acids that will explode on impact with its target. We're guessing there will be other Zergling forms to keep the basic units useful later in the game.
Mutalisk: The Zerg's airborne form was spotted attacking a Protoss Colossus in the demo, only to be taken down by a Phoenix's overload attack. In StarCraft, these guys could mutate into powerful flying artillery, so it's safe to assume they'll have at least one higher-level form.
Nydus worms: In StarCraft, the Zerg could build nydus canal nodes in two locations and instantly travel between them. StarCraft II shows us what dug those canals: the Nydus Worm. They'll burst out of the ground and open their mouths wide, which will allow smaller Zerg to use their tubular bodies as a quick-transit tunnel.
Picture this: You're playing as the Protoss, and one of your resource bases on the other side of the map comes under attack. Your gateway, the Protoss barracks, at the besieged base is destroyed. For old-school Protoss players, the battle would already be over. But that's because they didn't have warp-in tech, a new upgrade for your barracks that will allow them to build a unit anywhere on the map within the range of a power pylon or phase prism. (There'll be a limit of one unit per gateway at a time and a cool-down period before you can use warp-in again.) It's a handy ability that will instantly set strategists' minds running wild with possibilities, but it will have its drawbacks—the unit will gradually materialize just like a Protoss building and be completely defenseless until finished. And, if your power pylon is destroyed midway through the warp-in, your unfinished unit will be lost.
Because of its predecessor's popularity among professional and casual gamers alike, StarCraft II faces a difficult balancing act. A lot of micromanagement might please the hardcore, but casual gamers will probably get tired of each unit asking for direction every time it wants to go to the metaphorical bathroom. On the other hand, if there's too much automation, the game will start to play itself. Casual players may not mind, but pros will wonder where their skill level comes into play.
Browder says they're onto a compromise: “One of the things we loved about the original StarCraft is that there's so much more you could get out of this game [over other RTSes]. It doesn't really matter how much you play—it really doesn't. You can always be better. We're trying to keep a certain level of [StarCraft's] micromanagement so that there's that additional depth for players to experience and explore and learn how to master.”
“Our goal for the unit design is to allow every unit, with the exception of some of the spellcasters, to be something you can just attack-move with,” Browder continues. “I can just say 'you guys go attack over there' and they'll totally take care of business and they'll totally do cool stuff. And we also want to add to a lot of these units a level where, if you really know what you're doing with [it], and you want to spend the time, you can get some extra functionality out of the unit.”
As an example, Browder points to a pair of Protoss stalker dragoons being overrun by Zerglings. You can leave them alone and they'll go down fighting, taking a few bugs down with them, or you can take charge and use their blink ability to keep the Zerglings at a distance while pelting them with laser fire. Veterans, Browder explains, will have to decide whether to make the most of a few units or concentrate on building a huge army. “Everything in StarCraft is about choices you make as a player. It's not about making the one right unit or the one right structure,” he says. But no matter what choice you make, you'll have a great experience.
StarCraft II will be Blizzard's second 3D RTS, built from the ground up on a custom game engine. Each unit model, on average, will contain more polygons than a World of Warcraft player model, and the animations we saw in the early alpha build already look amazing, especially the Zerg nydus worms and Zerglings. Cool touches include inverse kinematics on the legs of Protoss walkers, which makes them appear to actually step over obstacles instead of through them, and debris from destroyed vehicles falls and bounces with accurate physics modeling. Artificial intelligence will receive an upgrade, too—AI opponents will no longer clairvoyantly know where you are, because they'll be smart enough to scout out your base and strategize based on information they observe. The AI improvements will also apply to your own units, so don't expect to see them line up like ants when given move orders like they did in StarCraft.
The devs say it's still too early to make a declaration about StarCraft II's minimum system specs, but Blizzard is known for making games that will run on nearly any machine in order to reach the widest possible audience. The game will, of course, look far nicer on a high-end rig. (If you want an example of the difference this can make, try running World of Warcraft with all the settings on low, then max it out.) For now, the team is only willing to reveal that a Shader Model 2.0–compatible graphics card (GeForce FX series, Radeon 9000 series or better) will be required. As for DirectX 10–only effects, that decision has yet to be made.
Even before we saw the amazingly polished-looking alpha build in action, there was absolutely no doubt in our minds that StarCraft II will be an awesome game. For it to be any less would be the gaming equivalent of Mozart composing a “just OK” symphony or Shakespeare writing a book of so-so soliloquies. (No pressure, guys. Don't choke don't choke don't choke!) The only questions are, Can Blizzard truly recapture the magic? and Will StarCraft II achieve the same legendary status and unprecedented longevity as the original? Will we still be playing it and talking about it in 10 years? (Check back in August 2018, PC Gamer issue 294, for the answer.) And, finally, when do we get to play it? We'll have the answers to these questions (and everything else StarCraft II-related) in future issues of PC Gamer.
If there's one thing Blizzard has learned about keeping a game popular for nearly a decade, it's supporting the mod community—and it says the community is going to be very happy about the StarCraft II map editor that will ship with the game. Promised to be even more powerful than the Warcraft III editor, it's not quite ready for primetime yet, but we're told that a total novice will be able to easily create a full map in 15 minutes. Just imagine what the experts will be able to do!