StarCraft II preview: The final push

Rich McCormick

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

Even while colonising the vast universe, Terrans have time to fight eachother.

“People are using the beta as a demo for SC2,” said Chris Sigaty, lead producer on StarCraft II, “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 sorted by skill, the pre-release version was tight in its focus. Games against the computer were only available at the idiotic 'very easy' difficulty level, an open space where the player can experiment with tech trees and build orders while the AI dribbles and blunders into walls.

Chris was very keen to assure me that this is 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 singleplayer 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 round. The lucky few who Zerg-rushed their way into early beta access have but scratched the surface; those who were passed over can look forward to a balanced, honed game that no one has truly played yet.

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

StarCraft II's singleplayer campaigns will be released as three distinct packs, the first of which – Wings of Liberty – will focus on the Terran story. The gribbly insectoid Zerg are next, getting their content and campaign – The Heart of the Swarm – 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. The beta for the new game is heavily weighted toward player-on-player battles. Is there a danger that these singleplayer campaigns, when they arrive could prove nothing more than glorified tutorials, a stepping-stone to the multiplayer?

The Colossus walker disintegrates legions of low level units in microseconds.

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

We've seen examples to back this up, just to be sure Blizzard aren't fibbing. One mission sticks in the memory: a small band of Terran workers, mouthing off with the southern drawl of good old boys from Louisiana, are desperate to get offworld before they become Zerg-fodder. The problem – they're in the south. The spaceport is in the north. Between the two is a road, and that road is infested with Zerg, each one hungry for soft human flesh.

Who's bad?

Fortunately, badass Terran space-hero Jim Raynor is in the vicinity. And that's you. Facing off against increasingly bitey waves of the swarm, you must provide safe passage for the stranded men. Assuming, that is, you can organise your forces.

Some of these forces are unique to the singleplayer campaign. The Firebat – a pressure-suited flamechucking assault trooper from the first game – has been excised from multiplayer thanks to balancing issues, replaced with the similarly beefy Marauder. In the singleplayer campaign he resurfaces, ready to pump napalm from his dual flamethrowers.

“We've got a bunch of other things in singleplayer,” Chris tells us, “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 – the Hyperion – where players will kill time between operations. The home of Raynor's Raiders, the alien artefact-nabbing mercenary group you'll lead as noted badass Jim Raynor, the vessel offers conversation a-plenty with other Raiders and, most interestingly, the chance to accept or decline missions. Depending on their quest-giver, some of these will give you a certain reputation if accepted. Take on worthy operations from characters such as doctor-with-a-heart-of-gold Ariel Hanson, for example, and your Raynor will align himself with good. If you just want to get stuff done and nick all the artefacts for your own swag pile, you'll want to listen to that amoral marine Tychus Findlay.

Between the twin posts of singleplayer and multiplayer lies a new entity, a set of tests that Blizzard are dubbing Challenge mode. Chris 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 two styles of play – online and solo – and will describe, explain, and then test a player on the advanced concepts the professionals use to win. Here's hoping for one that teaches you how on earth you're expected to click 150 times a minute for the duration of an entire game without a mouse-finger like a bicep.

Educational

Challenge mode promises exhaustive learning techniques, according to Chris. “It shows you, and then tests you and has you try to beat these challenges.” It's like being back in school, albeit a school where you're given control of murderous bugs and asked to run up to your teachers and eat them before the bell rings for lunch and your teachers get automatic weaponry. This intensive schooling will, Blizzard hope, reduce the amount of people 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'. That did happen with Warcraft III and StarCraft.”

Your loyal Marines are more disgruntled than ever.

What to do with all of these finely honed counter-rushes and warpingsneaks and M/M/M 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, pauseand- you'll-die, oh-god-the-risingpanic multiplayer.

“It's a stressful but fun experience,” says Chris. “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 realised a few things.”

Chris 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, are Blizzard, currently churning out patches and updates to change core aspects of the game and the little dudes you control. Blizzard are fully aware that one slip, one mildly overpowered unit, could bring the whole house of hardcore multiplayer crumbling down amid cries of “OMG OP!!!”

This is the Archon's dad.

The biggest change 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.”

Patch notes reflect this concern, bumping the time of infantry upgrades – vital to defend against the other races' early rush gambits – down by a significant 30 seconds. Getting marines to bring their long-range weaponry to bear is now an easier experience, levelling the playing field.

It works both ways. I asked Chris about his approach to overpowered strategies and that StarCraft staple, the rush. “People will figure out rushes, 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 warping right now – the warpgates for the Protoss – and people using that as much as they can, and we're coming up with ways to make it part of the Protoss arsenal but not make it overpowered.” Changes which came post-interview to the Protoss include nerfing the Zealot – their base melee unit – from a shield strength of 60 to 50. It's the little things.

This balancing isn't just for the benefit of the high level pros, quibbling over milliseconds and build orders. The revamp to Battle.net inherent in StarCraft II is a core reason for its lengthy delays, but it's offering a wideopen window to new players, one previously held shut by the twin arms of ignorance and fear of the hardcore. With online communities now the norm in games rather than the exception, Chris reckons we'll all take to the competitive side much more: “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 Challenge mode will be reinforced through video tutorials and match replays, Chris says. “Our intention with Star Craft II is to save them 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 understand the importance of modders and mapmakers in extending their games beyond their typical span of influence. “Our hope is that there's going to be entirely new styles of games coming out of StarCraft II. Warcraft III's tower defence maps were a phenomenon, and we want people creating things like that.”

With time pressing before the game needs to be rubberstamped and shipped, Chris outlines how his team is trying to squeeze in as much useful content for those with the knowledge and nous 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 defence maps or (another Warcraft III hero-on-hero RTS) Defence of the Ancients maps.”

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

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

Look, unlockable hats for your command centre! This one is a cannon.

Chris is taking his community seriously – when we checked up with him during the interview, he was up to speed on all recent strategies, namechecking obscure 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 even picking out areas he thinks the community will 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 added a feature suggested loudly by the beta crew – 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.

StarCraft II is described by Blizzard as a 'new game for old players'. The ease with which the very best can slip back into the competitive multiplayer has been proven by their dominance in the upper reaches of the beta tables, but the steps taken to allow, even enforce participation in those who would stare blankly at a Baneling are impressive.

“There's a lot of people who have no idea what it's about,” Chris says, “so we've done a ton of things to enhance it for them, to make it easier and accessible.” Regardless of the enticing singleplayer mode or home-schooling Challenge missions, StarCraft II will be defined by its balance. At this stage in its development, the see-saw – zergling newbies at one end, battlecruiser masters at the other – is nearly stable. A few more additions from Chris and Blizzard will make it rock solid. Let's just hope that one teeny tweak doesn't bring the whole playground crashing down.

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