Hands-on: StarCraft II

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On my last visit to Blizzard's office, I played the first seven missions of the StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty campaign. Each had a unique gimmick, such as rising and falling lava or nocturnal Zerg-infested zombies, that made them remarkable experiences. This time I've returned to play the next three – including a Protoss side-mission – plus a couple of Blizzard's new challenge modes.

In mission eight, a prototype nextgeneration Ghost named Gabriel Tosh offers to help Raynor in the fight against the Dominion – but first, Raynor has to help him score some Terrazine gas from the Protoss world of Bel'Shir. Starting from a small base, I had to venture out with Marines, Marauders, Goliaths and Diamondback Tanks (a long-range laser hovertank exclusive to singleplayer) and retrieve seven canisters of Terrazine from 11 geysers scattered around the terrain. Protoss fanatics who believe Terrazine to be a gift from their gods expressed their dissatisfaction with my plans, and dispatched drones to seal off the geysers.

My first excursion ended badly. I was overconfident. After picking up the first four canisters with only light resistance, I sent SCVs to gather four batches of Terrazine at once (against the mission's explicit advice). At least three would make it back to base, right? Unfortunately, this triggered a massive counter-attack of Zealots, Stalkers and Scouts that destroyed the SCVs and smashed through my base defences. Oops. The second time, I spent a little more time building up my forces and hired War Pig mercenaries (beefed-up Marines with unique models) before making my grab for the Terrazine. I demolished a couple of Protoss bases while I was at it, just out of spite.

In mission nine, acting on intel from Tychus Finley, Raynor's troops land on planet Xil with a small force of Marines and Marauders in search of an ancient artefact. My troops immediately met with extremist Protoss resistance and were reinforced with Siege Tanks to crack the enemy Photon Cannon defences. I assumed control of a substantial base left behind by a previous expedition, plus a massive laser drill structure, which immediately began chewing through the layered doors of an ancient vault.

I just had to hold out against the Protoss attacks until the laser punctured the doors, which looked easy until blips appeared on my radar, indicating heavy units like Archons and Colossus walkers. Turning the laser drill away from the vault, I retargeted it on the Protoss heavy hitters, popping them like soap bubbles. I was spared the wrath of the Protoss, but the more I diverted the drill's firepower for offensive purposes, the longer it would take to complete its main task.

This was the stand-out mission of the new batch – even though there have been two other defence missions, the laser drill was a smart and unique new challenge.

As promised, Blizzard is delivering a handful of Protoss missions as well. In mission ten, where Raynor experiences a 'flashback' to Protoss leader Zeratul's search for clues to the return of the ancient Xal'Naga, I controlled Zeratul as he sneaked his way through Zerg-infested territory. I had to make extensive use of Zeratul's teleportation and stasis powers to evade and disable Zerg stealth detectors like Overseers and Spore Crawlers, in conjunction with a squad of Stalkers that could knock down flying units. It ended with Zeratul fleeing just ahead of a huge swarm of Zerg as many brave Protoss sacrificed themselves to buy him the time to escape.

[MPU]I tried my hand at two of the nine challenge modes that Blizzard hopes will teach players to compete in the harsh arena of multiplayer combat. StarCraft veterans will skip right by them, but new players will find them essential learning aids. They won't make you a great player, but they'll give you the tools to succeed.

In Psi Assault I was given control of a Protoss force of six High Templars and nine Sentries – both spellcasting units with little or no direct attacks – and told to hold out against as many attacking waves as possible. If you're looking to learn how to micromanage your spellcasters, this is a great way to hone that skill.

Another crucial skill is knowing how to cast abilities, such as the Stalker's Blink teleport, with your eyes closed, and Harbinger of Death is designed to teach you just that. I controlled a large Protoss force attempting to exterminate as many Zerg as possible in a short time limit. The catch: the clickable buttons on the UI are disabled, forcing you to use keyboard commands for all unit abilities. As a closet UI-clicker, it took me a few attempts to get a respectable score, but in the end I returned home to await the release of the full game with my head held high.