StarCraft II preview: The final push

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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.

“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 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?

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.”