Starcraft 2 - Wings Of Liberty
In 1998, Starcraft told the story of three races in conflict, and it went a little something like this... The Terrans - human colonists - are torn apart by civil war and find themselves stuck in the middle of a war between the Protoss and the Zerg. The Protoss and the Zerg are enhanced alien races given an evolutionary leg-up by a meddling superrace called the Xel'Naga. The Protoss gained psionic powers that singularly failed to stop them from waging civil war, while the Zerg were given advanced parasitic powers, turning them into a hive-like plague, wiping out or infesting everything in their path.
It was the combat between these three very different races that was the basis of StarCraft, and it was the fine balance between their very different modes of combat that made it so breathtakingly unique. StarCraft had an elaborately constructed universe, finely tuned combat and a cracking story. It was, without crawling too far up Blizzard's arse, the greatest RTS of its time, and if you can suffer the dated graphics, it's still among the best.
By revealing the game in Seoul, Korea, the master tacticians at Blizzard chose the friendliest ground possible for their announcement. That said, it was interesting to note the tone of the crowd, after the initial hooting and cheering died down. Occasionally a suspicious or aggressive question would emerge, made more blankly hostile by the translation. In short, I witnessed the birth of a nerd-fury.
You see, Korean gamers love StarCraft - it's part of their regular TV scheduling for god's sake - and they've had nearly ten years to imagine how they'd change it if they were king. Now the sequel is real, this nascent reality is fighting against a decade of fantasy. The atmosphere at the event was equal parts excitement, nervousness and resentment - it was like The Phantom Menace all over again.
So, let's ask the questions the Koreans are asking, because their demands are going to have a huge impact on what Blizzard end up providing. Will the adherence to Korean expectations stifle the innovation - the 'big new feature' that we fickle Westerners demand? Will Korean gamers reject the sequel as a reinvention of chess, or will it eventually displace the original game, and cause the gaming TV channels to suddenly look like they're in the right decade?
This came up again and again; the Koreans definitely want another race. There was much speculation about the Protoss/Zerg hybrid race mentioned in the first game, but no - playable races will remain limited to the Protoss, Zerg and Terrans. The emphasis will instead be on making the three races even more distinct, to make each set of tactics more varied.
How about radical changes to the gameplay then? Again, no. There's still no naval combat. There's still the simple 'minerals and gas' resource management, and the 50/50 division between resources and combat. Blizzard are going out of their way to distance themselves from the 'big new feature' kind of showmanship, instead focusing on developing the features that made the first game so strong.
That said, small tweaks with larger ramifications abound. There's no longer a limit on the amount of selectable items, for example, and the fog of war applies to higher ground - but it's still identifiably and defiantly StarCraft.
Take a deep breath. Aware of the tactical and visual chaos that ensues from simply slinging more and more stuff at a game, StarCraft ZZ is being kept lean. For every new unit, an old unit must bow out. The victims of this cull will be determined by whether or not they're part of the 'essence' of StarCraft. So, Zealots, Siege Tanks and Zerglings are safe, and given new powers. Many other units, however, will face forced redundancy. Lead designer Dustin Browder took us through the demo video, which showcased the new Protoss fleet. Here's a quick summary... First you've got the Protoss Immortals - slow-moving heavy assault units, with a shield that activates automatically when under heavy fire. In combating them, you'll want to use units with lower firepower, as they won't activate the shield.
The high ground is even more important now, because the fog of war is 3D too; gaining a hilltop vantage will allow you to attack your enemy unseen. The Protoss Stalkers are mean-looking harassment units, and have the ability to 'blink' - teleport to you and me -anywhere in visual range. Send a probe up that hill and you've got yourself blinking access, plus some great purchase to rain down invisible hell on your opponent.
Blinking is a great example of a basic move that offers more devastating possibilities the better you are at the game. You or I might use blink to run away from an infestation of Zerglings, or to run away when we realise we're hopelessly outclassed. However, Blizzard anticipate that pro gamers will use the ability to pick off enemy units that would easily win if left to fight without intervention. Seeing the tide of combat changed by this ability was one of the things that made the crowd gasp most audibly.
The fact that skill and timing beats straight statistical advantage is a running theme. The new Phoenix ship -a fast, flying Protoss unit - has the capacity to Overload. This is a powerful attack, discharging the Phoenix's energy in an explosive burst - but it's balanced by the need to sit down, recharge and have a think about what it's done. Used with skill, the Phoenix can wipe out entire ranks; used at the wrong time, Overload will leave you prone, stupid and dead. The new Protoss Colossus - a spiderlike unit that houses its control centre atop four spear-like legs, seems more than equipped to deal with your everyday Zerg Rush, using a beam ray pointed at the floor. Preoccupied with ground threats, the Colossus is hugely vulnerable to air attack.
You get the idea - it's a game of counters, as is every RTS out there. Blizzard's point is that you get good by learning the counters - you get great by developing your reflexes and making eight decisions at once.
The Protoss also have access to Phase Prisms - mobile shields that can float around and protect areas as you see fit. When you combine this with the ability to 'warp in' your units, you can more or less create a Protoss army anywhere in the field. Obviously, get too gung-ho and you'll leave yourself wide open to attack. As for the Mothership, this is the most expensive and powerful Protoss unit with a Planet Cracker attack to destroy ground troops, a Black Hole to draw in air units and Time Bomb to slow down all enemies in the area. This includes the cool ability to stop missiles, and it's a nice way to show off the Havok physics engine when the missiles drop harmlessly to the floor when the field wears off.
Another concern among our Korean pals was that, with the move to 3D, StarCraft II would be too much like Warcraft III, but such worries were soon dismissed. Warcraft III was a deliberate attempt to distinguish the two RTS franchises - it had a slower pace, fewer units, less focus on game economics, several skills per unit and a focus on RPG heroes. StarCraft II, meanwhile, is a sequel to StarCraft in every way. Massive armies (think huge Zerg swarms), fast action, a strong emphasis on resource management and definitely no heroes. If you're looking for direct first-person unit control like Rise & Fall, or innovative display options like Supreme Commander, then take your ass to the back of the queue.
This might not be an issue of direct interest to the UK, because the limit of our TV gaming coverage has traditionally been someone on QVC playing a PSP, screwing up their face and saying: "Well I don't get it, but apparently it's all the rage with the nippers." But it's all-important to the Korean pro gaming circuit, and we'll definitely feel the impact of this.
For a start, the graphics will be clean. Particle effects won't be used for the sake of it, as all they do is obscure the action, and beam weapons won't be overdone for the same reason. It's not only the players who have to be able to see what's going on, it's a stadium full of oohing and ashing fans. Expect distinct, sharply animated units and vast, swarming battles - just don't expect daft amounts of bloom, massive beam weapons and smoke all over the place.
How About The Plot?
This is another tight-lipped, no-go area. The initial announcement was Blizzard vice president Chris Metzen's unsatisfying assertion that "everyone who survived will have their stories told. As more people nagged about the fourth race, this was extended to a promise that the Zerg/Protoss hybrid would be dealt with. In a meeting the next day, the only other scraps of plot information were that the game is set four years after the events of the previous game, and that people have been "having adventures in the meantime. In other words, we were like dogs sniffing at the bottom of the bedroom door.
Are You Excited?
There's no doubt that there's a tactical genius at work in the heart of Blizzard. And with all the money, talent and perfectionism at work in the company, there's almost no doubt StarCraft II will be a sublimely balanced strategy game in an expertly crafted universe with a staggeringly engaging plot. That's just what we know Blizzard will give us. But will it be enough to supplant Korea's national pastime? And more relevantly, will the expectations of another country mean we get something not to our tastes? Like I said though, Blizzard are master tacticians; so you can start getting excited right about... Now.
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On its release, StarCraft blew through the RTS genre like cyclone, generating a fanatical fan base that still thrives to this very day, especially in South Korea.
The game's allure stemmed from the diversity of its three factions, each of which required a radically different approach to the enemy. Now, a decade on, these three warring races - the technologically advanced, cybernetically enhanced Protoss; the determined, conventional Terrans (humans); and the insectoid warrior Zerg - are set to clash once again in a battle for supremacy.
Journey with me now to a room rammed with networked machines and games journos at Blizzard's LA offices. Next to me sits a representative from a German StarCraft fan site, who sobs gently as he strokes the hairy hide of a 3D Ultralisk (a massive Zerg unit), a decade-long wet dream a reality.
For the next two days we've been given unrestricted access to the latest multiplayer build of StarCraft II. With Blizzard having already revealed the revamped Terran and Protoss races, we've been invited here for a world-exclusive reveal of the game's final race, the Zerg.
"StarCraft II is the best strategy game we've ever made," proclaims lead designer Dustin Bvowder as we twitch expectantly, waiting to be unleashed on the first multiplayer session of the day. "It's the most fun. It encourages you to think creatively, to try and be clever. We want to build on the philosophies of the original, to provide ease of use for now players and a big enough challenge for hardcore players. StarCraft has its own style, which is fast-paced RTS. StarCraft II is meant to bring that niche to the current generation."
As my German companion dives into a six-player free-for-all, buck teeth gnashing excitably, I rise from my seat to corner lead producer Chris Sigaty in an attempt to understand why we've waited a decade for the resurrection of this revered game.
"It was really a case of right place, right time," he explains. "Once the Warcraft 3 products were finished, we talked about what to do next. Technology was in the right place for ns to be able to put loads of units on screen, which is what we wanted if we ever made another StarCraft game. Timing was a factor though. We've had a lot of big titles in development that have required lots of resources, and it's lx?en impossible to start working on another huge project until now."
Curiosity satisfied it's time for me to join the killing fields. Opting for the newly revealed and revamped Zerg, 1 enter the fray. Familiarity smacks me across the chops like a berserk, bucking fish. Drones are sent to collect Vespene gas and minerals (the game's resources), buildings are constructed and units assembled. Every click is key as I rush to build a force capable of striking at the enemy before they can threaten my holdings.
This is StarCraft just how I remember it: attack biased, packed with early rushes as each player seeks an early advantage. I lose myself in a mass of clicks and orders, never pausing, acting on instinct alone, ignoring the ingrained RTS urge to build defences as I force myself to concentrate solely on amassing a force built for the single purpose of destruction.
Minutes later I've churned out an army from countless Hatcheries (the Zerg's main construction building) - dozens, scores, myriads of units. I march them across the map in search of my enemies, only to wade headlong into an opponent's equally sizeable attack force. Unabated slaughter ensues, the screen a mass of scrapping aliens. But as the carnage unfolds, a second enemy storms my unguarded base and suddenly it's game over. Eight minutes, 17 seconds. That's StarCraft 2 multiplayer in a nutshell.
Keen to discover more about the Zerg's evolution since the original, I corner Browder and spit out a torrent of questions.
"The Zerg are a hyper-evolved organic race," he explains as I fire up a new game. "They're entirely biological and use their own bodies to attack enemies. They can burrow and hide, then ambush their foes. They're also fast builders and can rapidly move across the battlefield."
Zerg units mutate from larvae spawned at a Hatchery. Every 20 seconds a new larva is born. However, with no limit imposed on the number of Hatcheries you can construct, the Zerg can churn out a frightening number of units in seconds. "This mechanic makes the Zerg play uniquely," continues Browder. "They're much less predictable and more adaptable than the other two races."
While the Zerg's lightning-fast unit generation makes them a formidable fighting force, it's the faction's infestation units that truly set them apart from the Terrans and Protoss. The Corruptor is a squid-like air-to-air unit that turns enemy craft against their masters, while the Infestor brings your opponent's buildings under your control for a limited period of time. Acting on Browder's advice, I spawn a legion of Corruptors and Infestors, then storm a nearby Terran base. What begins as an equally matched slugfest soon degenerates into a massacre as my Corruptors turn the fleet to my whims, while the infested barracks spew out marines loyal to my cause. Within seconds, a once well-defended stronghold is nothing more than a pile of rubble. Mwahaha!
With victory mine, Browder tells me that resources and observation posts (relics scattered throughout each map that push back the fog of war when captured) can also be infested with a unit called the Overlord. "The Overlord has two abilities," he begins. "One is an infestation ability that targets observation towers and crystals so that enemies can't use them until the infestations are destroyed. The other ability allows the Overlord to generate Creep, a terraforming ability that prevents your opponents from building on or using infested areas of the map."
Perhaps the most notable change in how the Zerg play is the revised role played by the Queen, a giant, scuttling killer that looks like a distant cousin to the mother from Aliens. "We've evolved the Queen into the ultimate base defender," explains Dustin. "As your base technology evolves, you can evolve your Queen. She gets bigger and more powerful, and can even bring your buildings to life to defend your base. She can also heal a building instantly for several hundred hit points and quickly tunnel around areas infested with Creep."
The Queen has now become one of the game's most impressive units, a truly formidable warrior capable of tearing through enemy ranks as though they're made of wet toilet paper. She can also lay eggs throughout your base, which then hatch into kamikaze base defenders whenever a foe approaches.
If the Zerg had one weakness in the original game it was their lack of a tough, scrapper unit, a shortfall that Blizzard is keen to rectify here with a ground-attack arachnid warrior called the Roach. Spotting some seriously rapid regeneration abilities that make the Hulk look like a slow healer, a massed pack of high-level Roaches can cut through a sizeable enemy force and come out virtually unscathed.
As well as the newcomers, the Zerg also welcome back a number of familiar units, including the Linker, Hydralisk, Mutalisk and pesky Zerglings that remain the perfect weapon for quick strike attacks on undefended enemy bases.
Also making a return are the towering mammoth-like Ultralisks, which inflict devastating amounts of area damage with their massive tusks. They also have the ability to burrow, enabling them to pop up from below the ground and launch surprise attacks against passing packs of enemies.
With Browder called away to answer questions at another table and my German companion now hooked up to an oxygen tank to help control his excitement at the new wing configuration of a Terran aerial unit, I dive into a succession of multiplayer games, each as unrelenting as the next But with each game ending in either a dominant win or a crushing defeat, a gnawing doubt begins to scrape its molars down the back of my brain.
If the original StarCrafts multiplayer games had one shortfall, it was the sense that there was a set formula for victory; an optimum order in which to construct buildings and units that simply couldn't be countered if built quickly enough. With StarCraft 2s multiplayer games seeming to head down a similar route, I asked Sigaty about this design choice.
"StarCraft 2 is a fast game, a mean game, it's all about attack," he explained. "We tried to add in tougher base defences, but it stopped people rushing. They just hid behind their base and no one attacked for a very long time. Whenever the game defences get too strong the game suffers.
"If you're not as good as someone else you're going to lose, just like in any other sport. If you try to hit a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher, you won't have a good time and in the same way if you play a professional StarCraft player you will get trounced."
With much balancing still ahead, and with the implementation of a collection of player aides that could help level the playing field for newcomers (check out the Learn Don't Burn boxout for more) it's more than possible that my niggling concerns will become moot by the time the game ships. Here's hoping.
While the reveal of the Zerg may be the main focus of this event, I haven't travelled all this way to ignore the game's other two races either, by the way.
Hie Terrans are the game's most instantly recognisable faction, sporting a collection of marines, tanks, buggies and cruisers that are spewed forth from barracks and weapons factories. Perhaps the least modified of the three races, the Terrans also possess some of the game's most visually impressive units, including the lumbering Thor attack walker and nuclear strikes that can be called in by covert ops units.
Better still, Terran buildings can be flown to new locations, though they are highly vulnerable while trundling to their new destination. A well-balanced faction with the game's best defence capabilities, the Terrans are shaping up to be the ideal entry point for any StarCraft beginner. Conversely, the Protoss have undergone some major changes - most notably their ability to warp in new units anywhere where there's a power pylon (including within enemy bases if you manage to construct one there) and their array of powerful aerial units.
The Protoss also possess the game's only super unit, the Mothership. Vulnerable if sent into battle alone, but devastating when backed up by a fleet, this humongous cruiser can suck enemy units into a vortex of destruction and wipe out an entire army with a single attack. Other Protoss highlights include powerful cloaked killers called Templars, a shielded three-legged walker with a powerful death ray called the Colossus and a massive battleship that sends out myriad fighters to pepper enemy units.
Gunning For Glory
As the two-day playtest comes to an end, I reflect on just how rare it is to be given so much hands-on time with a game at this stage of its development. It's testament to Blizzard's confidence in its product that we've been given such unfettered access to it. Still at pre-alpha stage, StarCraft II not only has the makings of another classic Blizzard RTS, it's already more stable than many finished games, with bugs virtually nonexistent.
With an open-ended single-player game also in the offing (head to the Choose Your Own Conquest panel for more info), and with the already sublime collection of factions being built upon with impressive imagination, StarCraft could be about to mount a triumphant return a decade after it first took the RTS genre by storm.
Perhaps you've never played the original, but if Blizzard continues along its current development path, then I'm willing to wager you'll be playing the sequel when it finally hits the shelves.
As for when that will Im?. Well, when it's done of course. After all, this is Blizzard we're talking about..