Starcraft II: beta impressions

Starcraft II will melt your brain sometime in 2010.

It’s been over a decade since Blizzard released Starcraft, which has since been championed as one of the best—if not the best—Real-Time-Strategy Games of all time. Starcraft II is now just months away from its 2010 release, and Blizzard (wanting to make sure that their game is as close to perfect as possible) is pumping out an increasing number of Beta Invites for the multiplayer component of the game. I received my invite three weeks ago.

For those of you who haven’t had a chance to play or see much of the Beta, let me get this out of the way: Blizzard’s done good. Real good. The game is still Starcraft, both in its appearance and design. If you played the original, you’ll be able to jump straight into Starcraft II. The three tightly-balanced races of the original (Terran, Protoss, and Zerg) are all back, and the core mechanics for gathering minerals, building units, and attacking are consistent with the first game. Most of Blizzard’s tinkering seems aimed at streamlining that core experience of the game and adding new military units.

In their reinvention of the game, Blizzard decided to keep a large number of core units from the first title. Marines, Zerglings, and Zealots (the first available military unit for Terran, Zerg, and Protoss, respectively) all make a strong comeback, more or less identical to their last iteration. The highest-tiered units remain largely untouched, too: Battlecruisers, Carriers, and Ultralisks still deal terrible, terrible damage. Rather than altering these fundamental early-and-end-game units , Blizzard seemed to focus most of their attention on revamping every unit in between.

Some of the new kids on the block

Let’s start with Terran players: Firebats, an early ground unit, have been replaced by Marauders and Reapers. Marauders (which look like marines in mechanical fat-suits) are strong ground units, which launch concussive grenades to stagger their enemies. Reapers, on the other hand, offer a fresh approach to early-game offense for Terran players. Their jetpacks allow them to scale cliffs with ease, allowing for quick offensives or retreats, and their mortar-like pistols can deal some serious damage, especially against an unsuspecting group of mineral collectors. However, Reapers are incredibly soft, and it only takes a shot or two before their jetpack explodes, tearing them to shreds in a fiery burst of carnage.

Protoss players might be disappointed to see the Dragoon, a spider-like tank, replaced with the considerably weaker Stalker, which is more like a laser gun with legs than a military vehicle. Still, players can upgrade their ground armour and attack three times (as can the other two races), and Stalkers have a special “Blink” ability, which allows them to warp a short distance, making for devastating advances or game-saving retreats. Making up for this slight nerfing, Blizzard has added the Sentry, a light spell-caster available early game. The sentry can cast Hallucination (which creates “copies” of the unit that can take from enemies), Guardian Shield (a protective bubble that can shield several units), and Force Field (a small, indestructible barrier that can cut off advancing ground units).

Meet the Roach, a new unit for Zerg in Starcraft II.

The Zerg’s new early-game unit, known as a Roach, might be my favorite new unit yet. The roach is something of a cross between a Zergling and a Hydralisk; they can be massed fairly quickly, they have both ranged and melee attacks, and they’re tough little buggers. What makes them fun to play, though, is the use of Burrow (the Zerg ability that allows certain units to hide underground). Roaches regenerate life while burrowed (not incredibly fast, but fast enough to make your opponent tear his heart out if played correctly), and can even move underground with an upgrade. I’ve won several matches by massing Roaches early on, moving them into my opponents base, and playing “Pop-Goes-The-Weasel”… The only difference is that, in my version, if you fail to pop the weasel, the weasel then reduces your army into a smouldering pile of acidic goo.

Pretty lights and colours

I’ve made a couple of colourful references to the animations so far, namely a “fiery burst of carnage,” and a “smouldering pile of acidic goo.” I want to be clear: These are not embellishments in the least. Starcraft II is packing some very detailed animations this time around, which vary based on defending and attacking units. I’ve seen Terran ground units sliced clean in half by a Zealot’s energy sword; Zerg buildings explode in a fountain of blood; and Battlecruisers light their enemies into writhing, shrieking blazes. Beyond gory death animations (sorry, too morbid?), Blizzard has added a slew of other graphical details that really set the game apart from its predecessor. Whether its birds circling above the action, or rain and lightning lashing down on a map, the feel of the game is fresh and contemporary… which is actually pretty astounding, considering the art design is nearly identical to that of the original. Sure, many of the buildings have been redesigned, and the animations are undoubtedly better; but the colour palate and style remain intact.

Starcraft II still feels like Starcraft.

When zoomed in (users can manipulate the camera via the mouse wheel), the game looks strikingly similar to World of Warcraft: The characters are blocky, but well animated. Like World of Warcraft, Starcraft II will be able to run on an array of computer types, including lower-end machines. I’ve played the beta on a friend’s PC (which is no gaming PC by any means), and I can safely report that the game functions just fine. Some higher-level textures and decals are missing, as are many of the awesome death animations (marines simply explode into fireballs on his computer), but the game functions well enough to play online.

Bring your friends

The new Battle.net probably deserves its own preview, but I’ll do what I can here. Blizzard has redesigned their classic game portal from the ground up. Battle.net is set to support more than just online matches of Starcraft II and the upcoming Diablo III—it will be the nexus for the entire community of both games.

The new Battle.net boasts a range of features, from your standard friends lists to match history (of up to 1,000 games) to your achievement collection, etc. etc.. In addition to these features, Battle.net sports what its creators consider one of the most advanced matching systems in the gaming world. I can’t verify that in hard terms, but I have come to the scientific conclusion that Battle.net’s matchmaking kicks ass. One of the most impressive things I’ve found is that, for 2v2 matches, the game ranks me higher or lower depending on who’s on my team. So while my room-mate and I are ranked seventh in the Silver League, I’m ranked third in Platinum league when I play with another friend.

The beta features 1v1, 2v2, and FFA gametypes.

I want it and I want it now!

There’s more to say, but not room to say it. I doubt that Starcraft II will be perfect upon its release, but I don’t doubt that it will come damn close. I read another preview of this game, and the writer suggested that Starcraft II’s beta is more polished than many finished titles these days; while I don’t want to steal his insight, it’s undeniably true.

Starcraft II delivers on everything that made the first such a huge success. The tightly-balanced design, the focus on micro-managing units, the depth and solidity of the lore, all of it comes back full force in Starcraft II. And hell, that’s just speaking for the multiplayer beta.

If you’re getting this game, let me make up your mind for you. Do it. It will, most likely, be everything you’re hoping for in a Starcraft sequel. Plus, word on the streets is that if you pre-order now, you get an automatic beta invite. I could always use a few noobs to tear through on my weekend mornings…

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Written by Robert L.

One comment

  1. Jonesy /

    Zerg! Can’t wait to get my tendrils on this juicy morsel.

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