StarCraft 2 Hands-On Impressions

The first thing that comes to mind when playing StarCraft II is that this game is StarCraft, literally and figuratively. It's almost easier to talk about what hasn't changed, because that encompasses the vast majority of what is on display here at BlizzCon, though I don't mean to be derogatory. Why fix something that wasn't broken?

Minerals and gas are still the resources of choice. Training queues are still restricted to five units. Even many of the new units seem to be mere iterations of the old, with the temporary voices borrowed from the original game clearly indicating their evolution. Other units have been converted into two specialized versions. The Wraith fighter's role has been replaced with the air-to-air Predator and the air-to-ground Banshee, the latter launching a hail of small missiles at its targets. With so many of these alternative choices, I didn't miss any of the original units for a second. This is StarCraft, but better--a refinement of a near-perfect formula.

Logging on to a simple beta menu, I elected to give the fresh Terran forces a spin first, starting up the generic single player map. Beginning with a short, basic storyline told via subtitles, I was placed in command of a smallish base, already bustling with SCVs and guarded by marines. Setting my workers to their tasks, I examined the building options. Almost every applicable option from the original is back, with the same Factory add-ons and weapon/armor upgrades as before. Missile turrets, bunkers, armories and barracks--we've seen these all before, and they all look and feel the same. In fact, I had to seriously examine each building one by one to notice significant additions or changes--of which, it turns out, there are several.

One of these changes is the ability for supply depots to convert into a low-profile mode, with a bay door opening up and lowering the building into the ground. This allows units to pass by without and reduces base clutter--although I did notice, particularly with the Protoss, that units can still become stuck behind minerals and structures. In an opposite function, Terran air-producing Starports can now be upgraded to a Star Base, which hovers in the air like a floating aircraft carrier, churning out units as it safely glides away from danger. The Command Center has a similar upgrade. For a scant 150 minerals and gas it can be transformed into a Planetary Fortress, which upgrades its armor and outfits it with a defensive turret.

Perhaps the presiding theme of StarCraft II is transformation. In fact, the new Viking unit seems like a creation directly inspired by the recent Michael Bay movie. In one swift move, it smoothly transforms from a hulking mech unit to an airborne fighter. As is the case with the rest of the units, this animation is perfectly realized. Siege Tanks have never been more satisfying to employ.

Some new UI changes have taken place to increase overall efficiency. Small, unobtrusive health and energy bars reside over the heads of soldiers and starships alike. As an unlimited amount of units can now be selected, the UI automatically adds a second tabbed page to accommodate the selection display of each unit's health. Also included is a new waypoint pathing line, which clearly shows the direction that each unit will take after a waypoint or rallying position is issued. Finally, the new building grid is a vast improvement over the original title's guess-work, allowing the player to quickly determine exactly how much space is left to build that extra bunker.

As it turned out, I could have used more bunkers. After dying a quick death while immobilized by note-taking, I switched over to the Protoss race, this time trying my hardest to obliterate the enemy in the allotted 20 minutes. Setting up a perimeter of Phase Cannons--the new mobile version of Photon Cannons--I established a forward base and began harvesting extra resources to fund a Mothership. The Motherships are relatively easy to obtain, requiring only around 500 minerals and a similar amount of gas at present. The presumable reason for this is that they are quite vulnerable to attacks, and their weapons--though powerful--are more in the realm of utility than I expected. The Planet Cracker ion cannon, which carves a swath of destruction in its path, does not instantly obliterate buildings as you might expect--it's more for zapping a gathering of Zerglings. As far as I can tell, with the time-slowing and unit-cloaking abilities, it's one more Templar-esque unit to exploit at varying times during a mixed-unit battle.

Though the Carriers were initially reported to have been replaced by the similar Tempest, this unit is still labeled as the Carrier, and still uses 8 interceptors, which must be built in the familiar five-then-three order. Any two Templar can be combined into an Archon, and the Templar-producing buildings have been renamed to simplified normal and dark versions. Other than that, the Protoss buildings are nearly identical to StarCraft's, in both name and appearance. Time running out, I didn't get to play around with the new unit-warping ability. It was now or never.

Sending forth an army consisting of a Mothership, a pair of Carriers, several Zealots and a handful of Dark Templar, I was confident in my victory. After the initial fire fight, the Terran defenses were completely deflated. Interceptors flying in their classic swarm, Dark Templars cutting down marines by the dozen, I was moving in for the final blow--until the screen suddenly winked out. Groans issued forth from disappointed journalists, echoing from the end of an entire bank of computers. Blizzard technical support moved in like a biological response team, shouting orders into walkie-talkies and apologizing for the delay. "You can come back all day," they said, as if I hadn't already planned on it. I haven't even gotten to play multiplayer yet.