Starcraft: Ghost Preview


Let me be honest: I was never all that optimistic about Starcraft: Ghost (PS2, Xbox), the upcoming third-person tactical action game set in the world of Blizzard's classic RTS game. Starcraft (PC) and Brood War (PC) really owned my life for a while, as have pretty much all Blizzard titles since Warcraft, but none of the promotional media or information I'd seen or heard regarding Ghost set my gaming loins afire in the lusty way I felt a Blizzard release should. The internal word on the game must have been somewhat mixed as well, because the game was delayed multiple times and also shifted developers, from Nihilistic to Swingin' Ape--responsible for the critically-appreciated Metal Arms: Glitch in the System--among Blizzard press releases proclaiming that the game must meet Blizzard's high standards before it reaches gamers' hands.

After that happened, nobody heard much about the game until this year's E3, when it was shown in redesigned form to be a bit more impressive than previously suggested. It even turned out that Blizzard fully purchased Swingin' Ape, turning the studio into an-house Blizzard team for console development. At Blizzard's recent inaugural BlizzCon event, the game was shown in an even more finished state, with a substantial single-player demo and two playable multiplayer modes.

Starcraft: Ghost Single-Player

Starcraft: Ghost takes place approximately five years after the events of the Starcraft: Brood War expansion pack. Nobody has heard from Kerrigan in years, though the various factions of are aware that if she decided to let loose the might of the Zerg she could easily eradicate all of her opposition. The Zerg have been quiet, however, and there is something of an uneasy peace. The Protoss are rebuilding on the planet Shakuras, and Emperor Arcturus Mengsk is rebuilding his Terran Dominion.

Meanwhile, a young aristocratic woman named Nova, who happens to have been born with psychic powers, has a personal crisis that results in her recruitment into the Terran Ghost Academy, where she is trained to be among the most elite of covert operatives. At around age twenty, about six years younger than ex-Ghost Kerrigan was when she completed her training, Nova graduates at the top of her class. She is placed in the rather coincidentally named espionage unit Nova Squadron under the command of Colonel Jackson Hauler, to whom Nova's strongest loyalties lie.

Mengsk has been covertly acquiring Protoss technology for use in a clandestine experiment called Project Shadow Blade, which serves to amplify human psychic potential in order to create subservient super-soldiers. A rebel group called the Koprulu Liberation Front seeks to put an end to Mengsk's actions and the reign of the Terran Dominion. Nova, who must make choices regarding her allegiance to Hauler, Mengsk, and her race, becomes caught in the middle of a series of conspiracies involving Project Shadow Blade and galactic politics. She must confront what it means to be a soldier and what the duties of a good soldier are.

And there you have it. As best as my scribbled notes are able to inform me, that is what leads up to the events of Starcraft: Ghost. The game itself is a tactical stealth action game. Nova is a highly trained warrior and she seems quite able to take on enemies face to face, but her strength lies in taking out her enemies unseen.

The level we were shown (but sadly not allowed to play) had the player infiltrating a Terran installation on a lava planet. It was laid out in such a way that the base must be entered by crossing a large lava moat with a zipline. I assume that this was done deliberately to show off what the Terran constructions look like from a distant aerial view, which is of course the ones that Starcraft fans are most familiar with. I realized that I had never really thought about what those buildings looked like from the inside, and the way Blizzard presented that opening of the scene worked out very well.

Upon hitting the ground after a long fall, such as after releasing the zipline, Nova can execute a "silent land," meaning as she hits the ground she'll smoothly drop down to something of a kneeling position to absorb the impact, but what makes it good is how well crafted the animation is. It's a nice touch, and it produced a little ripple of "ooh"s throughout the audience.

It's tough to really give a good description of how the game feels to play, because I didn't play it, and in all honesty the guy who was playing it didn't seem too concerned with keeping to the shadows and remaining undetected. You do have all stealthy options at your disposal, however. When sneaking up behind an enemy, Nova can kick out his knees and snap his neck in one fluid motion, for example. She is also able to search bodies (which is actually animated) and hide them, of course, as well as set various booby traps. She can walk on thin rails as well as scale vertical surfaces by jumping back and forth between narrow walls. In what seems like it might be an homage to Metal Gear Solid, the personnel icons displayed on Nova's voice communicator are very much in the style of that game's.

In addition to her standard issue sniper rifle and pistol, Nova is able to pick up any weaponry she finds on the ground or acquires from an enemy--well, anything usable by a humanoid, anyway. Her equipment also includes her cloaking device, which consumes energy that must be replenished with energy canisters, a Predator-like vision mode that detects heat, and the Ghost's lockdown device that disables mechanical or electronic devices. It seems almost mandatory these days to have some kind of time-slowing gameplay device, and Ghost is no exception. It represents Nova's enhanced reflexes and years of martial training, and there's not much to say about it that you can't already infer.

Blizzard claims to have put a lot of work into the game's AI, which is something that does seem rather important considering the game frequently pits a bunch of average soldiers against an invisible psychic heavily armed killing machine. For example, once enemy troops are aware of your existence, they will try to flush you out by spraying the air with bullets in the hopes of hitting your cloaked self, or they might send out teams equipped with scanning devices to pick up invisible targets. In terms of more general tactics, they'll try to flank you or lure you into traps, and will call upon reinforcements.

At the end of the demo level, there was actually something of a boss fight, which was surprising. What was even more surprising is that the "boss" was a simple Terran marine. To a Starcraft player, a marine is basically a worthless grunt, useful only in numbers or against workers. On a real-world scale, however, a Terran marine is an enormous, ridiculously armored walking tank that outweighs a Ghost by a factor of about a billion. It was actually somewhat thrilling to watch the slow moving but very destructive marine smash around trying to take down the much nimbler Nova. Unable to meaningfully pierce the marine's armor with any of the available guns, the guy demoing the game shot open the marine's face shield and threw a grenade inside. Extreme.

That's about all there is to say about single-player at this point. Turn the page for the main attraction of this particular preview.


Starcraft: Ghost Multiplayer

Blizzard's big bombshell about the game's multiplayer component is that players would not only be able to play as the Terrans but also as the Zerg or the Protoss. Unfortunately, the Protoss were not playable at the event, but the Zerg were and they presented some interesting gameplay opportunities in an action game setting. There were two modes on display: Mobile Conflict and Invasion. Invasion has two teams, red and blue, with each attempting to capture a series of nodes and finally the opponent's base. It works somewhat like similar modes found in other team-based multiplayer games; players must hold a node for a certain amount of time to capture it, and cannot capture nodes unless their team already controls the adjacent one. Mobile Conflict is sort of an insane version of Capture the Flag. Each team starts out at its own base and attempts to gain control of a floating Terran factory hovering above the middle of the map; the factory must them be piloted back to one team's base, where it will start earning points for that team.

Each side has four classes available. Starcraft players should be familiar with all of them except the newly-added Infantry unit. Terran players choose among those Infantry, lightly armored mechanics who can build powerful turret guns and pilot vehicles; Marines, heavily armored soldiers with grenades and medium-range firepower; Firebats, heavily armored troops with short-range flamethrowers and two kinds of guided rockets; and, of course, Ghosts, lightly armored stealth troops equipped with a sniper rifle and a cloaking device who can pilot vehicles, steal vehicles, and Lockdown (disable) enemy machinery. The Firebats' two rocket launchers deserve special mention for being a lot of fun to use. One is laser-guided, and it operates basically like the rocket launcher in a Half-Life game: after firing the projectile, the targeting reticule is used to remotely direct it. The other is remote-guided, and after it is fired the camera switches to a first-person view from the rocket's perspective, where it is player-controlled until it explodes. Blizzard had a video on display of somebody guiding the rocket around incredibly tight corners through a labyrinthine base, eventually resulting in a fatal explosion in the face of a camping guard. Impressive stuff, but I sure couldn't pull it off.

On the Zerg end of things, the units are much more geared to close combat, which is interesting for a game of this type. Most of the Zerg units also regenerate health over time, which helps make up for their comparitive lack of abilities against the Terrans. We've got Zerglings, small, lightly armored, fast units with the ability to burrow underground and no ranged attack; Hydralisks, large medium armored units with a damage-over-time ranged attack, powerful close combat abilities, and the ability to burrow; Infested Marines, Zergified Terrans with a medium range damage-over-time rifle and a suicide explosion ability; and, most surprisingly, Mutalisks, flying units with a ranged attack and the ability to snatch enemies off the ground and absorb their health.

At first glance, it seems that the classes basically scale up linearly in desirability, but after a few rounds it becomes clear that this is not the case. It greatly depends on the mission being fought and more specifically on the specific situation your team is trying to deal with at any given moment. In addition, certain missions require the player to start with the "lowest-tier" unit type and move up after racking up a certain number of points. Terran players must die and respawn in order to change class, whereas Zerg players can do it on the fly due to their mutation abilities.

The Invasion match took place in a sealed-off valley, with what looks like an ancient temple in the middle of the field. The demo event pitted Terran against Zerg, and players were required to start as either an Infantry unit or a Zergling. I played games as both sides, and it was a lot of fun both ways. Blizzard claims to have tried as much as possible to make the game feel true to its Starcraft roots, and in a node-based game like Invasion, that larger scale war-like feeling did come through. Both sides by necessity had to attack in coordinated groups, since nodes must be captured sequentially, and the feeling of participating in a wave of swarming Zerglings overcoming a Terran waypoint is probably exactly what Blizzard and Swingin' Ape were going for. The Hydralisks are appropriately huge, dwarfing the bulky Marines, and the Mutalisk, while a bit difficult to control, is pretty rewarding for those moments when you actually manage to grab some unsuspecting enemy.

By killing enemy units and capturing nodes, players earn more points with which to purchase the different unit types. However, the stationary guns constructed by Terran Infantry are so effective against the lightly armored Zerg, especially in the early part of the game when most of the Zerg units are Zerglings, that many players will opt to simply stick with them for a while. The mode is a lot of fun but it does currently seem to be suffering from balance issues, a sentiment shared by other showgoers with whom I spoke. Playing as the Terrans often felt a bit too easy at times, with the aforementioned turret guns as well as the Firebats' incredibly destructive dual flamethrowers, which can torch more than a few Zerglings at a time. With such disparate play styles between the factions, balance is bound to be an issue, but it's also something Blizzard is traditionally known for, so I'm fairly confident they'll be able to hammer out those kinks before release.

Turn the page to hear about the Mobile Conflict scenario.


The Mobile Conflict was a little less straightforward. This scenario had Terrans on each side, with the ability to choose any of the four units right off the bat. It contained four different vehicles as well, two of which will be familiar to Starcraft fans. First off is the Stinger, a small rugged jeep bearing a lot of similarity to Halo's Warthog, barring the Stinger's six wheels. It has a turret-mounted chaingun that can be operated by a separate gunner. The Vulture is a lightly armored hoverbike equipped with a grenade launcher. The Siege Tank is, of course, a large tank. It sports dual plasma cannon and, in a nice touch, the siege mode featured in Starcraft. Going into siege mode, which looks exactly like it should, gives the player a semi-transparent trajectory overlay that shows where the large mortar shell will land. The splash damage is, of course, huge. Finally, there's the Grizzly, a heavily armed gunship able to transport several units. The Grizzly has an impressive array of weaponry: the pilot operates a light gun, and separate gunners man a missile turret, two flak cannon, and concussion bombs.

The Grizzly features heavily in the Mobile Conflict scenario we played, since it is used to initially access the floating factory in the middle of the map. After one side has boarded the factory and reached its control room, a player can take control of the structure and pilot it back to the base. When I first managed to do this, I was pretty surprised. I expected it to be on a preset path or something, but no. You actually navigate the factory through a valley and dock it at your base. While this is happening, you can't see what's going in on the control room, since the camera is outside the factory. If the other team manages to get inside, you'll make an easy target, so your team must be standing guard as you pilot the building around. The control room is a hotly contested area that makes for some fun matchups. Infantry can set up turret guns and stationary Ghost-detectors, in case any of them try to sneak in undetected with their cloaking ability. To really pull off a clean factory capture, your team has to be well coordinated enough to hold onto this small room while the structure (whose slow speed is all the more painful under moments of duress) makes its way across the map. As long as the factory is docked, the controlling team gains seconds on a timer. The first team to reach a given total time wins.

All in all, the game was a pleasant surprise. This particular sort of team-based multiplayer isn't abundant on consoles, and with the very different races and multiple classes for each, there's a lot of promise. The team has done an excellent job recreating the Starcraft world on a more personal scale. The Zerg feel very much like how they should feel, with the single goal of rushing into the enemy and generally destroying things, while the Terran have that versatile feeling they're known for in Starcraft, with a variety of units and types of equipment. Though the Protoss were not playable, what was shown of their models was very attractive, and seeing a huge Protoss Nexus on a battlefield was pretty appealing. In fact, when developers zoomed out far enough, the game basically looked like a 3D version of Starcraft, and it made me pine for a true sequel. The artists apparently spent a good deal of time carefully inspecting the CGI movies from the Starcraft games in order to figure out where and how to add detail to the models in a way that's convincing when their scale is so drastically increased.

In terms of the visuals from a technological standpoint, they're coming quite nicely as well. Blizzard apparently developed a separate engine for each version of the game, rather than using a cross-platform solution, in an attempt to squeeze as much performance as possible out of what is becoming aging hardware. To this end, it is unlikely that the team will be implementing any high-definition support, as they need as much power as possible dedicated to the multitude of pixel shaders being used, but they did promise widescreen and progressive scan support.

The multiplayer game will be playable online, either through Xbox Live or through Blizzard's Battle.Net service for the PS2 version. The GameCube version of the game is no longer in development; the team explained that now that Ghost has such a strong multiplayer component as well as its original single-player focus, a lack of widespread online support for the Cube was the primary factor in canceling that version. The game features no AI bots, but all versions of the game will have split screen multiplayer. As for the company's PC releases, Blizzard plans to run ladder games and an online ranking system.

Despite all the good bits, there are a few things that definitely need some polish. There's the balance issue, which as mentioned seems to frequently put the Zerg at a bit of a disadvantage. Somewhat more frustratingly, the game simply feels stiff. For one thing, it's all from a third-person perspective whereas the fast and frantic action going on seems to lend itself more towards a first-person setting. On top of that, aiming is very difficult. Even when zooming in with the Ghost's sniper rifle (which puts the view in first-person mode) and trying various sensitivity settings, it was very difficult to track a target, despite my ability to do so in other console action games. The good news is that Blizzard heard this feedback quite a bit over the course of the convention, and the game's designer pledged to put a heavy focus on improving the game's feel. He also mentioned that the team is considering implementing an optional first-person mode for multiplayer, which to me would be a great improvement. It probably won't affect the Zerglings or Hydralisks, since their close combat focus is better suited to the wide peripheral vision of a third person perspective, or the Mutalisks, whose aerial movement demands an overall view, but for the Terran units and the Infected Marines, all of whom spend a great deal of time shooting at things, the game would benefit substantially from such a modification.

So, again, I was much happier with Ghost than I expected to be. The game definitely has some issues to take care of, but those are things that should be solvable given that the game still has a few months left. What is most promising is that the game's underlying design seems solid. What was shown of the single-player looked good, though it wasn't playable, and the multiplayer combines proven team-based gameplay with a great interpretation of the Starcraft universe in a way that seems like it should support a good online community for a while while we hope and pray for Starcraft 2.

Starcraft: Ghost, developed by the internal Blizzard team previously known as Swingin' Ape, is set for release on PS2 and Xbox some time in the first half of 2006.

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