StarCraft 2 Multiplayer Preview

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Blizzard's famed strategy franchise is back, but is it better than ever, or just different?

As dozens of rifle-wielding marines took up positions along a rocky path, and siege tanks clamped spider-like legs deep into the earth, and immense Battlecruisers slowly skulked toward an enemy base with lasers bristling, and the once-calm field erupted into an apocalyptic battle, I couldn't help but think of chess.

The first reference to an early version of chess was made in the 5th century AD. Thought to originate in India, the famous board game--then called shatranj, referring to the four divisions of the Persian military--took nearly a millennium to develop into the version we are familiar with today. In that time, kingdoms would rise and fall, and countless generations lived and died. Now chess is an institution, one of the world's best-known games, and a standard by which some of our greatest minds have been measured.

In some ways, this reminds me of StarCraft II.

Okay, so our wait for a StarCraft revision hasn't quite extended into a millennium yet, but 10 years is a long time in this wireless world of instant information. Unlike the dusty days of historic progress, our achievements are studied with electron-microscopes. Our revolutions are charted and predicted by analysts. Our great discoveries come on a daily basis, and are largely taken for granted.

That is, until I played StarCraft II.

Sitting down to grip the mouse, I was nervous for two reasons, one more immediate than the other. Somewhere out there, amidst the sea of computer terminals and Blizzard reps, my multiplayer opponents were putting on headsets and readying their hotkeys. Who were they? Lanky Warcraft players stumbling into the big-boy StarCraft arena? Korean masterminds jumping into their competitive flight-suits? Confused mainstream press still trying to figure out how to use computer? It was impossible to tell. Before I could think about fleeing to save my dignity, the loading screen came up, the driving Terran music faded in, and the whirring sound of SCVs filled my senses. My nerves slowly relaxed. My worries faded away.

In practice, playing StarCraft II is like going home--except that someone's rearranged the furniture a little.

But what an improvement in design. Along with everything I mentioned on the first day (and in the BlizzCon podcast), I discovered some wonderful little touches in my second play session. These helpful changes probably won't seem monumental on paper, but in the heat of battle, they are absolutely essential.

While my teammate got to work on being useless, I went about forming a defensive perimeter around my forward expansion base. First I needed some gas to get my factories churning out them sweet tanks. Selecting an SCV worker, I set him to work on a Refinery, and pointed my Command Center's rally point near to the soon-completed building. Soon SCVs were pouring out of the center, wheeling themselves over to the Refinery as usual, and then, unexpectedly, gathering gas without another command.

Worker units on the whole are much more automated than in the past. You begin with six of the peons now, rather than four, which is certainly one way to decrease round durations. Once you actually begin to build, any grievances you had with StarCraft's original interface melt away. The new foundation-placing grid guides you on exactly how much space is left to build a Commander Center. Buildings can now be queued up on top of other obstructing units--the building simply commences when the unit moves along. By holding down shift, multiple buildings can be queued up for one worker, which will diligently move from project to project while you handle other business. Like regular unit waypoints, these worker waypoints are connected with simple lines that indicate the unit's future pathing. Simple features, but they are immeasurable in their value.

After a few minutes of resource gathering I had a small squad of tanks ready to go, which brought me to my next revelation: selecting a deployed siege tank now brings up a ranging perimeter display. While each unit seems to have its own range statistic that is readily available--as indicated by the "4 to 5" increase in range that the U238 Shells grant a Marine--I only noticed the actual display with stationary units and buildings such as siege tanks and Sensor Towers.

Upset that there's still a five-unit cap on most training queues? Perhaps to maintain balance, this hasn't been changed much--except in the case of the Terran Barracks. Now the building can be specialized with two potential add-ons: one which enables the training of medics, and the other which allows for two entirely separate marines to be trained simultaneously. Each slot has a queue of four rather than the usual five, but that still represents a Zerg-like boost in per-building unit production.

Another similar addition is the Merc Haven, where the jet-pack equipped Terran Reapers are trained. Four of these units can be pumped out in mere seconds, though a cool-down restricts any more production until the building has recharged--a period of about 30 seconds. Like the multiple Marine queues, these cool-downs feel Zerg-like in their function, allowing for short bursts in unit spawning. It will be interesting to see where Blizzard takes the Zerg race, and whether there will be any change to the three-egg Hive formula.

At this point, the opposing team had already overrun my teammate's initial forward base. Out of the corner of my eye, a sullen looking man stood up from his computer, tearing off his headset in disgust and storming off, the epitome of the average user. "GG," I thought to myself in a most sarcastic, bitter tone. It was only a matter of time now. Building countless bunkers and missile turrets, I dug in for the long haul, hoping in vain for a tie by time-limit. Remember the Alamo.

Needless to say, I didn't last long. After a vicious barrage of Yamato cannons and Interceptor swarms, I conceded the round, eager to begin anew with a less-challenging partner, and a different race: the Protoss.

Executor: Read on for a look at the winning side of the Protoss, and a reflection on the game as a whole. _PAGE_BREAK_ My approach to the Protoss has always been simple: Cannons, Zealots, Dark Templar, Carriers. It's my own special build-order concoction, and much like a homemade recipe, it almost never holds up in competition. Luckily my new opponents seemed to be fresh out of Azeroth, and my prospects were looking good as I began ordering Probes from base to base, scouting for enemies.

At first blush it's rather surprising how little has changed on the Protoss side of things. Buildings and upgrades remain almost identical in most respects. Want land units beyond Zealots? You'll need a Cybernetics Core. Want to build Carriers? Start warping in that Fleet Beacon. Most revealing was that the Fleet Beacon has yet to offer any upgrades, a potential sign that the Protoss side is lagging behind in development compared to the Terran race--although the Forge's armor, weapon, and shield upgrades remain. These upgrades can be queued up just as units can, although you can't queue up beyond your current tech level.

Speaking of shield upgrades, the shield recharge rate for Protoss units seems to have been increased in speed. I clocked a 60-shield Zealot for a full recharge within 15-20 seconds, a tick rate of around 3-4 per second. Zealots also have a new charge ability, which sees them leaping forward at incredible speed to cut down fleeing enemy units. Without a Supply Depot gate guarding your Siege Tanks--a tactic now made much more viable by the lowering/raising function of the depots--they will likely be quite vulnerable to this bladed Zerg-rush.

While I was counting ticks, my enemy was already launching an attack, sending out a Ghost to pick off a few of my units. Ghosts are much more effective in combat now, eliminating biological units like true snipers. In addition to their trusty tactical nukes, they can now call down a Drop Pod filled with six Marines to a specific point. Like nukes, the Drop Pods must be pre-built at the Shadow Ops, the new Ghost-specific building.

Fighting back with my freshly-created Stalkers, a Dragoon-like unit that can Blink from place to place, I managed to extend my attack right into the enemy's base, meeting some stiff resistance in the form of the formidable Marine/Medic combination. Tiny red crosses sprung up like balloons above the Marine force, indicating their healthy status due to their Medic helpers. Sensing the futility of the battle, I noticed a Thor being constructed nearby, and so sent my Stalkers on a suicide mission. The Thor is the new Terran super-weapon, a walking mech-like monstrosity that can pound an entire base with an area-effect cannon. They are so large they must be built as buildings, and are therefore vulnerable to attack--a fact I managed to exploit.

With time ticking down, I decided to get fancy. Using the airborne Phase Prism as a mobile pylon, I built several Phase Cannons in front of the enemy's base, along with a supporting squad of two Colossi. As Tom Cruise knows, the Colossus is excellent for zapping Marines and the like, and combined with Phase Cannons for air defense, I had my Terran opponent right where I wanted him.

Twenty Dark Templar later, I had an invasion force milling about and waiting on my command. Without a Sensor Tower, or even one of the new neutral towers that can be utilized by a unit placed nearby, I was confident in my victory, so why make it short? I began to upgrade my Gateways to enable Warp Gates, the ability that allows an instant warp-in of land units. At the same time I started the construction of a Mothership and a few Carriers, just for kicks. These fools would suffer for my earlier embarrassment.

Pause. Rewind. The second reason I was nervous as I sat down to play StarCraft II was out of fear of the game's evolution. Everyone expected changes, but should the game be significantly changed? If the game was near perfection to begin with, why risk breaking the balance? It would be like adding a Death Knight to chess, that could cast spells and consume pawns to feed its energy bar. Actually, that sounds sort of cool. Bad example.

On the other hand, the gaming industry is a business, and players want a fully developed product for their money. Does it have to be changed out of a need to meet the perceived expectations of consumers? If it was only superficially altered, would it feel less like StarCraft II, and more like a long-overdue expansion? I wasn't sure.

This fear turned out to be unwarranted. Back on screen, hordes of Interceptors scurried about the screen, firing invisible lasers--not a new graphical feature, but an unfinished one. Archons zapped buildings with their usual lightning strikes while the lesser Dark Templar cut down endless groups of Marines, trampling forward over the splotchy red smears. As my teammate jumped in dozens of Reapers in a surprise flanking maneuver, our enemies conceded victory, making a quick exit from their terminals. Their faces were as red as the blood of their units, or so I imagined as I squinted from behind my monitor, scanning the blurry hall with tired eyes.

To tell you the truth, I came away from StarCraft II feeling rather subdued. The game won me over within the first few minutes, and the rest was a long tease. Maybe it was due to the appearance of the same old music, sounds, and build orders, but I never once felt as if I was playing anything but StarCraft. Fancy polygons or no, this is a logical evolution of a classic game, a personal obsession--and, in the case of Korea, a national pastime. Chess may be finished, but who needs pawns when you have Zerglings? GG indeed.

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