First StarCraft 2 Singleplayer Hands-on Preview

I've probably previewed StarCraft II more than any other game. It seems every few months I get another taste; a shot of hard 'Craft that inevitably makes the wait even more difficult. Unfortunately, though my second trip to Blizzard last month

I've probably previewed StarCraft II more than any other game. It seems every few months I get another taste; a shot of hard 'Craft that inevitably makes the wait even more difficult.

Unfortunately, though my second trip to Blizzard last month preceded the official announcement of StarCraft II's delay, it was already pretty clear this game was not going to ship in 2009. Beyond the vagueness surrounding, portions of the singleplayer campaign were also somewhat unfinished, with lead designer Dustin Browder admitting that one entire system was being reworked from the ground up.

But I'll get to those gory details later. In more exciting news, I was able to play the first four or five missions of the singleplayer campaign, this being the first time we've gotten our hands on it. I even snuck in some time with the skirmish mode, discovering a few new features in the process. The shorthand: it's all looking pretty great.

As fans are no doubt aware, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty begins with series hero Jim Raynor operating as a mercenary fugitive. The first level has the player directing Raynor through a fairly linear mining colony, occasionally rescuing the miners from evil Terran Dominion soldiers. Holographic billboards featuring Dominion despot Arcturus Mengsk introduce the player to the story, and quickly illustrate what Raynor is up against: "Jim Raynor represents a clear and present threat to this Dominion." Damn right he does.

After this fairly straightforward RTS introduction, the player enters Raynor's bar, the first "hub" you'll encounter. First, a few brief words on the in-game cutscenes: they look fantastic. They looked so fantastic, in fact, that I wondered whether players with low-end computers would be missing out, so I knocked the visual settings down to 2003 standards, the lowest possible setting.

The difference was such that, while the "ultra" settings approached prerendered quality, the "low" settings clearly appeared videogamey. The "low" setting did look better than I expected--and was certainly helped by the strength of the underlying animation--but real StarCraft fans looking to enjoy the story mode in all its glory may want to open their pocketbooks come 2010. Again: it looks pretty great.

Back to the hubs. These hubs operate in a similar fashion to briefing rooms from games like Wing Commander or X-Wing, but with an even greater degree of interaction. You can talk to characters, interact with and examine various items in the environments, upgrade your units, and start up missions.

Raynor's dilapidated bar has a lot of character. A Hydralisk skull hangs in the corner, draped with blinking Christmas lights. A jukebox plays songs which the player can switch with a click. A billboard collects clippings and photos, with Raynor and marine buddy Tychus chat about after examination.

Warning: Minor early-game spoilers begin in two paragraphs. Beware!

Though some of this is clearly meant to flesh out the story in an optional manner--the well-produced television broadcasts in particular--I enjoyed that much of the content was less about blunt dialogue and backstory than creating an atmosphere. Repetitive clicks on characters even yield the same goofy Blizzard unit responses that you'll find in-game.

Soon the Zerg return, the queen Kerrigan spotted among them, and the game kicks into gear. The next mission in the game saw Raynor desperately holding out on a planet against an overwhelming Zerg force, a timer ticking down to the rescue. Those that played the original StarCraft may see this level as a nod to the early mission "New Gettysburg."

The battlecruiser Hyperion, driven by Raynor's second-in-command Matt Horner, shows up at the last moment, ferrying away the good guys. At this point, the Hyperion becomes the default hub, and more options are open to the player, including the armory and laboratory.

Because Raynor is operating as a for-hire mercenary, all of the missions will earn you a dollar amount, and the armory is the place to spend the money earned from missions. Some of these are simply upgrades; for instance, you can turn the Bunker into an 8-man structure, or put a turret on top of it. Others are entirely new units, such as the stationary flamethrower turret.

In addition to money, each mission will also unlock a new unit to play with. These units include favorites such as Medics and Firebats, which have been cut from the StarCraft II multiplayer component. After encountering a strange bug, I also found an unfinished beta version of the Dragoon, pointing to that unit's inclusion in the campaign as well.

Speaking of unfinished things, the laboratory component is the aforementioned system that Blizzard is retooling after internal feedback. In this build, it essentially assigned optional collection tasks, almost in the style of a World of Warcraft quest. The Seth Green-esque lab geek character required several Hydralisk pelts and other optional materials found on levels to complete a specialized upgrade.

Beyond that, I played through three more of the branching missions. All were drastically varied in their gameplay, something that Browder prepared me for a month ago--these missions are more minigames than StarCraft skirmishes, and they're better for it.

One was set on a farming colony, and involved Raynor and his troops escorting vehicles full of civilians to a ship for evacuation. The escorting was relatively simple, which allowed me to use my modest-but-practiced StarCraft skills to make headway on the Zerg bases, rather than wait for them to come for me.

There was the "race" mission that Browder hinted at previously, involving a race to a Protoss base against a Zerg opponent. Both the player and the Zerg start out on the far left side of the map, and each have their own path toward the Protoss base. The Terran player must fend off the Zerg while simultaneously beating it to the Protoss home base.

The third mission was set on a lava planet. The mission goal was to mine a set number of total crystals from the map--the only problem being that the only minerals were placed in low-lying areas, and the lava tide consumed those areas every five minutes. With the Zerg also attacking at random, the mission quickly became a challenging balet of managing workers and conserving minerals.

And that's all I got to play of the campaign. It was good to see Blizzard sticking to the "minigame" plan. These missions won't be repeated in content--and due to their branching nature, players won't get to play all of them in a single playthrough--making the campaign should be ripe for replaying.

I did get a chance to play a bit of skirmish against the computer, which revealed the latest version of the StarCraft II AI. The team has finally added in "Hard" and "Insane" levels of difficulty. The "hard" is easily the more interesting of the two, as unlike StarCraft 1's AI--and the "Insane" difficulty in SC2--the "Hard" levels and below do not cheat. This new AI must scout the map to find the player, in the same natural way that an actual human opponent has to. Along with the challenge mode, this should make for a good training ground for new players before they hit the often unforgiving realm of multiplayer.

In addition to this playthrough, I also learned more about that challenge mode, the planned expansions, and all sorts of other things from producer Chris Sigaty. Look for that interview to go up later today.

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