In the pipe, five by five.
Love or hate their particular brand of game design, it’s hard to deny that Blizzard creates a high-quality product. The typical Blizzard game is polished to a mirror sheen. Starcraft 2 – even in beta – is no exception. Though not without the occasional hiccup or issue, Starcraft 2 is the smoothest beta of any product I’ve ever dealt with. Likewise, Battle.net is proving smooth and capable so far. While standard for Blizzard, it’s still refreshing – in a market dominated by buggy and occasionally broken games, it’s good to see there’s still a few developers out there committed to the quality of the experience.
[image1]Starcraft 2 is a funny beast, though. It is very close to the original Starcraft in terms of faction dynamics, economy, look, and overall feel. At the same time, things are a little tweaked, a little different. A lot of the same familiar units are still around and behave pretty much the same as they always have. Other old favorites are conspicuously missing and in their place are curious doppelgangers and dancers with kabuki masks on. Suffice it to say that you will not find the major strategies of the factions different from the original Starcraft, but you will have to relearn the details of the tactics.
The Terrans remain a force all about mixed assaults, sneak attacks, and controlling the positioning on the battlefield. Between the old favorite siege tanks, the cloaking banshees, the cliff-jumping reapers, and the mode-switching valkyries, the Terrans have a flexible force made for a combination of hit and run and ranged engagement. In the early game, units like the Marauder give the Terrans some fair punch to put them in competitive reach of the other two factions. The new late-game powerhouse unit, the Thor Walker, also gives the Terrans some much-needed ground resilience without changing up their fundamental tactics too much.
The Zerg remain the numbers-happy lot they’ve always been, but new additions such as the roach and a baneling give the Zerg a little more resilience and punch than they used to have, while the new version of the Queen makes it possible to spawn an army in no time. Many of the old favorites are still around, though – hydralisks, mutalisks, and ultralisks all operate pretty much the same as ever, so the old hands at Starcraft will feel right at home with the slimy critters. Some adjustment will still be needed, especially in the air game – the suicidal scourge are no longer available to slap down heavier air targets, so you’ll need to rely upon the other options more heavily.
The Protoss likewise remain the same kind of quality over quantity force they’ve always been, but the addition of warp gates gives them increased tactical flexibility and lets them strike from multiple directions with greater ease – a must for the Protoss. Splitting enemy fire and attention plays into the power units’ hands, and the Protoss field nothing but power units. The biggest overhaul to the Protoss has been in mobility, though – Stalkers provide an excellent means of making small back-field raids, while the Colossus provides a powerful all-terrain combat unit capable of plastering most other ground units. Protoss air has also been given a large overhaul, replacing the much-loved Scout with the new Warp Ray, a versatile air unit good en masse or in small support groups. The carrier, of course, is still in play and still a beefy unit – and since the Terrans no longer have the lockdown ability, much better in practical combat.
[image2]The game is largely built around hard counters. Many units in both the Terran and Protoss armies do a considerable amount of bonus damage to specific unit types, sometimes doubling or tripling their damage output. This tends the weight the game towards scout-build-smack cycles, where players will sacrifice a worker to get an early look at which tech path the opponent is leaning towards, and then building the appropriate counters. Games can thus be very brief – an overwhelming early force can be very hard to turn aside, especially if the natural counter to that enemy force is something you simply haven’t invested in yet.
With a lot of the game focusing on the overwhelming early push, it’s amusingly rare to see some of the more interesting tactical options available to each faction put into play. You almost never see high templar laying down psi storms or a ghost calling down a nuclear strike. This isn’t a bad thing, mind – Starcraft 2 clearly leans towards 20- to 30-minute games. Really efficient players can gut an opponent inside of 15 minutes and then immediately hop to the next game.
The biggest change in Starcraft 2 is the overall pacing. While many of the raw numbers are the same as the original Starcraft’s, the game flows smoothly and efficiently, so you’ll find lots of things happening all at once. Managing front-line combat, home-base manufacture, and expansion economies simultaneously is the name of the game. It can be a little daunting if you aren’t experienced with the original Starcraft or with other RTS games, but it’s only a little faster paced than other RTS games. There are moments when that extra step makes the game feels hard to control, mostly in a large and complex fight.
Part of this is the simple fact that Starcraft 2 already has a hardcore community built up around it – from the moment I jumped into the beta, I was meeting folks who’d played Starcraft on Battle.net for years. As similar as Starcraft 2 is to the original, it’s not surprising that the hardcore players started with a strong advantage. Battle.net has been matured a great deal, however, so this is not a problem – this is actually an advantage.
[image3]After five ‘practice’ matches, I was assigned a ladder to play in. The ladder was very well suited to my skill level – experienced with the first Starcraft, good even, but not one of the top tier players that would go to tourneys. I’ve found that I win roughly 60% of the matches I play in this ladder, losing the other 40%, and that feels surprisingly right – if I could be so well matched in other games, I’d probably be much less frustrated with them.
No, seriously – Starcraft 2 is the first game I’ve played where I haven’t been annoyed by the auto-matching.
Starcraft 2 already has a place in the hardcore RTS community. Though old-school in a number of its core gameplay mechanics, the game design has leveraged that effectively, creating a game both familiar at its center and new in its details and advanced play options. 2010 is looking very bright for the RTS enthusiast.