StarCraft II Hands-On PreviewBy Brian Leahy - Posted Jun 29, 2009
Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to Blizzard’s campus in Southern California to get some hands-on time with the latest multiplayer build of StarCraft II with other members of the press along with representatives from StarCraft community and fan sites.
Luckily, we were split into two different groups and placed on two different LANs. Those community guys are scary good! I watched some live games between SCII juggernaut David Kim and Matt Cooper in Blizzard’s theater. David Kim, of course, won every game. After that, it was time to head upstairs and start playing!
For some context, I’m a huge StarCraft fan (read: nerd). I sometimes watch Korean pro-matches with English commentary. I still play Brood War from time to time. I can’t hang with the community site guys, but I have some skills. This was my third time playing StarCraft II (also at BlizzCon 2007 and PAX 2008), but the first time getting to play against human opponents.
Like the two other times I’ve played StarCraft II, the game has this amazing ability to make you feel like you’re playing StarCraft: Brood War again. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a comforting blanket of nostalgia that eases you into the game’s differences. Keep in mind, any mechanics discussed in this preview are subject to change, especially during the game’s planned four to six month beta test.
The most notable differences between StarCraft II and Brood War (besides the 3D graphics engine) are the changes in the macro/micro balance, UI improvements, and tech tree progression. Let’s examine how each one changes the game:
Macro/Micro Balance: At high levels, StarCraft requires players to split their playtime between macromanagement of their economy/production and the micromanagement of their armies during battle. It’s the reason why pro-StarCraft is on a higher level than any other competitive game. This is where that “300 actions per minute (APM) business comes into play. Luckily, for you and I, StarCraft II will put a bigger focus on micromanagement, similar to WarCraft III.
You see, much of StarCraft’s skill ceiling is created by the game’s UI limitations. It is a 10 year-old game, after all. It’s much harder to send 50 units across the map when you can only select 12 or put 12 into a control group. Now, you’ll be able to select every unit you have at once. The consolation to the hardcore? You can only put 24 into a control group. There are a lot of these similar concessions.
In the end, they appear to make things easier for casual players, while including mechanics for competitive players to take advantage of and exploit. Each race has a unique “macro” mechanic that allows experienced players to get more out of their economy. They are:
• Terran: The Command Center can be upgraded to gain three abilities that all require energy: Comsat Scan, Supply Increase, and calling down a M.U.L.E., which is temporary, super-efficient worker.
• Protoss: By building an Obelisk by the workers, the Protoss can “charge” them up for 30 seconds so they mine faster. The Obelisk can also recharge a unit’s shields or energy at the cost of mining efficiency.
• Zerg: The queen can use energy to spawn extra larvae at a Hatchery after a period of time. Extra larvae can be used to make more drones for an economic boost or more military units.
Of the three, the Protoss mechanic seems overpowered at this stage. It’s much easier to execute and the trade-offs are less important, in the beginning of the match you won’t be restoring the shields of many units and your casters won’t hit the field for a long time.
Next up, the Zerg have a decent ability, but it’s harder to use. The extra larvae spawn around 45 seconds after the ability is used so it requires a bit more mental energy to keep track of when these larvae are spawning. Luckily, you can now build multiple Queens to activate this ability at each expansion or Hatchery.
The Terran, however, have a hard decision: they can call down a M.U.L.E, use the Comsat Scan (which is incredibly useful for scouting and detecting cloaked units like Dark Templars and burrowed Zerg units), or permanently increasing the supply provided by a Supply Depot by 8. Three extremely useful abilities all sharing the same energy pool might not make it through beta.
The tech trees have definitely increased in complexity and it appears that (at the time of writing) players will be locked into tech patterns more so than Brood War. A lot of units have been moved up in the tech tree, with the most extreme example being the Zerg Lurker:
Brood War Lurker Tech Progression – Hatchery -> Spawning Pool -> Hydralisk Den -> Lair -> Upgrade Lurker Aspect -> Morph individual Hydralisks into Lurkers.
StarCraft II Lurker Tech Progression – Hatchery -> Spawning Pool -> Hydralisk Den -> Lair -> Infester Pit -> Hive -> Upgrade Hydralisk Den to Lurker Den -> Upgrade Lurker Aspect -> Morph individual Hydralisks into Lurkers.
It’s certain to annoy Zerg players like myself initially, but it’s still too early to see how unit tech levels play into the game balance. Again, these things will hopefully be resolved by the beta test. In my (sadly) limited play time, it seems like there are also more single unlock buildings, meaning that one particular building unlocks one particular unit.
Blizzard obviously wants to maintain their position as the RTS eSports leader and that will require SCII to be as featured and balanced as possible for the Korean pro-leagues. Balance probably won’t happen anytime soon. Recall that StarCraft took the release of Brood War and years of patches to attain its impeccable balance. Features, on the other hand, can be added without too much trouble.
Spectators will find a host of new features awaiting them in StarCraft II with overlays that display data on a player’s economy, production, army composition, and even APM. Additionally, observers can link their camera to a players, seeing exactly where they are looking at all times. This solves a lot of problems for the pros regarding first-person video. Replays will also get some much needed improvements with the ability to rewind along with all of the features from the spectator mode.
At the post-game statistics screen, you’ll get some new information if you’re a data nerd, but the biggest feature is the inclusion of build order data. You’ll be able to see what all players built at what time in the game. This is crucial for learning and practicing build orders.
As with all coverage of StarCraft, it’s time to talk about the skill differences between the casual and competitive audiences. However, unlike some of my peers, I don’t mind that there are Koreans on Battle.net that can destroy you within two minutes. You aren’t meant to play against them. It’s on Blizzard to make sure the matchmaking system functions properly.
While the developers weren’t ready to talk specifics about Battle.net 2.0 yet, I did learn that they are actively looking into ways to prevent skilled players from merely creating new accounts to play newbies again before the system figures out their skill level.
I asked lead designer Dustin Browder about systems to help casual gamers learn the game and improve their skills. Thankfully, StarCraft II will feature a challenge mode that tasks the player with completing a set of goals that are designed to teach advanced techniques in a real-game setting.
StarCraft II Lead Designer Pre-Beta Interview
So with all of that, when do the beta testers get to play? Soon. Unfortunately, Blizzard wasn’t ready to give us a specific date, but I got the impression that it could drop any day now. Blizzard has revealed, however, that the beta will run from four to six months.
As you may know, the singleplayer portion of StarCraft II has been split into three with the initial retail release containing the Terran campaign. Two expansions will follow, one for each of the remaining races campaigns along with new units for multiplayer. We could see the release of StarCraft II this year, but as with all Blizzard games, talking about dates is a dangerous practice.