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Thoughts on the StarCraft 2 Beta

Well, kids, it's been a rewarding month or so for all us beta testers. Working our butts off every day for Blizzard, without pay, to so graciously help them iron out all the bugs in the upcoming RTS StarCraft 2. We all deserve a pin for, you know, dedicated service or something.

… Okay, I'm not fooling anyone. The vast majority of beta testers were begging at Blizzard's heels like the dogs we are, mercifully licking the shoes of the developers in hopes of winning even a few glorious seconds of playtime on the beta.

And for all those that did get granted with a key the experience has been fantastic. A few lucky writers from our team got a chance to play and wrote on their impressions from time to time. Now that the beta's over, we can't give you any more in-game coverage, but here's to hoping this article will satiate your RTS appetite until the full version hits the shelves on July 27.

Over the short three weeks that I had the beta, I played over 250 games. As far as Battle.net standing goes, I started in Bronze (formerly Copper) rank 65, fought my way into the top 5, and fought my way back down into 70th place again shortly before the servers took a hike. Even though I'm still a novice, the gameplay and competition is fantastic. The new units and techniques add quite a bit more depth to the game, and of course the graphic quality is vastly superior to the original.

All of this goes without saying, however. Blizzard isn't reinventing the wheel with this one -- the mechanics and structure remain largely unchanged from Brood War – and that's exactly why it has the potential to blow the original out of the water. What's been given a massive overhaul is the overlaid UI, matchmaking mechanics and tournament system, collectively known as Battle.net 2.0.

Unit balance can change on a dime, but the amount of design and dev time that's gone into this monster is huge. It has an even bigger impact on the overall experience of the game, which is quite clear if you look at the list of complaints queued up over at the battle.bet forums – the community's divided on this one. Let's take a look at the new features (or lack thereof) that have been implemented so far.

Leagues, Divisions, the Whole Shebang

This is (in my humble opinion) quite an innovative feature that I'd like to see implemented more often. After playing through five placement matches, Battle.net 2.0 places you into one of seven leagues (in order from most skilled to least): Pro (I lied – this one's invite only), Diamond, Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Practice (for the nubs). From there, each player is placed in a division of 100 and given a score based on your wins and losses, what rank the person was that you played against, match time, and all that good stuff. Your rank resets once per season, so that if you stop playing for any long length of time, you don't need to worry about other players in your division having a ridiculous number of extra points than you when you come back. Previously, you were simply given a ranking out of all the other people that have ever played a game online.

A lot of players are advocating the old system, but it's really the same thing. Consider your overall rank in original StarCraft is  17562/285934 – those numbers are quite meaningless unless you convert it into a percent value (that rank, for example, is in the top 6th percentile of all StarCraft players), which is much more meaningful to your average guy trying to get to the top. By splitting each league into divisions and ranking you out of 100, that's exactly what the machine is doing – if you have a rank of 6 in gold league, you're in the top 6th percent of all players in the gold league. Of course, the league system will never tell you exactly what rank you are in Battle.net, but let's face it – if you're anything short of diamond league the only thing you need to know is that you've still got plenty of room for improvement.

Click to continue to page 2.

Facebook Integration

This quirky little feature has been the subject of much unneeded dissent in the community in the name of user privacy, so I'm going to make this one short, sweet and clear to all of those who are objecting: Facebook's not watching you. Facebook integration is only there so that you can find out if any of your RL friends play, and nothing else. Facebook's not going to post embarrassing stories to your wall about your latest Void Ray Victory, and finally, the whole thing is optional. If you're paranoid, don't provide your Facebook login details. Problem solved.

All internet whining aside, this neat little optional feature could turn out to be pretty useful, depending on how it's used. Personally, I'm hoping it sticks to finding real life friends who play, and not branching out into obscure acquaintances and taking over your entire account. Blizzard appears to have bigger plans, so I suppose only time will tell.

Strength in Numbers

Another feature that makes the new league system so innovative is the ability to easily team up with other players, whether it's a friend or a random ally, in 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4 matches and ascend a separate ladder for each. Team play certainly isn't a new feature, but the league ladders are definitely a nice touch.

I gave the 2v2 a go with fellow writer John Jacques. We didn't win, but we did do this:

We devastated the competition with our awesome cannon might. Then, they built Collosi and we made it straight to Tinfoil league, and we're the only ones there. (I'd like to thank John for that joke, and the screenshot.)

No LAN

This is the elephant in the room. I know you're all thinking about it and waiting for me to mention it, so I'm just going to get it out of the way.  Blizzard has not-so-sneakily flipped the bird to cybercafés, tournament organizers, LAN junkies, and people with slow internet connections – or with no connection at all – by forcing them not only to authenticate, but to play out each match over Battle.net. I'm not going to draw this one out, since I've written about it before, but the community's consensus is clear on this one (you can almost hear the screams of rage echoing from the Battle.net forums) – No LAN is a no go. Bad move, Blizzard.

The Verdict

While some may claim the opposite, I'm all for heavier integration of the new Battle.net into StarCraft 2. All the new features (excluding the LAN issue) brought something new and exciting to the beta experience, and they're making me look forward to playing even more when the game is finally released.

If you were a lucky beta tester like myself, share your stories and thoughts in the comments below (and your ID if you want a match when the game comes out – I'm up for anything). The game comes out in 48 days, and the beta is slated to come back online for a couple weeks before that time. Try not to go crazy waiting for it!

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