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StarCraft 2 Beta: Multiplayer Impressions

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As culturally pervasive as World of Warcraft is, I’ve always considered the original StarCraft to be one of the most important games in history. It has completely defined the RTS genre and come as close to a country’s national sport as any game has ever been.

So when StarCraft II was finally announced in 2006, a little countdown began in the minds of gamers all over the world. We all knew Blizzard’s personal development motto, so no one really held their breath for a quick release. So now, here we are in 2010, and the multiplayer beta is upon us, with the very real possibility of a release this summer.

I have been playing StarCraft II for almost a month now. Of course, I’ve had varying degrees of success, but I can honestly say this thing is pretty darn fun. I outlined what you wonderful readers can expect from the new Battle.Net previously in an article highlighting Blizzard’s revamped online service. But what about StarCraft II? In what could be Blizzard’s most important upcoming release, how does StarCraft II stack up not only in comparison to the original, but to the many other RTS games that have been released or are currently in production?

Gameplay

Make no mistake–this is StarCraft. You will hear both gamers and journalists criticize Blizzard for sticking to the tried-and-true formula from the original, and they have a point. What I disagree with is the concept that this is a bad thing. The original StarCraft is a classic for a reason, and the defining RTS in the history of the genre. I’ve seen people ask, “Why hasn’t Blizzard incorporated some of the advances in the RTS genre since the original came out?” In my opinion, it’s because the original StarCraft is still the best RTS out there. Other games have succeeded, but StarCraft still offers the deepest, most-balanced, and most strategic experience. It’s a game of chess where most other games are Sim City meets Total War. Not to say those other games aren’t good, but the RTS genre since the original StarCraft still hasn’t managed to eclipse what Blizzard did in 1998.

StarCraft II follows the same pattern thankfully. Little touches have been added that enhance the game, such as an expansion of the action queuing system using shift+click, SCVs/Drones/Probes auto-mining after being built, and a much faster gameplay experience that allows teching up to feel more natural and intuitive. Things like this are meant to build upon the StarCraft formula, not revamp it. It was obvious from the beginning that wasn’t Blizzard’s goal, and I think it was a smart move.

StarCraft II is also much, much more player-friendly. The hotkeys have been completely redone to allow everything to be selected and all actions taken using just your left hand. Using hotkeys in the original always felt like a chore to me, but I picked up the new system pretty quickly. Also, the unit cap has been raised considerably, which allows players to focus less on micro-managing many groups of units and focus more on enjoying the battles as well as macro-management (your unit production and economy).

Don’t think this means StarCraft II is dumbed down, however. Mastery of the hotkeys is still an important step to defeat players with higher skills and being able to assign groups of units (and micro them) to different keys and give them individual commands still contributes to victory in the higher tiered leagues. The system merely makes it easier for newer players to jump in and not feel completely overwhelmed. That is definitely a step in the right direction.

Beyond that, the game feels and plays great. Everything is very tightly developed, and as I said in my Battle.Net article, the multiplayer looks ready for release. Technically, that is. The game is fine. What needs tuning, judging from the patches Blizzard has been implementing, is the balance. Very few bugs have been squashed, according to the patch notes, but a ton of gameplay changes have been made.

The framework is there and the game runs like it should. Once the balance Blizzard is going for has been achieved, this baby looks to be ready for a bottle of champagne.

The Terran

The Terran were my guys in the original StarCraft. They are back with a lot of the same tricks, but Blizzard certainly added in some wrinkles to keep them fresh. All of the staples are still there: they can build anywhere and their buildings can fly, they still have great defense (the supply depots can now disappear underground!), they can repair their units and buildings, and Marines are still quite deadly in numbers at range. One of the infantry strategies that I see quite often is the “M&M.” With an army comprised mostly of Marines and Marauders (a new heavily armored unit), the Terran lay waste to both infantry and vehicles of the other races. Also, gone are Medics, which have been replaced with the Medivac, a combination dropship and medic unit that heals units as it flies overhead. Coupled with M&M, this can be quite deadly.

Another infantry unit new to the Terran is the Reaper. They are fast soldiers who use flamethrowers and can traverse up and down ledges. Originally, a great strategy involved producing these guys extremely fast and harassing the enemy base as soon as possible with hit-and-run tactics. That has been slowed down a bit because of the time it takes make them now, but it’s still a viable strategy. Also gone is the Vulture, which has been replaced with the Hellion, a fast dune buggy type vehicle with a flamethrower. I must admit I miss spider mines, but the Hellion has its place, and a group of them do a good amount of damage to infantry units, especially those that are biological.

The Terran still have their Siege Tanks, but they aren't quite as effective as in the original. They are joined by the massive Thor, which looks like a giant mech. It is pretty powerful, but vulnerable to attacks from the air as well as being swarmed by smaller, faster units. Producing an army of Siege Tanks and Thors with air support has also been a popular strategy. This air support comes from the Viking, which can transform and become a ground unit, the Banshee, which replaces the Wraith, and the Raven that has replaced the Science Vessel. You lovely fans of destruction can be excited about the Battle Cruiser, because it’s still there and still quite lethal.

The Zerg

I must admit, I don’t know nearly as much about the Zerg as I do the Terran and Protoss. Even after playing with them for a bit, I just don’t enjoy the style of play that comes with being part of the Swarm. They were my least favorite race in the original StarCraft, and though Blizzard has made some interesting additions to them in StarCraft II, I have faced the fact that I will never be a Zerg player. What I can tell you is what it feels like to play against the Zerg, because I have experienced quite a bit of that.

I will say this: rushing with Zerglings is not nearly as effective as it used to be. Both the Terran and Protoss are able to produce enough Marines/Zealots to counter a quick Zerg rush if the player is producing units at all adequately. The new bread and butter of the Zerg force is the Roach. These guys are the new rushing unit for the Zerg, and I admit I have been taken out fairly quickly by experienced Zerg players quite a few times with them. They are strong, have a great ranged attack, and can even burrow once it has been researched. You also don’t see as many Hydralisks as you once did, and I think the reason is most Zerg players don’t really need them after they work on building Roaches, which are higher up in the tech tree and perhaps even more powerful (with burrow).

The single Zerg unit, however, that puts me to waste the most are the good ol’ Mutalisks. They are powerful, able to attack ground and air, and are able to be made in a reasonable amount of time. If your opponent is focusing on offense and forgets to defend his base against air attack, a group of Mutalisks can do some great damage to his units and economy. Couple Mutalisks with some Banelings (a new unit that rolls around and explodes, doing massive damage to biological units), and that’s a formidable force. Throw a Nydus Worm in the enemy base to transport the rest of your Zerg force, and the Swarm is still very good at what they do–overrunning the enemy with mass numbers and strong support units.

The Protoss

I never really played the Protoss much in StarCraft, finding them a bit overwhelming for some reason. That’s all changed in StarCraft II, where I find the Protoss to be my favorite race to play with. Their units are strong, Probes can begin warping in structures and go back to what they were originally doing, and they have quite a few devastating pieces of technology. The Protoss, however, still have a few of their weaknesses from the original, with units that are very expensive to produce. Being able to expand effectively and often is important for all the races, but especially the Protoss, who need a steady stream of minerals and gas to create the required force.

As far as strategies involving infantry go, I think the Protoss have some of the best. Zealots have always been the most powerful of any race’s base troops, and that’s still the case in StarCraft II. If you team them up with Stalkers, the next unit on the tech tree, who can attack both ground and air, you have a very effective foundation to the Protoss army. The key, in my mind, to any effective strategy with the Protoss is the Warpgate. The main production building for the Protoss is the Gateway, but after building a Cybernetics Core, the ability to turn your Gateways into Warpgates can be researched. The Warpgate gives the Protoss the ability to warp in units instantly anywhere there is a pylon. This allows the Protoss to refresh their troop numbers quickly, as well as warp an entire force across the map if you can sneak a probe somewhere close to the opponent’s base and build a pylon.

Interested in defending against the Zerg’s Roaches or the Terran’s Siege Tanks? Say hello to the Protoss’ armor-busting unit: the Immortal. A group pf these guys will rain absolute havoc on heavily-armored units, gaining an insane damage multiplier against them. Void Rays are another Protoss unit you will see quite a bit. They are a very powerful air unit that attacks with a continuous beam of energy. The longer the beam is on a target, the more damage it does. A group of Void Rays can be devastating to both buildings as well as units like Battle Cruisers and Corrupters.

My favorite Protoss units are the Dark Templars. I don’t get to use them often, because it is pretty much a strategic commitment to produce a lot, and, if it fails, you will be at an economic disadvantage. The Dark Templar are naturally cloaked, and a lot of players, especially Protoss and Terran, tend to forego detectors in their bases, which creates an ideal situation to do some nice economic harassment. Zerg players usually have Overlords floating around their base, so it’s a bit tougher for them, but Protoss players with no cannons and Terran with no missile turrets really leave themselves open.

Final Thoughts

As I said before, this is still StarCraft. But I don’t think that’s a criticism at all. The formula works, and Blizzard set out to enhance it, not overhaul it. They have succeeded, in my mind, and I am in love with this multiplayer. It’s easy enough for a new player to pick up, but just as difficult to master as the original. In my opinion, both veterans of StarCraft and Brood War will love it and the newcomers who just want to check it out will find a deep, strategic experience that will bring them coming back for more. I can’t wait for this to be released so I can populate my friends list and wreak havoc across the Battle.Net servers.

If the single player experience of StarCraft II is anywhere nearly as robust as the multiplayer, then Blizzard has another hit on their hands. I don’t think people ever really expected Blizzard to drop a dud, but lightning rarely strikes the same place twice. The original StarCraft is such a critical and commercial success, it seemed almost impossible for the sequel to match it, in terms of gameplay, multiplayer, and story. I can’t speak for the narrative experience we will find in the singleplayer of StarCraft II, but the rest has exceeded my wildest expectations. As of right now, I feel safe in saying that I believe Blizzard has taken the original’s formula for success and created what looks to be a transcendent sequel.

For more about StarCraft II as we get closer to release, stay tuned to Game Rant. You can also follow me on twitter @ biggitio.

StarCraft II is currently in closed beta and is slated for release sometime in 2010.

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