StarCraft II Hands-On Impressions, Part I

scii_hands_on_parti.jpgAt BlizzCon, Blizzard presented StarCraft II in two distinct, delicious flavours: single player and multiplayer, with demo stations in the hundreds consistently occupied by BlizzCon attendees. The single player demo allowed for a 20 minute, one versus one match with the option of playing as Terrans vs. Protoss or vice versa. I played a number of games with each race, trying out different tech tree progressions and strategies—somewhat difficult to fully pursue in such a short time (and with rusty skills).

Anyone who has played the original StarCraft will feel right at home, as most, if not all, of the game's shortcut keys and unit selection methods remain the same. It's very easy to settle into a game of StarCraft II as the controls and interface are so similar to the first. The game's HUD has thankfully evolved to add better control over your units and provides helpful information on upgrades, build times, skills and unit attributes.

The early game also feels comfortably similar, as each match started off with a handful of workers and infantry units, with base structures already pre-built. Strategically, things began to deviate from the original shortly after the early game. Obviously, you'll notice StarCraft II's gorgeous graphics and stunning effects right away, all of which ran at a smooth clip on the Intel sponsored PCs, so it won't feel too familiar.

In the first portion of my impressions, I'll be focusing on the Terran faction.The most noticeable changes to the early Terran game are Supply Depots that can be lowered into the terrain and the Command Centre upgrades—you'll have the option to choose from the radar scanner or Planetary Fortress for self-defense from the get-go. You'll also see add-ons available for structures like the Factory, Barracks, and Star Port.

Other than those initial changes, tech tree strategies can typically be adapted quickly from the original. You can choose to load up on Marines and Medics (sorry, no Firebats... yet), or develop Siege Tank technology, adding a handful of Vikings for as needed ground or air support. (For the record, the Vikings will say "Let's transform and roll out!" when you issue them move commands. The pop culture sci-fi references aren't in short supply.)

As for the rest of the Terran army, many of the units initially felt like remodeled, renamed iterations of their ancestors. The Cobra, for example, appears to be little more than a speedier Vulture minus mines, plus ground-to-air attacks. Nomads impress upon the player that they're simply less-ugly Science Vessels. As Blizzard has made clear in the past, units and their abilities should be expected to change over time, but I assume the intricacies of each of these units will become more clear with more play time. As demonstrated in a live demo at BlizzCon, Cobras can out-turn a Thor, making them deadly counter-units.

The Reaper, however, is the most strikingly different infantry unit in the game. From the way its built—rallying from what appears to be a futuristic bar/strip joint—to its cheap production cost and minimal build time. Four Reapers will spawn in easily under ten seconds, with a cool-down time slowing production down for a bit after that. The Reaper's lobbed grenades, quick movement speed and ability to rocket over terrain open up a totally new infantry tactic. It's just a shame they're so damn easy to kill.

If anything, the Terran army has become more complicated with its technology tree. What was the most "meat and potatoes" race in the original is clearly more strategically complex. The number of units that one can build at a Star Port, for example, is great in number. On top of that, some units feature deeper specialisation after they've been built.

During my time with the Terrans, I eliminated the Protoss threat (which actually wasn't much of a threat on Normal difficulty) in a number of ways. I wiped them out with a wall of Siege Tanks and one giant Thor, then with a full infantry push, including a couple of Ghost controlled nuclear strikes, and finally with a full aerial assault, sending Battlecruisers, Banshees and Vikings directly into the trio of Protoss bases.

But how did it play? Fantastic, obviously. StarCraft II feels very much at times like a sexier version of the original, with a laudable series of improvements.

It's clear that Blizzard still has more work to do on StarCraft II, as many of the game's sound effects are ripped straight from the original. Plenty of unit portraits were placeholder, but the amount of work already done indicates there's a comforting level of completion here.

As Blizzard reiterated at its fan gathering, the sequel is looking to reinvent StarCraft, not remake it. Some aspects feel very familiar, while others are very welcome additions. There's little to complain about with StarCraft II so far, outside of the at-times awkward transition to 3D and a very tight camera. Deploying a Thor or sending in a fleet of Battlecruisers is a whole mess of strategic fun and units already feel well balanced. From my 4-plus hours with the game, Blizzard seems to have only improved on an already tight real-time strategy game.

Check back tomorrow for more impressions from the Protoss single player level.


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