[UPDATE] Vivendi Universal occupies a sizable chunk of the LA Convention Center's south hall at the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo, and in turn, a large portion of its floor space is being used to showcase Starcraft: Ghost. Chances are you've heard of this high-profile game already, since it's been in development for a long time and hit some pretty big snags along the way. Specifically, Blizzard Entertainment originally commissioned Ghost from developer Nihilistic Software, but later switched developers to Swingin' Ape Studios, which earned critical acclaim for its quirky action title, Metal Arms: Glitch in the System. At E3 2005, Vivendi and Blizzard are showing off the newly redesigned Starcraft: Ghost for the first time. PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube versions of the title are playable on the show floor, and both the single-player and newly-revealed multiplayer modes are being featured. We've now had a chance to play them all, and even though Ghost still has a way's to go--it won't be out till the first half of 2006--we can safely say we're impressed with where the game stands right now, and our excitement for it has been both restored and heightened.
Starcraft: Ghost is set in Blizzard's memorable Starcraft universe, in which the high-tech terrans are locked in a struggle against the fiendish zerg and the enigmatic protoss. As the name suggests, the game will let you play as a "ghost," one of the covert psychic-trained operatives of the terran military. Specifically, you'll play as Nova, who's sort of your shapely Sam Fisher. Ghosts are typically armed with C-10 canister rifles, capable of dealing great damage to fleshy targets and sniping them from afar. Nova's also got a ton of other tricks up her sleeve, such as her cloaking ability, her thermal vision mode, and her ability to perform lockdown on machinery and vehicles. She can also drive vehicles herself.
We quickly surveyed what was being shown of the game, and noticed that all three of the versions were looking quite good. The Xbox version, with its richer colors and smoother lines and lighting, definitely stood out, though. Nova looked great regardless of platform, what with her high-tech formfitting suit, free-flowing ponytail, and graceful animations. We quickly noticed the game's over-the-shoulder targeting system, which reminded us of Resident Evil 4's system (apparently, the over-the-shoulder third-person perspective is quickly becoming a popular trend among action game designers). Like in RE4, the perspective here zooms in close when Nova readies her weapons. In practice, we found it sort of difficult to aim, since aiming felt a little more sluggish than in a typical console shooter. We didn't have time to tweak the options to make the aiming more responsive, and happily assumed that this is just the sort of thing that will be tweaked in the time leading up to the game's release. Other than that, the gameplay felt solid already. We were easily able to pick up on the controls, despite the variety of moves and abilities available.
Nova's rifle isn't the only firearm she has on hand. We watched as she barbecued a zerg-infested terran followed by some zerglings, which came breaking through a colony that had been overrun by the malevolent creatures. We also got to see her battling against numerous thickheaded humanoid opponents--evidently, enemy terrans. We also got to try out an infiltration sequence, in which we were able to sneak up on a vulture hoverbike scout, relieve him of his vehicle by jumping onto it and bashing his head against the steering column (yes!), and then rushing full-throttle into an enemy base, ditching our ride along the way. We actually retried this same sequence several times, taking completely different paths, and appreciating the fact that Ghost evidently will let you do things your way. This doesn't feel like a stealth game--it feels like an action game in which stealth is an option.
In addition to all the shooting, Nova could search her enemies' bodies for ammo and other goods and then drag the bodies out of sight. She could also shoot from a first-person perspective, which is a pretty cool touch--so if you want to play Ghost like an FPS, you can. Or if you want to play it like a stealth game, you can. We saw Nova attempting to bypass enemy defenses in a wide-open area by stealthily maneuvering toward the entrance while cloaked. We also got to play around with the cloaking field ourselves, which makes it pretty easy to slip past unaware guards--guards who actually seem to fight pretty intelligently when engaged, since they use cover and keep moving in order to make it tougher on you to bring them down. So staying hidden is probably a good idea. The cloaking effect looks great, and we also really liked the thermal vision mode we first saw in multiplayer, in which you could see the character's heart beating inside of her body (kind of like the railgun scopes from the movie Eraser).
Wait, multiplayer? That's right, Ghost has multiplayer now. Why? As a Blizzard rep concisely explained, "We're Blizzard." The company is well known for its high-quality multiplayer-enabled titles, so now, Starcraft: Ghost will be no exception. This looks like it's going to be a pretty darn cool multiplayer offering, which supports up to eight players online on the Xbox and PS2 (Blizzard is still deciding about the GameCube version). The multiplayer features different character classes and vehicles, so expect a full-on, fully realized team-based shooter rather than a tacked-on extension of the single-player content. The multiplayer is somewhat reminiscent of Command & Conquer Renegade, a PC shooter from a couple of years ago. Like Ghost, Renegade is an action game inspired by a real-time strategy game, whose RTS elements worked their way into the multiplayer. Similarly, you'll get to take control of buildings and use vehicles as you attempt to overcome the opposing forces.
It was great to see a playable firebat (Starcraft's flame-spewing infantry) as well as a drivable vulture scout bike, among others. The additional character classes include (of course) the ghost, the marine, and a light infantryman. The other vehicle we spotted was a six-wheeler truck with a machinegun mount in the back, which bared a more-than-passing resemblance to a certain Halo 4x4 vehicle named after a pig with tusks. Starcraft draws its inspiration from several sources (Warhammer 40,000, Aliens), and now it seems that Halo is another one of them. At any rate, the authentic Starcraft-style visuals and characters are definitely what stood out about the multiplayer, which seems like it could end up being quite fun. It already looks pretty solid. Actually, the addition of this multiplayer mode once again begs the question of why Starcraft: Ghost isn't in development for the PC. Granted, the smaller scale of the conflict maybe wouldn't do it for PC shooter fans accustomed to high-volume multiplayer competitions.
Blizzard recently announced that it had acquired Swingin' Ape Studios, suggesting that Blizzard had a lot of confidence in the new developer that's working on Starcraft: Ghost. Indeed, Ghost definitely looks like it's shaping up, and there's a whole lot of it on display here at E3. Stay tuned for additional information on this one.