With the help of Nihilistic, the developers behind Vampire: The Masquerade, Blizzard will be reentering the console market with Starcraft: Ghost, a tactical stealth action game based on one of the most popular real-time strategy games for the PC. Blizzard certainly seems excited about revisiting the Starcraft universe for the first time in a few years, but it seems even more keen on giving its fans an opportunity to get up-close and personal with the Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss for the first time in full 3D. Of course, that was also a potential issue in the early development stages of Starcraft: Ghost--the question of what all these elements should look like, when for the most part all we've seen of them is an overhead view of two-dimensional sprites. Still, Nihilistic and Blizzard both feel confident that they'll be able to appease the most ardent of fans while attracting a whole new audience that has yet to experience the Starcraft universe. There hasn't been much revealed on Starcraft: Ghost--in fact, what has been revealed may not even be a part of the final product since Blizzard and Nihilistic are still debating certain aspects of the game--but what we have seen so far certainly looks interesting.
Starcraft: Ghost places you in the role of Nova, a soldier with the ability to strike without being seen. You will have to infiltrate enemy installations to retrieve information or inflict as much damage on the enemy as possible. In addition, you'll also participate in outdoor campaigns where you can order tactical nuclear strikes on specific positions or even order one of the massive Terran ships to bombard a target with its powerful weapons. Either way, Blizzard wants to convey the feeling that you're playing a key role in a battle that's taking place over an entire planet, much like in the original Starcraft, and the decisions that you make will ultimately have an effect on the outcome.
Indeed, it seems as though numerous decisions will have to be made in even the most straightforward of scenarios, as the demo we were shown at the Tokyo Game Show reveals. The first few seconds require that you make a quick decision based on variables such as how many enemies there are and what their position is in the level. When Nova drops from the ceiling of a hangar to the top of a small Terran dropship, you'll immediately have to scout the area by maneuvering the incredibly flexible camera around the environment--in this particular situation, two Terran marines are patrolling the area. You can either avoid them entirely or take them out using Nova's predatorlike stealth capabilities. The latter is admittedly much more fun because you can literally walk right up to a Terran marine while cloaked and shoot him at point-blank range with the sniper rifle. But that particular course of action can be detrimental to your safety since it can potentially alert the enemy and make your life much more difficult.
The room adjacent to the hangar, where there's only a single security camera, gives an even better idea of how much freedom you're given in the game. You can either avoid the camera's line of sight, which will be indicated onscreen as a sort of neon triangle, or you can attempt to disable it using one of Nova's skills. While one strategy certainly seems to be safer than the other, it remains to be seen if there are any significant advantages or drawbacks to using either strategy.
Since Nova is essentially a walking technological marvel, she's equipped with a variety of high-tech items and weaponry, but none may be more important than the visual equipment that allows her to see the position of enemy soldiers behind walls. At one point in the demo, Nova walks into a room and uses this skill to detect another Terran marine lurking just around the corner. Again, you'll be able to choose how to proceed, but because we wanted to take a look at some of the early AI in the game, we took this foe head-on in the first run through.
One of the first things you'll notice about the Terran marines is that their helmet visors are up when they're not in alert mode, thus making it much easier to kill them with a simple headshot. But the second they go on the offensive, the face shield drops down, and they instantly become a bigger hassle. In addition, if you can't kill certain Terran marines within a few seconds, that gives them enough time to call for backup and alert other marines to the area, so generally you'll want to kill quickly if you're not taking the stealth approach. After absorbing a generous number of bullets from Nova's primary weapon, this particular marine went down, but it's evident from this single battle that stealth is always the preferred method.
While walking through a hallway, Nova uses her sight ability to see the glowing footprints of a marine, indicating that there's yet another enemy nearby. This time, instead of taking the enemy head-on, Nova can creep up on him, switch to her melee weapon (which is an energy blade of some sort), and perform a stealth kill, where she'll leap up and swipe at the marine, similar to stealth kills in the Tenchu series of games. This is basically an instant kill, so it's incredibly useful.
At this point, it may seem ridiculous to use anything but stealth and simply travel through the level cloaked, but it's not possible. In the upper left side of the screen, there's a meter that represents how much energy Nova can devote to using her ghost skills, so if you have the cloak turned on, then the meter will slowly lose energy, though it will recharge over time.
The one ability that will deplete Nova's energy faster than any other skill is her superspeed. Nova has the ability to move incredibly fast, and when this option is turned on, everything in the environment slows down, producing a very nice-looking bullet-time effect similar to the one seen in Max Payne. But unlike in Max Payne, you still have full range of movement, so if a little Zergling jumps at Nova, you can turn that skill on, move behind the Zergling, then turn it off and shoot the Zergling in the back.
Interestingly, Starcraft: Ghost isn't all about stealth, and in fact, there are some strong platforming elements in the game. Nova reaches an air shaft where she must jump from platform to platform and avoid falling to the ground where a massive rotating fan waits to chop her to pieces. This particular section of the game didn't seem incredibly polished--even those performing the demonstration had trouble with it--but both Blizzard and Nihilistic freely admit that the platforming elements in the game haven't really been tweaked, and they have yet to decide how prominent they'll actually be.
There's so much of Starcraft: Ghost that Blizzard has yet to unveil. We've seen plenty of the Terran marines, Zerglings, Zerg hydrolisks, and Zerg ultralisks in action, but we've only gotten brief glimpses of the Protoss--all of which look quite impressive. Blizzard plans to wait a while before it begins to show off the Zerg environments and some of the vehicles that will be included in the game (such as the hoverbike). We have yet to even see the PlayStation 2 version of the game, which will be developed by an as-of-yet-unnamed company. But we've seen both the Xbox and GameCube versions of the game, and the Xbox version seems to have the edge when it comes to texture detail and frame rate. We'll have more on Starcraft: Ghost in the coming months.