Starcraft: Ghost updated impressions

Blizzard showed us the latest build of its upcoming stealth action game for consoles, and we've got new impressions and screens.

Though the company is best known for its best-selling PC games, Blizzard Entertainment is no stranger to the console market--some of its earliest successes include console games like Rock n' Roll Racing, Blackthorne, and The Lost Vikings. Blizzard never outright abandoned console gaming--ports of its hit real-time strategy games Warcraft II and Starcraft eventually made it onto video game platforms--but now Blizzard is looking to get back into the console gaming scene in a big way with Starcraft: Ghost, a stealth action game that's being codeveloped by Blizzard and Nihilistic, the latter of which is best known for its PC action RPG Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption. We first had a chance to see an early version of Starcraft: Ghost when it was announced at the Tokyo Game Show last year (story), and Blizzard recently paid us a visit to show us how the game was coming along. This time we got to see many more of the environments that will be featured in the game, as well as some of the new gameplay elements the developers have been working on. Blizzard also provided some new prerendered artwork for the game and some new screenshots of the work in progress.

Fans of the Starcraft real-time strategy game will know that the title "Starcraft: Ghost" refers to the Terran ghost black-ops unit, a self-sufficient warrior armed with a high-powered sniper rifle and capable of becoming invisible, disabling mechanical units, and even calling down nuclear strikes. In the game, you will assume the role of one such operative, a woman named Nova. Like most Blizzard games, Starcraft: Ghost promises to be highly story driven, but Starcraft fans should not expect the game to continue the storyline Blizzard has already established. Starcraft: Ghost takes place after the events of Starcraft and Brood War, and though it will include some references to those games, the main characters from those games will not figure prominently in this next tale in the Starcraft universe.

According to Blizzard's Bill Roper, the company is not assuming that players will be familiar with the characters and setting of Starcraft: Ghost. Since the game will be the company's first dedicated foray into console gaming in many years, Blizzard is not expecting console gamers to instantly take to Ghost. Roper says that the company intends for Ghost to be a success not due to strong brand recognition, but based on the merits of the game itself. This begs the question of why Blizzard bothered to set this console game in the universe of one of its best-known franchises. At any rate, with no PC version of Ghost currently planned, it's true that Blizzard will be challenged to prove itself to console gamers, who aren't necessarily as enthusiastic about the company's games as many PC gamers are.

Starcraft: Ghost is currently scheduled for release late this year, and based on what we've seen, there appears to be a lot of work still to be done on the game between now and then. None of the game's missions are currently complete, and while Blizzard acknowledges that Ghost will have multiplayer features, we were given no details on what these multiplayer features may be. With that said, the game's main character can already be seen performing a variety of different actions, and we also saw a number of different environments and a number of enemy characters, so the development of Starcraft: Ghost is evidently in full swing.

As a stealth action game for consoles, Starcraft: Ghost will be competing against excellent games like Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. As in Splinter Cell and some other stealth games, in Ghost, you will have an onscreen indicator that depicts how visible the main character is at any given point. Nova will be most effective when fighting from a concealed position and will be able to sneak up on and instantly lock down or dispatch unaware foes, like in the Tenchu games. She will be able to crouch and sneak quietly to remain hidden. She will also be able to snipe from most any position, such as when hanging upside down from pipes or from ladders. Her personal cloaking device will also enable her to slip past impossible enemy odds, though much like in the Starcraft real-time strategy game, there will be certain types of opponents or defenses that will be able to see through the disguise. There's an impressive graphical effect to go with the cloaking field--light seems to refract around Nova's body when the field is up. An energy meter will govern the use of Nova’s cloaking ability, limiting you to only a few seconds of invisibility. Nova earns more psi abilities as the game progresses, and you’ll eventually be able to enter a Max Payne bullet-time-like state, where things slow down long enough for you to line up a difficult sniper shot, react to incoming attacks, and so on. You'll additionally be able to use sight powers to detect cloaked enemy units and other nearby items of interest that would otherwise remain hidden.

Though Nova will generally be working alone, she will have access to help from other Terran forces. Here the game's real-time strategy roots are apparent, as Nova can call in support fire from siege tanks, battlecruisers, and science vessels and eventually paint targets for nuclear strikes. We saw an early version of the nuke, though we didn't get to see the vehicles. Roper also told us that Nova herself will be able to pilot a Vulture hoverbike and a Goliath walker, though we didn't see these, either. The goal is to keep the gameplay fresh, for instance by rewarding you for sneaking through a tough sequence by allowing you to then hop into a Goliath and wreak havoc. The presence of vehicles in the game also bodes well for the potential of the multiplayer modes.

The plot of Ghost will pit Nova, as one of the ghosts working under the Terran leader, Arcturus Mengsk, against all three of Starcraft's main factions: renegade Terrans, the Zerg, and the Protoss. Often, Nova will be caught in the middle of the conflicts between these forces and will take advantage of the chaotic situation to complete her objectives. Like in the real-time strategy game, these factions, their tactics, and their buildings will all be very different. The Protoss are extremely powerful psionic warriors whom Nova likely will have trouble either sneaking up on or taking out in a one-on-one battle. The Zerg attack in huge numbers, and their razorlike claws make them deadly up close. The Terrans built the technology that Nova herself uses, so she can't underestimate them.

As a covert operative, Nova will have to use a combination of stealth and force to succeed. We got a chance to see examples of how Nova will hack into the respective factions' security grids and also saw some of the opponents she will face. Nova is agile and can easily grab ledges, leap high, and so forth--she'll have more to worry about than falling into bottomless pits or that sort of thing. Blizzard wants this game to emphasize the tactical action. To that end, Nova will be able to use a variety of ammunition and grenade types to defeat or distract her opponents.

The latest version of Starcraft: Ghost that we saw was running on an Xbox, though the game is planned for the GameCube and PlayStation 2 as well. The game has a stylized look to it, in that characters have slightly exaggerated proportions and are highly animated in motion. Atmospheric lighting effects and rather large environments give Ghost's scenery the dark look of the Starcraft games, and Nova's opponents are unmistakably taken from the real-time strategy game. The graphics aren't finished--for instance, some graphical effects and animations were obviously missing. We also noticed that many of the sound effects and even some of the voices for Starcraft: Ghost were taken directly from 1998's Starcraft, which Blizzard acknowledged was to maintain the sense of continuity, though we hope these sounds will be updated before the game is finished.

Starcraft: Ghost has a good concept--the Starcraft universe is rich with detail and makes an ideal setting for an action game. The notion of stealthily infiltrating heavily guarded Terran, Zerg, and Protoss encampments could make for an intense and exciting game. However, during Blizzard's recent visit, we really didn't get to see how the gameplay of Starcraft: Ghost would actually pan out, since the levels weren't finished, and the enemy artificial intelligence wasn't there just yet. We also didn't get to see the game's cinematic cutscenes and how the story would unfold. But we do like Nova as a character, from what we've seen of her, and we definitely like Starcraft. We're looking forward to seeing a more-finished build of Starcraft: Ghost in a matter of weeks at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Stay tuned for more information on the game between now and then.

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