SEOUL--Though the most exciting events on hand at Blizzard Entertainment's Worldwide Invitational 2007 event seem to be the international game tournaments, the most exciting development for game players worldwide is clearly the announcement of Starcraft II, the sequel to the classic 1998 real-time strategy game, which many consider to be one of the best RTS games ever, if not simply the best. GameSpot was present at the event and has reported various details on the game since its announcement. We've also compiled what we've seen and gathered so far into one place for your convenience, culled from various demonstrations, interviews, our original announcement story, our interview session story, our gameplay panel story, and our art design panel story.
Starcraft II's single-player campaign will feature an all-new story that takes place four years after the events of the last Starcraft product, the Brood War expansion pack. Brood War featured campaigns with epic battles fought among the series' three main factions: the underhanded human Terrans, the swarming Zerg aliens, and the ancient and mysterious Protoss. Each of the three factions were led by key characters, such as military officer Jim Raynor of the Terrans, Kerrigan (a former Terran soldier who later became "infested" by the Zerg to become one of that faction's most powerful champions), and Zeratul, a Protoss "dark templar" who, after suffering a series of tragic betrayals, eventually assumed leadership for his race.
According to vice president of creative development Chris Metzen, all three characters will reappear in Starcraft II's campaign in some fashion, and according to creative director Andy Chambers, the enigmatic Xel'Naga, the mysterious race that helped the Zerg and Protoss evolve into what they are, will also figure prominently into Starcraft II's story. Over the course of the single-player game, you'll explore new worlds associated with the story, such as the new Protoss world of Bel'Shir, an abandoned religious retreat that has fallen into ruin after a Zerg invasion, and the deep-space Terran base of Braxis Alpha, a craggy world covered in spots by industrial sprawl. You'll also see familiar worlds, like the volcanic Zerg home planet of Char.
In terms of basic gameplay details, Starcraft II will be what vice president of game design Rob Pardo calls "a true sequel to Starcraft." The sequel is confirmed to feature only the original three playable races from the previous games: the Protoss, the Zerg, and the Terrans; there will be no fourth race, not even the Zerg/Protoss hybrid that appeared in a mission in Brood War. There will also be no hero characters, unlike in Blizzard's last RTS, 2002's Warcraft III. Instead, the sequel will be very much about what Pardo calls "mass armies"--large groups of units doing battle at once. Pardo has pointed out that unlike previous Blizzard games, Starcraft II will have no "selection limit"--that is, you'll be able to click and drag your mouse to select an unlimited number of your own armies to control.
The VP suggests that while Warcraft III often featured battles among 20 or so units and sometimes among as many as 60, Starcraft II's battles will be much larger skirmishes among as many as 300 units onscreen at once. Apparently, like those of the previous game, most of Starcraft II's units will not require a great deal of micromanagement (unlike the ability-heavy units of Warcraft), and will instead be what Pardo calls "movers and shooters"--mostly autonomous units that can continously attack their enemies using standard abilities.
Some other gameplay details about Starcraft II have been revealed, including the fact that the new game will, like the original Starcraft, include "positional" gameplay that gives attack bonuses to ground-based troops who are standing on high ground. In Starcraft II, units with height advantage will also not be revealed out of the "fog of war," a nuance that could come in handy in advanced play. Terrain height will also provide barriers to most units, who will have to walk around mountains and cliffs, though in Starcraft II, some units will have the ability to mantle over height obstacles, and flying units will be able to simply fly over obstacles, as they could before. And like in the original Starcraft, a key component of the sequel's strategy will be making use of "hard counters"--commissioning specific units to "counter" the ones your enemy is throwing at you. For instance, Protoss templars will be counterunits against Zerglings thanks to their powerful "psi storm" ability that conjures a brief but intense barrage of energy that can liquidate the Zerg's basic infantry.
The game will also apparently offer variable play speeds (such as "slow," "normal," and "fast"), similar to the options in Warcraft III, and at its fastest, it should play about as quickly as any competitive match of the original Starcraft. To ensure that the sequel's multiplayer play is suited for "e-sports" (professional video game competitions), Blizzard representatives have stated that the game's special effects will "definitely make the game look good," but are being designed to have a minimal effect on the game's actual performance on your computer (and of course, you'll be able to dial down the detail levels for various effects). Blizzard will also apparently consult with professional players during the course of the game's development, most likely during the game's testing phase, which will likely take the form of a by-invitation closed beta--the same kind Blizzard has held with its previous games--at an undisclosed date in the future. The studio is trying to ensure that Starcraft II has a more pronounced "differential in skill levels" among players. The game will feature many nuances that only highly skilled and dextrous players will be able to use regularly. Pardo estimated that the average Starcraft multiplayer session will last about 20 minutes--a highly competitive match between pro players might last as little as 15. However, the vice president also pointed out that the game will offer other features that will appeal to beginners and will hopefully encourage them to begin playing actively, such as a replay system that will let players watch match replays and possibly also act as spectators during matches.
The units in Starcraft II will evidently consist of a combination of brand-new troops and holdovers from the original games. According to Pardo, the team is taking the approach of evaluating units from the original Starcraft and deciding "which ones are so essential that it wouldn't be Starcraft without them" and keeping those, while axing others in favor of new units, since Starcraft II will not have a significantly larger number of units per faction than Brood War. Returning units are being evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses to see how they fit into the new game; in some cases, they're being upgraded or rebalanced with new abilities. For example, the zealot, the low-level melee grunt of the protoss faction, is being upgraded with a new "charge" ability that lets them take an instantaneous leap forward, which will be a great help for them to pursue fleeing units. The zealot is a solid trooper, if somewhat slow, but since the charge ability can be used "passively" (that is, it won't require you to actively select and use it each time you wish to perform the ability) the new ability will make the unit considerably more useful and flexible.
Apparently, though Starcraft II has been unveiled at this event in South Korea, the focus of the announcement is primarily on the protoss faction and its new and updated units and abilities. One new unit that has been revealed is the phoenix, a swift flying ship that can be used as a fast scout and as a powerful air-to-air combatant. The phoenix's real power seems to be its "overload" ability, which lets it briefly sacrifice its own functionality to generate a powerful and damaging energy field around itself (essentially immolating itself like the mythical bird it's named after), but which causes the unit to then become temporarily helpless. Another new unit is the immortal, a tough, crab-like tank with dual mounted turrets that acts as powerful artillery and also possesses a heavy-duty energy shield which is triggered only when it sustains severe damage--and therefore makes the tank an ideal "counter-unit" to use against enemies that deal lots of damage at once, such as the terran siege tank.
Blizzard has also revealed the protoss stalker, a medium-power ground unit that can attack both grounded and airborne enemies and can use its "blink" ability to instantly transport itself to any spot on the map to which you have line of sight. We saw several demonstrations of how this unusual ability can be used creatively to effortlessly pursue fleeing enemies by constantly "blinking" right in front of them, but also to bypass terrain obstacles by using a phoenix to scout impassable areas to gain line of sight to them (and then "blinking" in), and even to spar with slower enemies by repeatedly shooting them while continually "blinking" away just out of their reach. In addition, the protoss colossus has also been revealed--this powerful and huge unit resembles a "protoss version" of the gigantic alien walkers from the recent War of the Worlds motion picture remake--a metallic walker studded with glowing aqua-colored beacons. The colossus will be one of the units with the new ability to mantle over terrain with differing heights simply by ascending or descending with its long, spidery legs. The protoss will also have a new flying unit, the flying "warprey" ship, whose powerful, concentrated laser weapon deals successively more damage the longer it fires upon the same target.
The final new protoss unit revealed at the event is the mothership, the protoss' most powerful and presumably also the most expensive and time-consuming unit to commission. When completely "built," the mothership actually "warps in" out of thin air from a series of pale-blue, cubical light patterns that divide and shift to reveal the superpowerful unit. Pardo has stated that "the protoss can only have one [mothership]," but this exceptionally powerful unit has two devastating abilities that should make the rarity and the (presumed) expense worthwhile. The mothership can generate a localized black hole that seems to completely destroy any enemies that get caught within it by sucking them into oblivion. It also possesses a "planet cracker" ability, which lets the mothership rain a stream of multiple laser beams onto any target below it, dealing a devastating amount of damage. Yet in addition to these new units, the protoss will also have new structures, like the phase prism, which lets them "warp-in" (instantly transport units into the vicinity of this structure)--a powerful new ability that could prove to be a cornerstone of this faction's strategies.
Although Blizzard is primarily showing off the protoss faction at the event, a few other details have emerged about the other two factions. The terran faction will apparently have at least one new unit in the reaper, a medium infantry unit equipped with "jump-pack" jets on his back that lets him mantle over height obstacles, just like the protoss colossus can. In the meantime, the terrans will still have mobile bases, marine infantry, and siege tanks. The zerg will still have standard zerglings (the small, four-footed basic infantry units) and mutalisks (the zerg's basic flying unit), but it will also have nydus worms--giant worms reminiscent of the sand worms in the motion picture Dune that can leap out of the ground to attack enemies--and "banelings," a new mutant form of zergling that glows an obvious bright green color and can sacrifice itself to splatter its enemies in toxic, damaging acid. From what we've seen, the zerg will still be able to overwhelm their enemies with sheer numbers--we saw a demonstration at the announcement address that showed dozens of zerg onscreen at once.
Unlike the original Starcraft, which featured hand-painted 2D sprites, Starcraft II will be a fully 3D game. Graphically, Starcraft II looks noticeably better than Warcraft III--the game's units seem more-detailed (they consist of more polygons, which makes them look far less "blocky" and far more defined), and the brief demonstrations we saw made generous use of bloom and lighting effects for lasers, explosions, and engine flares. Starcraft II's graphics will be DirectX 9.0-based and will support Pixel Shader 2.0, with all the attendant DirectX 9 effects, such as high dynamic range lighting; HDR bloom; and normal, specular, and emissive mapping, among others. Faithful PC game fans may be encouraged by Blizzard president Mike Morhaime's statement that Starcraft II represents Blizzard's "continued commitment to focusing on the PC as a platform," brought on by the decision to suspend development on the console game Starcraft Ghost. However, high-end PC owners may be less encouraged to hear that although the game will be playable on both Windows XP and Vista, in its current state, it does not support the recently-released DirectX 10 graphics interface. Blizzard representatives were quick to point out that this is subject to change before the game ships.
Like Warcraft III before it, Starcraft II will ship with editing tools that will let players create their own maps and modifications. Though there aren't many details available, the editing tools will be based on, according to lead producer Chris Sigaty, an enhanced version of the Warcraft III editing tools. And even though the game has apparently been in development since 2003, shortly after Blizzard shipped the Frozen Throne expansion pack for Warcraft III--and even though the game is, according to Blizzard, already playable in multiplayer with all three factions--Starcraft II will be released "when it's ready." As president Mike Morhaime stated, Blizzard doesn't "really have a budget; [the studio will] spend as much time and resources as [it needs] to make this game great."