If you're reading this, you have some idea of what Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is. It's the first of three chapters of Starcraft II--the sequel to one of the most popular and influential real-time strategy games ever, Starcraft. Starcraft II is currently in a multiplayer beta specifically built for testing balance between the game's three famous factions: Terrans (human marines), Protoss (ancient alien lorekeepers), and Zerg (a genocidal swarm of insectlike aliens). During a recent press event, we received an update on the game's beta status and also played through three additional missions in the game's single-player campaign--and we have much to report. Please be aware that this story may contain minor story spoilers.
The beta itself, for those who aren't keeping track, currently offers only one-on-one or two-on-two head-to-head multiplayer matches online. Blizzard lead designer Dustin Browder was quick to point out that this is because the beta isn't intended to be a full-on playable demo for the purpose of giving players a sense of how fun the entire Starcraft II experience will be, but rather, it's for balance testing only. Browder did suggest that the beta team is making much better progress than he'd originally hoped for and is now focusing on nitty-gritty details that will make each individual matchup great, such as making Zerg vs. Zerg matches more interesting.
However, the designer did point out that because Starcraft is an internationally well-known product with beta testers all over the world, there still seem to be gray areas in which it isn't quite clear whether certain factions or units are overpowered, or one group of players knows the game better than another. As an example, Browder cited the current state of the beta in Asia, where the Zerg are the most popular race by far and are considered to be somewhat overpowered, while in North America, the Zerg are far less popular and are considered to be underpowered. According to the designer, ironing out those details will make all the difference to the final game's balance and gameplay. Browder also gave an update on the next rumored beta content patch, which should have the map editor and possibly stronger computer AI--the patch should ideally be out by the end of the month but "may slip to a bit later."
After being briefed on the beta, we hunkered down in front of a fairly early part of the single-player campaign to play through a few more missions. As we've related in our previous coverage, the single-player campaign in Wings of Liberty tells the continuing story of the original Starcraft Terran hero, Jim Raynor, who is now considered to be an intergalactic outlaw with a bounty on his head placed by the evil Terran Dominion. Raynor continues his fight against the Dominion, rejoined by his contemporaries Matt Horner and Tychus Findlay on his ship, the Hyperion.
The ship works as a hub area in the game from which Raynor can commission mercenaries at the cantina. He can also purchase single-player-only upgrades for his units at the armory, which come in the form of two different upgrades for infantry, vehicles, and structures--a cheaper, lower-level addition and a more-expensive (and more-powerful) addition. For example, the Terran bunker structure that can be garrisoned by up to four low-level marines to take cover while unloading their combined fire can be upgraded with a relatively cheap armor bonus, as well as a much more expensive, but very worthwhile, ability to garrison up to six marines instead of four.
In addition, the Hyperion lets Raynor conduct either Protoss or Zerg "research" in the ship's lab. Research is powered by research points--which come from either Protoss artifacts or Zerg DNA that appear in certain missions as optional goals. Each line of research (Protoss or Zerg) is tiered from five points up to 25 points and offers two-sided choices at each tier. For instance, the first tier of Protoss research, once you've recovered five points' worth of artifacts, will let you add either a permanent, single-player-only bonus of 5 percent damage to infantry upgrades purchased at the engineering bay structure or a permanent, single-player-only bonus of 5 percent protection to any infantry armor bonuses purchased at the engineering bay. At each tier of research, you can pick only one of the two choices available, at which point the second becomes locked out. Browder suggests that by the time players get through the single-player campaign for the first time, they should be able to unlock at least 50 percent of the game's research upgrades and about 80 percent of the game's credit-costly unit upgrades.
At the opening of the campaign, Raynor makes the shocking discovery that not only have the Zerg returned to mount a new invasion, but they also appear to be led by Raynor's former comrade, Sarah Kerrigan (now known as Queen of Blades after her body and mind became infested by the Zerg). In our previous time with the campaign, we had just run a mission for Gabriel Tosh, a disgraced former Ghost (the infamous Terran stealth corps). At the start of our second session, we found that Tosh had made his way onto Raynor's ship, the Hyperion, and was offering bounties for another mission.
One of the two missions we were able to play was Bel'Shir, an ancient Protoss holy planet with deposits of "terrazine gas," a mysterious substance that Tosh is desperate to get his hands on for reasons that aren't immediately clear. Bel'Shir is a lush, green jungle world dotted with gas deposits. In this mission, Raynor starts off with an established base camp that includes most major structures (though this could be subject to change). This base camp is located near another expansion of the game's two primary resources (crystals and vespene gas) controlled by the Protoss.
Your mission is to order some defenseless space construction vehicle (SCV) building units to each gas node to slowly collect up to seven gas deposits (or, alternately, to completely eliminate all Protoss from the map). However, over the course of the mission, zealous Protoss forces who insist that their sacred homeworld must be defended will send out small recon parties to seal up each node, and if they seal up enough of them, your mission will automatically fail. Each of Starcraft II's campaign missions unlocks a new unit you can begin using from there on out; in this case, the missile-launching goliath walker was our new unit, and we put it through its paces.
While Raynor and his Terran forces start off on one end of the map, and the main Protoss encampment is on the other end, you must keep an eye on multiple fronts, guarding your vulnerable SCVs as you send them out to collect gas while also keeping an eye out on the homestead for any Protoss raiding parties that try to attack your base. You're also required to constantly scout and leapfrog your escort by pushing further into the fog of war that conceals the next gas nodes (which are often guarded by Protoss forces of varying size).
For aggressive players who want to push through into the Protoss installation, the heavy-duty punch provided by the goliath (with backup from the marauder heavy infantry) does a great job of breaking through Protoss defenses so the rest of your forces can swarm in. Bel'Shir seems like a fairly challenging mission that becomes much tougher on the higher difficulty levels. At the end of the mission, a quick visit to Tosh on the bridge reveals that terrazine gas, along with a mineral substance Raynor sought out in a previous mission for Tosh, was used in his experiments in the ghost program to create a new kind of ghost unit--a more-powerful, psychic-powered stealth operative known as the "spectre." Raynor expresses displeasure at how Tosh kept this a secret, but Tosh assures Raynor that there isn't any threat to the vigilante marshal.
The second mission we played was on the planet of Xil, the site of a Protoss reliquary and an accompanying Terran dig site from which all contact was mysteriously lost. According to Findlay, Xil houses an extremely important artifact for which the mysterious Moebius Corporation--a group that offers big credits for Protoss artifacts--will pay exceptionally well. Raynor desperately needs to finance his own efforts, so this mission is primarily motivated by money. As he touches down on the planet, Raynor is once again accosted by hostile Protoss who fanatically believe their holy site should remain untouched (and presumably took out the previous Terran operation). Our new unit in this mission was the siege tank, which, like in the original Starcraft, can be deployed as a stationary artillery unit and performs exceptionally well when you have both line of sight to your enemy and the high ground.
Over the course of this mission, Raynor scouts out the abandoned dig site and hacks its abandoned facilities to start working for him, at which point he can start harvesting resources and pumping out units regularly. The dig site also houses a gigantic mining laser that continually pounds away at the heavily sealed doors protecting the artifact (though there are actually three other hidden artifacts on the map that you can convert into Protoss research points as well). The mining laser slowly but surely chews away at the seals on the artifact while the Protoss send wave after wave of land and air enemies at you.
Fortunately, Horner gives you manual control of the mining laser. This changes the dynamic of the map considerably, since you can focus the powerful weapon on any enemy unit or structure with which you have line of sight and then more or less instantly destroy it. By switching regularly between the laser and our standing forces, we were able to hold off all Protoss encroachments while pushing outward to the artifacts and eventually to the Protoss installment on the other side of the map. Like with the Bel'Shir mission, you can complete this mission simply by eradicating all the Protoss on the map.
After completing this mission, we headed back to the Hyperion, where, in a cinematic sequence, Raynor wanders the halls and takes a few pulls of liquid courage from his trusty flask before being confronted by none other than Zeratul, the Protoss dark templar he aided in the previous game. Zeratul, who appears to be injured (the Protoss warrior clutches his own arm while speaking), suggests to Raynor that the end of the universe is coming and that the key to salvation is none other than the evil Kerrigan. Before the incredulous space marshal can even protest, Zeratul presses an "eon crystal," a small Protoss device, into Raynor's hands. The crystal apparently lets its user relive the recorded memories of the Protoss that originally used it--Zeratul entreats Raynor to use the crystal, which will help him understand the real threat.
The crystal, when used in the ship's laboratory, opens up one of the game's optional "challenge maps," which offers research points as rewards, as well as several of the high-quality prerendered cutscenes for which Blizzard has become famous. In this mission, you play as Zeratul as he reminisces about his journeys investigating the troubling visions he has seen of the end of the universe, culminating with his arrival on a sacred Protoss world that has been overrun by Zerg. He begins his journey alone but possesses powerful innate abilities, such as the ability to be permanently cloaked in psionic invisibility, the ability to telekinetically "blink" himself to a different location, and the ability to use telekinetic "void" power to briefly stun opponents. He easily makes his way past the first few spawns of Zerg in search of the ancient Protoss texts that are housed on the planet, only to encounter Kerrigan, who makes a vaguely threatening speech about how the end of the universe is coming and how neither of them can stop it.
Puzzlingly, Kerrigan lets Zeratul walk away, and over the course of his journeys, the dark templar uncovers a few texts guarded more closely by larger clusters of Zerg with scouting units that can pierce his invisibility. He's joined by a group of Protoss stalkers for backup, and later, by a small army of Protoss archon infantry whom he cannot control, but for which he provides backup against increasingly vicious waves of Zerg. Eventually, Zeratul's newfound comrades vow to slow the Zerg while he escapes, at which point we took him and his few remaining stalkers and made a frantic dash toward the exit.
Just as Zeratul is about to escape, he is again challenged by Kerrigan. Zeratul bravely attacks the Queen of Blades in a spectacular prerendered cutscene that involves the dark templar blinking to and fro in wispy clouds of smoke and Kerrigan repulsing a lunging Zeratul with a telekinetic "push." Both characters trade blows--Kerrigan scores a hit on Zeratul, causing him to hold his arm (just as he does when he meets Raynor), while the Protoss manages to slice off one of her wings. Rather than retaliate, Kerrigan casually regrows her severed wing and calmly explains that the unavoidable end of the universe is coming. She then departs. Zeratul vows to find some way to avoid the culmination of the prophecy and climbs to safety. This ended our single-player experience with the game but also introduced many new questions, such as exactly what sort of prophesied end of the universe is coming, and how, as Zeratul suggests, Kerrigan represents the only hope of avoiding that terrible fate.
Blizzard hopes that optional challenge missions like these, along with the game's achievement system (which offers additional challenges with each single-player campaign mission, such as finishing the mission with no casualties or destroying all enemies on the map), will not only extend the single-player campaign's replay value, but will also help lead newer players along the path to trying the game's online multiplayer, perhaps first in cooperative play against computer-controlled opponents and eventually in head-to-head matches with other players. In any case, Wings of Liberty's single-player game remains intriguing. Stay tuned to GameSpot for future updates.