Now that Blizzard has split the sequel to Starcraft into three chapters, the studio is starting to take the wraps off the sequel's story, which Blizzard's Andy Chambers says is big enough to fill three entire chapters. In fact, the creative director says that the sequel's story is so big that the three different games will let the studio properly tell the story of each of the three factions (Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg), rather than having to cut corners here and there to make everything fit in a single box. In any case, the single-player game of Wings of Liberty, the first of Starcraft II's three chapters, is finally coming together, and we had a chance to try out the first few missions of an early version.
Starcraft II's story picks up some years after the events of the Brood War expansion pack for the original Starcraft, after the vicious, three-sided conflict between Starcraft's three iconic factions: the macho Terran space marines, the noble-yet-inscrutable Protoss aliens, and the swarming, homicidal Zerg aliens. At the end of that story, the rebellious human officer Jim Raynor is set at odds against both his former ally, the treacherous human leader Arcturus Mengsk, and his former ladylove, the stealth-specialist-turned-Zerg-hive-queen Kerrigan.
The story of Starcraft II begins with Raynor dealing with these new and old threats. Though he's now considered a dangerous outlaw in the eyes of Emperor Mengsk, he remains a freedom fighter who leads his ragtag band of misfits into battle against Mengsk's oppressive regime--until a newscast on Jimmy's TV monitor reveals that the Zerg, which have remained dormant for years, have suddenly reappeared and have launched a broadening, full-scale assault on various sectors in the universe, and to make matters worse, Kerrigan herself has also resurfaced and been captured on film.
In fact, Kerrigan and Raynor even share a "moment" in the early part of the campaign, and though he still can't quite understand why Kerrigan has finally come out of hiding, and why the Zerg now seem so obsessed with collecting Protoss artifacts, he renews his vow to put her out of her misery and stop her mission of intergalactic conquest. About the only good news in sight is that Tychus Findlay, the hard-nosed commando and war criminal Raynor served with in earlier games, has escaped his sentence and proposed a new revenue stream to fund Raynor's army--selling Protoss artifacts to a collective of scientists.
This in-depth story is told not only by way of elaborate in-engine cinematics with plenty of fancy camera work on the game's highly detailed character models that cuts to and zooms in on different characters, but also through between-mission sequences that, surprisingly enough, resemble the point-and-click gameplay of classic adventure games such as Myst and Grim Fandango. These sequences take place in peaceful hub areas where key characters sit or stand around items and fixtures of interest--and you can click on these characters or items to examine or interact with them to get Raynor's take on them. For Wings of Liberty, it's clear that Blizzard has looked to a variety of different media sources for inspiration, such as Western motion pictures--at the very outset of the game, the between-mission sequences take place in an interstellar saloon with a burned-out Raynor sitting at a bar with a drink in one hand and a pistol in another.
However, there are also references to influences like the gritty, alien-killing military action of Starship Troopers and ripped-from-the-headlines news broadcasts on the Zerg swarm that appear periodically on TV screens in the game, reminiscent of modern-day news coverage of international conflicts. Clicking around on the items and characters in these areas will pull up little bits of information and lore for players who really want to delve into the story, but it's not at all necessary, and you can skip through them if you're the sort of player who prefers to focus on gameplay and achievements.
There will be plenty of incentives for players who prefer to focus on gameplay. The campaign will have a semi-branching structure based around a starmap of planets that will send out distress calls and offers for other sorts of missions, and completing any individual mission will unlock a new unit for use in the single-player game. (However, not all units that appear in the single-player campaign will appear in multiplayer--the Terran flamethrowing firebat unit, for instance, will be available only in single-player.) In addition, finishing any mission will also net you a wad of credits (cash) you can use to purchase powerful upgrades for your armies or to hire expensive mercenary units from mercs you'll meet in your travels.
These upgrades will make your single-player units more damaging and tougher than their base abilities to deal with the massively powerful boss characters that lie in wait, but they won't be available in multiplayer for gameplay balance reasons. Blizzard is also toying with an open-ended alien research system that will let Raynor's lab cook up anti-alien tech if you successfully collect enough Protoss alien relics or Zerg DNA samples, though this research system is still being worked on and may not even appear in the final game. Real completionists will also find reason to replay each mission, since Wings of Liberty will offer in-game achievements for completing each mission under certain specific conditions, such as quickly finishing a mission within a certain time limit, finishing a mission without losing a unit, or completing a specific side unit.
We played through a handful of early single-player missions to find that the experience will be challenging and closely tied in to the ongoing story. Like the missions in Warcraft III, Starcraft II's missions will have multiple objectives that may change over time and will have picture-in-picture briefings from various characters egging you on to your goal or giving you hints on what to do next. The very first mission in the game acts as a tutorial and puts Raynor in command of a small squad of basic marines as they liberate a mining colony oppressed by Mengsk's forces, and though the mechanics of the mission focus primarily on teaching you how to select, move, and attack with your units, the mission is also an introduction to the new universe Raynor is up against. His forces must fight against other Terran troopers in Mengsk's employ while avoiding any casualties of the cowed civilians who mill around giant holographic statues of their new emperor. However, by the end of the mission, the miners were incited to rebel.
We went on to play three additional missions in the early game against both the Zerg and the Protoss, and in the interest of not spoiling too much, we'll just provide a brief description rather than an in-depth breakdown. The first mission we played was a benevolent evacuation of a small medical colony overrun by Zerg. It required us to fight our way to the survivors' outpost, then periodically guard a few caravans of survivors along a winding road to an evacuation site, defending each from progressively more-ferocious Zerg attacks as the colony's medical officer offered horrified commentary on the viciousness of the invaders.
That particular mission didn't pay much in terms of reward credits, so we took on a higher-paying mission--collecting a large batch of resource crystals from an igneous planet infested with Zerg. The mission required us to collect several thousand crystals from patches of land that were periodically submerged under lava (which instantly killed any units caught in the molten rock), while fending off any Zerg encroachments, though the map also contained a powerful boss creature known as a "brutalisk"--a gigantic Zerg monster that won't appear in multiplayer. The last mission we tried out was a Protoss artifact retrieval mission for Tychus' contact. It took place on a mostly abandoned colony populated by Protoss fanatics, though when we arrived, the Zerg were also swarming the Protoss, and had we not been able to liberate the artifact from its tightly guarded resting place, the Zerg would have overrun the Protoss as well and attacked us. These missions illustrate how Starcraft II's campaign will have lots of variety and plenty of side objectives.
In terms of gameplay basics, Starcraft II's pacing seems very similar to that of the original Starcraft and is often just as fast and just as frantic as in the first game, and the Terran infantry, as ever, is about combined-arms forces of soldiers with varying abilities backed up by combat healing. Unfortunately, we were able to command only a few types of units: marines, which are basic ranged soldiers; firebats, which are flamethrowing infantry good at subduing groups; medics, which continuously heal allied units; marauders, which are heavy-duty infantry with rocket launchers; and reapers, which are infantry units with jumpjet packs that let them take quick flying leaps to quickly close gaps.
Much of the classic Terran tech tree returns in Starcraft II, including infantry bunkers to garrison four marines at once to provide defensive stockades or forward emplacements, as well as mobile command centers (effectively, the Terran's "town hall" structure that lets them create SCV resource harvesters) that can uproot themselves and slowly fly to different areas of the map--a useful tactic in longer missions after you've exhausted nearby resource veins. So far, the Starcraft II experience seems to remain very true to the Starcraft experience and seems just as challenging and action-packed. And the new 3D graphics look quite good, and the artwork for various units and structures, from the intricate and advanced-looking armor of the Protoss units to the disturbingly slimy way that Zerg structures "birth" their units, displays Blizzard's signature combination of hand-drawn art and judicious use of polygons and shading to create 3D art that looks distinctive without being too taxing on your computer.
There will clearly be much more to Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty than just its single-player campaign, but playing through some early missions as the Terrans and experiencing the intriguing new adventure-game-style hub areas offered a glimpse into a game that everyone will want to know more about. We'll have more coverage of Starcraft II as soon as we can bring it to you. Keep your eyes peeled.