BlizzCon 2008: Starcraft II Hands-On Impressions

We get hands-on with Starcraft II and explore the "old is new" theory with this familiar-looking game.

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ANAHEIM, Calif.--Throughout the years, Starcraft seems to have become less of a game and more a part of scheduled television broadcasts and a pathway to celebrity status in Korea. 2008 marks the 10-year anniversary of the launch of the original game, and what better time than now to reinvigorate the series by mixing things up while retaining the known and loved aspects of one of the most iconic real-time strategy games of all time? We went into our hands-on session with Starcraft II unsure of what to expect. Would this be an entirely new experience and take players on a wild tangential ride into the depths of new space? Or would it leverage on the years of goodwill, storylines, and solid game design to create something familiar and accessible? Turns out it it’s the latter, and we couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

The first and most obvious thing we noticed when we put on the headphones and wrapped our hand around the mouse at the demo kiosk was that it had been a while since our last game. Despite the fact that Blizzard took the wraps off some key aspects of the single-player campaign and dropped the bombshell news that the product will now ship split into three separate campaigns at staggered intervals (to better flesh out each campaign as its own story), we were unfortunately still only able to get hands-on time with a multiplayer build of the game. We chose the Zerg and kicked into the action with a fellow member of the games media. Even with all the years between games, it came flooding back in an instant. The sound of crystals being harvested by your drones and the burrowing of Zerglings into the Creep was a real nostalgia hit, and the reuse of many of the classic audio samples for these actions only further drives home the familiarity. Keyboard shortcuts and build orders might not come so easily, but the play remains the same at its core--build and defend. You’ll still need to send your drones off to farm resources, create Extractors over Vespene gas nodes, and get your economy ticking over. It’s tough to make comments as to the availability of these resources as we did very little map exploration during our game, but our start point included more than enough of both types of currency to get us up and running. As always, ensuring you have an efficient supply chain of resources being delivered is key and allows you to get on with the real action of building units and attacking others.

Starcraft II's combat follows the same dynamic you're used to in its predecessor and will see you building ground and air units to defend your base--in our case Zerglings and Hydralisks--before you kick out an Overlord or two if you wish and fortify your immediate surroundings against incoming attacks. Ironically, while we played as the usually aggressive Zerg faction, we were more interested in getting reacquainted with researching, scoping out the new tech tree, and pumping up our resource reserves to notice the other player moving in for the kill. That player sent waves of Protoss Zealots to our doorstep straight off the bat. The battle was bloody (and surprisingly long given our mediocre preparation), and although we held out as long as possible, it resulted in a situation of attrition with us being pushed back to just outside our starting zone after suffering heavy unit casualties.

Starcraft has always had a unique and rich art style, and we’re pleased to report that this tradition remains intact in its sequel. You’ll still enjoy the same eagle-eye view and playfield scroll speeds as the original, with a nifty addition in the ability to scroll your mouse wheel and get up close and personal with your units and the battlefield if you so wish. Animations appeared fast and fluid, and there was no discernable frame rate slip even once we began to amass several squads of units onscreen at once. Environmental textures also looked great with clearly defined topography indicating raised and lowered ground--handy for telling you where to put your air defenses. The game’s new graphics engine gives it a crisp look further enhanced by lighting effects, such as the glow of a Protoss Pylon structure and the slashing of Zealot blades.

We don’t doubt some will criticize Starcraft II for its perceived lack of innovation based on what we’ve seen so far, but we’d gladly forgo risk for the sake of playing to known strengths than attempt to reinvent the wheel for the sake of it and fail. From the lore and gameplay panels held at this year’s BlizzCon, it’s obvious the development team is keeping much of the old but also introducing new ways to convey aspects, including story and character development. Based on what we’ve seen so far, Starcraft II hits the nail right on the head and reboots the series like a well-timed Stim Pack release. In usual Blizzard fashion it’ll be out when it’s done, but we’ll be following this project all the way to the finish line with much interest.

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