Starcraft II Updated Hands-On

We break down some of the key differences among the three races in Starcraft II and offer a few examples of how less-hardcore players can brush up their skills.

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Starcraft II is serious business. As the sequel to arguably the greatest strategy game of all time, it has a way of bringing out an intensely competitive spirit in most who've had a chance to play it, spurring even mild-mannered players into becoming mineral-harvesting machines. But maybe you're not one of those people. Maybe it's been awhile since you've played, you don't really have a favorite race to call your own, or you just plain think you'll be in over your head when the game is finally released. During a recent trip to Blizzard, we were pleased to find out that none of those things are cause for concern. Blizzard's clearly working on a game that should appeal to all levels of Starcraft fandom.

If you haven't been following every last bit of Starcraft II news, it helps to have a good idea of what Blizzard's done with the game's three races. It's true that Blizzard is sticking relatively close to the original--which means those who were great at the first game will have a good advantage going into the sequel--but there are still plenty of alterations and enhancements that are going to force everyone into rethinking their age-old strategies. Here's a few that grabbed our attention the most, accompanied by some insight from lead designer Dustin Browder.

Zerg: Everything you read about the Zerg in Starcraft II should come with one important caveat: Blizzard is tweaking the Zerg race the most at this point. According to Dustin Browder, "They're the last race to be developed, so it doesn't surprise me too much that they're still playing catch-up." All that is left is to make them more powerful: "Zerg in general are still a little bit weak, especially in Tier 2."

However, the Zerg are hardly pushovers. The Baneling, which morphs from the Zergling, is a new unit that will help defend against the onslaught of other races. The Baneling is one of Blizzard's many examples of putting specific counters in the game, as the Baneling unit is great against low-level rushes of Protoss Zealots and Terran Marines. You can also exploit the newly revamped Queen unit, which is now capable of an ability that lets your hatchery spawn four extra larvae. When you use that ability to amass a huge army and throw in some Roach units to absorb damage, you've got yourself a pretty impressive force.

Protoss: The Protoss race features the warp-in technology, which is an ability that makes your run-of-the-mill gateways much more interesting. Rather than spawning new units right in front of the gateway or at a nearby rally point, you can elect to warp any units that gateway has created to far-off corners of the map as long as you've got a pylon there. Basically, the warp-in ability allows you to use a gateway to create troops in one of your bases and shoot them over to any expansion you've made down the line. Think that gives the Protoss too much of an edge? A lot of Blizzard folks thought so too. "We had a lot of controversial discussion on the team, and now that it's been implemented, people can't live without it," says Browder.

One of the other new boosts to the Protoss race is the ability to build an obelisk at your base. The Protoss have always been more about taking the time to make powerful, durable units rather than quickly putting together a flood of dispensable grunts. With the obelisk, though, you can cast a proton charge spell on your probes to have them gather crystals at a much faster rate. Pulling in more crystals means you can pump out more Zealots to help overwhelm your Zerg enemies with a taste of their own medicine.

The Zerg Queen is one of the units Blizzard has given a massive overhaul.
The Zerg Queen is one of the units Blizzard has given a massive overhaul.

Terran: One of the most dramatic unit changes in Starcraft II comes in the form of the Ghost. We asked Browder if there were any units in SCII that have been overhauled so much that players might not even recognize them, to which he replied, "The Ghost is kind of like that. The Ghost was much cheaper in SCI...Right now with his snipe and his cost and his speed, he's so effective." On the other side of the coin are the Terran Siege Tanks, which Browder cited as an example of something the team was reluctant to mess with despite initial ideas of cutting it. "The Siege Tank is probably the biggest albatross; the biggest, scariest one that would have made a huge difference to cut."

Like the other races, the Terran have also been given a few new tricks to boost their production and effectiveness. You can add a modular reactor upgrade to your barracks to create two infantry units at once to really pump out the marines, medivacs, and vikings. You can also upgrade your command center to an orbital command, allowing you to bring in mule units. These little guys are temporary harvesters that let you harvest far more minerals during a short period of time.

Study, Study, Study: There are a few new features that will help improve your game but don't even come into play until the match is over. One is a postmatch stats screen that gives you a bevy of information related to you and your opponent's performance during the game. A few examples are a graph of your army size over time in relation to your opponents; your average unspent resources; and an itemized list of everything you built at precisely what time during the match. If you take the time to study this information, it should help you isolate problem areas in your production and upgrading strategies.

Another option is the postmatch replay system, which lets you watch and save replays of your match--sort of the equivalent of a football player studying game film. A novel move for real-time strategy games, this replay feature lets you actually skip around forward and backward instead of just letting the video play out as it happened.

For units like the Protoss colossus, cliffs are no obstacle.
For units like the Protoss colossus, cliffs are no obstacle.

The new Battle.net matchmaking system will also feature a heavy focus on matching players of even skill levels, taking measure to make sure players aren't hiding their skill levels with a low-level account for the sake of easily demolishing opponents. There will also be a casual-focused online league that offers normal game speed matches--instead of the usual advanced speed--and maps that are designed to prevent early-match rushes.

Altogether, it looks like Starcraft II should have something to offer everyone. We already knew hardcore fans were going to love it, but now it seems that those who were a bit more on the fence don't have anything to worry about if they want to enjoy some online matches, as well. Stay tuned for more Starcraft II coverage in the near future, including a long-awaited look at the single-player campaign.

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