StarCraft fans are a patient bunch. It's been twelve, long years since the innovative RTS invaded computers across the world in March of 1998… back in a time when the threat of Y2K was ever looming, and the Winter Olympics were being held in Nagano. Since then, Blizzard has not only released Diablo II and it's expansion, but a total of five Warcraft titles as well. And the only hope for a StarCraft resurgence seemed to be destroyed when the stealth-action game StarCraft Ghost was put on indefinite hold.
Oh yes. StarCraft fans have been patient.
But the drought is nearly over. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, the first part of the highly anticipated StarCraft II trilogy, has entered closed beta testing. Even though all that can be tested is the multiplayer portion of the game, it's looking extremely polished, and extremely StarCraft.
The first thing to notice upon logging in to the beta is the revamped Battle.net. The interface is smooth and easy to navigate, and packs a ton of new features. The chat system works like an instant messenger, and will allow players to interact with friends who are not only playing StarCraft II, but future Blizzard games as well (re: Diablo III). The new Battle.net will also feature different leagues for players of varying skill levels. When you start, it's suggested that you play five games in the "practice league," and based on how well you do in those games, you'll be put in a league with players of similar skill. It's a good idea, and if it works, will keep newcomers who can't seem to win at first from getting discouraged.
As soon as you jump into a game, one thing becomes utterly apparent: this is definitely StarCraft. The interface is very similar to the original, with the map on the left-hand side, unit window in the middle, and other controls on the right. You still use your workers to gather minerals and vespene gas, build up a base and an army, and try to destroy your enemy's force. There are still only three races - the enduring Terran, the ravenous Zerg, and the psionic Protoss. All three are uniquely different, yet extremely well balanced - there's good representation of all three races on the beta, with no one faction dominating the others.
The gameplay remains largely unchanged from the first StarCraft, which most hardcore fans will appreciate, but some might take issue with. With real time strategy games getting more complex and many introducing RPG elements, it's refreshing to go back to what basically built the genre. That's not to say that the game doesn't have any strategic elements to it. It's just that instead of worrying about creeping to level up your hero unit, you'll need to scout out your opponent to make sure the army you're building will be effective in the eventual battle. The gameplay is still fast and exciting, and simply enthralling.
After a match, there's a myriad of information and stats to help let you how you stacked up against your opponents. These range from the typical economic breakdowns, to a screen which details each player's build order, showing what buildings and units a player purchased, and when. This can be especially helpful after a loss, as you can see what units and tech route your opponent used in beating you. In addition to that, the new help menu is useful for both newcomers and veterans alike. The menu showcases each race's tech tree, and shows a 3D rendering of every unit in the game, along with what type of units they're strong and weak against. All of these tools help make StarCraft II very accessible to gamers who have never played the original StarCraft before, and at the same time help improve the skills of those who have been playing for over a decade.
The main difference between the sequel and the original is the updated graphics. It's hard not to notice how gorgeous StarCraft II looks. The new 3D engine is running great, with units looking detailed, landscapes looking majestic, and explosions looking magnificent. You'll be awestruck the first time you see two massive armies meet in a hailstorm of laser fire and explosions. And the game is running great. Even with eighty-plus units on screen at once, I didn't experience any hiccups or frame rate issues at all, which is hard to find in a complete game, let alone a beta test.
The animations look great too, and are fairly varied. If a marine is killed by a zergling, for example, he'll die in splash of blood, and fall to the ground. Get killed by a Protoss laser beam, however, and he'll essentially turn into a suit of lava, and melt away. Another great animation worth mentioning is how your troops won't simply walk through other units, like in a lot of real time strategy games. Instead, they'll interact with units blocking their way to move past them realistically. The best example of this I can give is like how Ezio can move through crowds in Assassin's Creed 2. It's especially important when dealing with huge armies, as it makes the action look stunningly realistic.
After playing several hours of the StarCraft II beta, it's safe to say that Blizzard has not let down those patient StarCraft faithful. The game looks, runs, and feels great, and certainly maintains that classic StarCraft vibe. Hopefully, the fact that I've encountered few to no glitches or bugs during my testing time means that StarCraft II is closer to release than we realize. Wouldn't StarCraft II be a great way to quell the summer gaming shortage? We can only hope.