StarCraft II Hands-On: Round ThreeS

This past week, Blizzard invited press to visit its Irvine, California campus to go hands-on with the latest and greatest build of StarCraft II's multiplayer game. That wasn't the original plan.

When we were first invited to Blizzard's headquarters, we were going to get our first hands-on experience with StarCraft II's single-player game. We were also supposed to get a look at new Battle.net features. Unfortunately for those of us looking forward to seeing how both of those projects were progressing, those presentations had to be pushed back. Such is the Blizzard way, as clearly no product will go public—or ship—until it's ready.

Disappointing? Maybe a little bit, as I'm looking forward to the campaign more than anything. But this is StarCraft II, people. And we just got another dose.

Last week's multiplayer event was the third time I've gone hands-on with StarCraft II, having played the game's multiplayer at Games Convention in 2008 and at BlizzCon in 2007. This time, however, there were almost no time constraints. I had time to play through to the construction of advance buildings. I played long enough to be crushed by a Zerg swarm of Brood Lords, the flying units that rained down broodlings upon my hapless, under-developed Terran forces. I played on every available map, Blistering Sands, Steppes of War, Kulas Ravine, a re-made Lost Temple, New Antioch and Toxic Wastes.

And while we didn't actually get a chance to go hands-on with some of the new Battle.net features—all still a work in progress, Blizzard cautioned—we got to see some fascinating changes.

Most of those changes to the Battle.net interface will appeal to StarCraft professionals and wanna-be professionals. During the three "shoutcasted" pro-level matches we watched—essentially live Battle Reports with color commentary—it was clear that Blizzard is adding features that will appeal to serious fans. There are a ton of stats to eat up during matches, showing each player's army details, technological progress, buildings constructed, economic growth, and average "actions per minute" or APM. All are good indicators of how a StarCraft II player is doing, but it's the post-game stats that will probably appeal to less hardcore fans looking to improve their game.

Not only can observers watch a full replay of a match, they can fast forward and reverse, letting them review snippets of a battle and rewatch game changing moments. Observers can also review match data in fun graph form or study a player's build order, complete with timestamps that will show the precise second when a winning player built his second Barracks or went all-in with Dark Templars.

The new Battle.net interface—again, not final—looked sharp and polished, something we're unfortunately not allowed to show you.

During our eyes-on and hands-on experiences, we got to see some of the more recent changes to the StarCraft II suite of strategies. New, to me anyway, were destructible rocks. Those rocks can open up new chokepoints. They can also block players from building expansions, so you may need to send in a demolition squad if you want to build a second or third base. Who knows what they might do in the hands of map makers?

And speaking of bases, we got a look at the high-yield mineral fields for the first time. A gold cluster of crystals instead of the standard blue, they'll help players earn more raw materials—but also provide a more obvious location at which to expand.

While much of the early StarCraft II game feels familiar, Blizzard has added another layer of strategy to something as simple as resource gathering. Each faction, Terran, Zerg and Protoss, have ways of boosting their resourcing means.

For the Terrans, it's the experimental Mule, a super-powered SCV that harvests more rapidly than the standard drone, but eventually shuts down. The Zerg have the ability now to spawn additional larvae, thanks to the Queen. Helpful for a quick build when the Hatchery is all tapped out. The Protoss have an ability called the Proton Charge, which simply lets Probes collect materials faster. Protoss players will need to build an Obelisk, a special Pylon, to initiate that boost.

Also new to our StarCraft II experience were units we hadn't had a chance to play with before, like the flame-throwing Hellion—a Vulture replacement, of sorts—and the heavily armored Marauder, two Terran units that complement the standard Marine during the early game. And while we did get a chance to delve slightly into StarCraft II's later game, getting far enough to grow Mutalisks during on Zerg playthrough and sprinting to a Protoss Mothership build, most of what we played was early game stuff.

But that will have to come with time and a little bit of single-player experience. Jumping into the deep end of StarCraft II isn't easy for this rusty StarCraft fan, so it will take some time to get used to the new tech trees and the fleet of new units.

Hopefully, the StarCraft II multiplayer beta is just around the corner, as what we played at Blizzard felt incredibly polished, with fantastic new music adding to the atmosphere and improved visuals that threatened to put a hurt on my old graphics card. Granted, there were still some placeholder buttons in the pre-beta version we played, but if Blizzard can get the public multiplayer test out there, we'll overlook that kind of thing. Gladly.