Hands-on: Starcraft 2 - the single-player experience (finally!)

Don't you just love embargoes? So do we. Expect a ton of StarCraft 2 information today.

Forget everything you know about StarCraft 2. Well, forget everything you know about the single-player campaign in StarCraft 2. Which at this point is pretty much ... nothing. We've told you all about the multiplayer and its upcoming changes, but the single-player experience has been one gigantic black hole. Until now. We recently spent a day at Blizzard's campus learning all about StarCraft 2's Wings of Liberty Terran campaign, the first in a series with the Zerg and Protoss expansions coming at a later date.

One thing is for sure: this isn't anything like the old StarCraft single-player campaign. Read on to find out what you'll be doing with Jim Raynor throughout the 30 or so missions in StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty.%Gallery-69481%

Blizzard stressed to us that the game is still very much a "work in progress" and the delay they announced not long after our visit can certainly attest to that. They're cramming so much into the game that parts of it weren't even ready to show to us yet. The new Battle.Net wasn't ready either, but even with those things in mind, there was a ton of new stuff to see.

A fully rendered, three-dimensiona Jim Raynor begins the game in a dusty (and similarly 3D!) bar, drinking his woes away. It's been four years since the events of the Brood War. Things have boiled down to Arcturus Mengsk vs. Jim Raynor, and Raynor holding down a whiskey bottle in Joey Ray's Bar on Mar Sara. The bar contains a jukebox (clickable but not yet working), a bulletin board (full of thank you cards from kids, a lipstick-kissed napkin from the Miss Sara competition winner, and more), and a holo-console that Raynor can access to read about mission opportunities. Everything is clickable, and more items appear depending on the missions you've completed.

The talking-head computer adjutant (the Ghost in the Shell-looking woman from the first game) relays mesages to Raynor, although now instead of her narrating the next mission, you'll see a character calling for help, offering you a lucrative deal, or wanting you to investigate something. Raynor's first mission finds him tasked with helping the locals battle the Terran Dominion. Raynor and seven marines have to destroy an outpost on Mar Sara, and unlock weapons caches stolen from the colonists.

Along the way, you'll blast several large holoboards that feature Mengsk spouting propaganda, and they explode with a satisfying boom. Throughout the first mission, tutorials will pop up that can be accessed at any time in the tutorials menu, and they now come complete with videos showing you exactly what they're talking about. You can also now hit the "Alt" button to display the health of everything on screen. Raynor is trying to encourage the colonists to join in the fight, and they'll occasionally talk back with lines like "We ain't allowed to have guns!" Eventually they'll join in with molotovs and their bare fists.

After the first mission, you'll notice that Starcraft 2 now has achievements.

After the first mission, you'll notice that Starcraft 2 now has achievements. It took me about eight or nine minutes to finish the first mission, although I was admittedly stopping to admire the scenery, which features nice touches like billboards that read "Real Men Drill Deep!" and so on. I was able to nail the "Backwater Liberator" (complete mission) and "Flawless Liberation" (no civilians die) achievements, although there were several more listed. Once the mission is done, you have the option of saving the full replay to your hard drive as well.

One you've complete that mission, Tychus J. Findlay joins you in the bar, and he convinces Raynor to join him on the Hyperion, where the game really shifts into high gear. Once onboard, Raynor can now explore complete areas of the ship, including the Lab and the Armory. The Lab wasn't completely finished yet, but it will eventually allow you to harvest Zerg and Protoss parts to create new weapons and abilities. The Armory, however, was an entirely different matter. It was finished, and I put it to very good use.

Let's say you're tired of your bunkers not being able to defend themselves. 30k in credits will net you a bunker with a mounted turret on top

With each completed mission, you gain credits; credits that you can use to hire mercenaries (more about that in a minute), or spend on upgrades in the Armory. Let's say you're tired of your bunkers not being able to defend themselves. 30k in credits will net you a bunker with a mounted turret on top. Building micro-fusion reactors for your SCVs that cut the cost of building them by 15 will set you back 60k. You can build fire-supression systems for your buildings, upgrade your units, and so on. It's an extremely deep and robust system that you'll visit often so you can have the latest tech at your disposal.

Likewise, in the cantina on the ship, you can hire local mercenaries to use in your missions. These appear as one-use upgrades in the Command Center, and once they die ... they're gone. However they're much heartier than a normal unit and if you're in a pinch they come in very handy. You'll still have to spend resources to "summon" them, but not nearly as much as if you'd had to build them. You can hire multiple groups of mercenaries if you want; however, they're expensive, and frankly you're better off spending the extra credits on tech if you can.

Once you head up to the Hyperion, the missions spread out considerably, and you'll have several to choose from, rather than the ladder missions from the original game where you couldn't progress to the next one until you'd finished the current mission. The next mission has Tychus and Raynor trying to liberate a mysterious artifact for the "Mobieus Foundation", a group buying up and searching for ancient artifacts. This kicks the Lab on the Hyperion into play.

A nerdy lab rat studies the artifact and unlocks the keys to some genetic manipulation, although he needs raw materials. If you bring him four Zerg chrysalises, he can develop white napalm which adds +1 to infantry weapon damage, and so on. It's a very loosely constructed part of the game, and may be changing. It was a bit annoying to have to try and track down all of the items at times, but then again we're used to the "hurry up and complete the objective" gameplay of the first StarCraft.

Things aren't just changed on the ship and in the menus, either; when you're on the battlefield, you'll notice many differences, including environmental obstacles. One mission featured rising lava that would instantly destroy any of your units. When the alarm sounds, you have about 30 seconds to make sure you have no stray SCVs or tanks rolling through the low areas, and then the lava pours in and scorches everything. There's a Zerg Ultralisk you need to destroy in that level as a bonus, and you get an achievement called "Red Lobster" if you defeat him using the molten rock.

Really, it's overwhelming how different this game is from the original. It's been supercharged and upgraded exponentially as the graphics attest: you can adjust the gamma, the textures, the reflections, the physics, the terrtain, the shader, and a lot more. You can even toggle the unit portraits between 3D, 2D, and off. Of course, we were playing on extremely high-end computer set to "Ultra" but the new feel of the game was pervasive throughout, from the gameplay to the music (which is also thankfully much improved).

In the Blizzard lobby, they have a book of bound letters to the company. One in particular stood out from a college student who was begging Blizzard to make the next StarCraft game "boring" so that his grades wouldn't suffer. Hopefully that guy has graduated by now, but it's fair to say that there will be many skipped classes and many missed hour of learning thanks to StarCraft 2. We knew they were working to improve the single-player in the game, but we didn't know it would be this much better. Now getting our clocks cleaned in multiplayer won't hurt quite so bad.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.