I played all four of the mods, from the complex Left 2 Die to the silly-but-addictive Aiur Chef. All of them, along with their textures and assets, will be released inside the StarCraft 2 community for free, available to play by anyone who owns the game.
StarJeweled is the simplest of the mods on offer -- it's Blizzard's take on PopCap's Bejeweled, and has you gem-matching three-of-a-kind on a board a little bigger than a quarter of the screen. Matching gems earns you energy -- you can have 1000 energy at a time, and then that energy can be used to fight a StarCraft battle on the other side of the screen. You summon units at the bottom of a lane-style battlefield, while your opponents summon units at the top; and then the two sets of units duke it out independently, while you continue to match gems as quickly as you can.
You can alternately spend energy on a special set of player abilities that lets you do things like slow down enemy units, deal direct damage to them or heal your own units. There's a base at either end of the battlefield, and when one party's base (the BlizzCon matches were 2-vs-2) runs out of health, the game is over.
I found the mechanics of the gem-matching to be surprisingly solid, and I consider myself a match-three veteran -- at least, when it comes to Puzzle Quest. But the StarCraft side of the battle felt disconnected -- you're not directly controlling the units, so it's a little hard to tell when you're winning, or what to do differently if you start to lose. Still, StarJeweled plays as you'd expect, and the extra act of summoning units to fight for you makes for an interesting tweak to the standard formula.
As you probably guessed from the name of this mod, Left 2 Die has you fighting zombies as a duo. This co-op mod was inspired by the StarCraft 2 campaign level "Outbreak," in which players had to contend with infected aliens, attacking and retreating during a day-and-night cycle. Of the four mods on display, this one played the most like a standard RTS game -- you have a base to defend, you need to collect resources and you need to build up units and tech to attack the oncoming zombie zerg horde. The developers have tweaked the look of the onrushing zerg for this one, and they've even added some characters inspired by Left 4 Dead, including a "Hunterling" that leaps on your units and a "Choker" that grabs and eats a few of them at a time. Killing zombies allows you to collect "biomass," which can be redeemed for more units and new techs.
The day-and-night cycle is key to this gametype -- during the night periods, the action quickly gets frantic, as waves and waves of hungry zerg assault your base, requiring plenty of resources and defending units to hold them back. And then, just as it seems as if all hope is lost and you're about to be conquered, the day cycle returns: The sun shines down and burns off all of the bad guys threatening you, and you're back to rebuilding and readying for the next sunset. During the day, you must also take out an army onto the map and destroy infected buildings, and I'll be honest: My lack of RTS skills had me struggling with the complexities of this mod.
Clearly, Left 2 Die seems like a great mod for hardcore StarCraft 2 players, as it builds on the fan-favorite Outbreak level. It also features high production values (there's a voiceover cinematic to kick off each match and a tutorial system for less-competent players) and multiple difficulty levels. Of all the new mods, Left 2 Die seems the most likely to survive for years to come.
Dota was the mod I was most looking forward to -- while the legendary Defense of the Ancients mod from WarCraft 3 has its roots in an original StarCraft map, I was curious to see Blizzard's official take on the now much-copied gameplay. Unfortunately, Blizzard Dota seems more like a straight remake of the old mod, albeit in the StarCraft 2 engine.
That's hardly a bad thing, and the new mod features the classic range of heroes and creeps. Despite some occasional trouble I had with targeting (sometimes my hero would lose focus, causing me to lose control during some frantic scuttles), Blizzard Dota plays as expected. Each hero has a few abilities to level up, items can be purchased and upgraded from a few shops in the base, and the players I fought alongside fell right back into old tricks: switching lanes to gank, pushing a lane when the opportunity arose and going after towers when possible.
Still, it felt sort of hollow. Compared to a polished DotA clone like League of Legends, Blizzard Dota never lets you forget that it's just a mod of StarCraft 2. Sure, it's a nice bonus for StarCraft 2 owners, and it's still being balanced and worked on (Blizzard made sure to point out that this was just a preview build, not the finished product), but anyone expecting a challenger to the commercial clones out there (or the one soon coming) probably won't find what they're looking for.
That said, it's worth mentioning that the heroes in the mod are a Blizzard fan's dream: Lady Sylvanas, Zeratul, Raynor, Muradin, Grunty the Murloc, and even the Level-80 Tauren Chieftain are all playable characters; each with its own art assets and abilities. During the StarCraft 2 mods panel, the developers told the crowd that Blizzard Dota was their version of Super Smash Bros. If you're a huge Blizzard fan, this one's worth playing for the company in-jokes alone.
Aiur Chief is definitely the weirdest of the four mods. It's the only original game, and while it controls like an RTS, it's about as far from StarCraft as you can get. The title is Blizzard's pun on the "Iron Chef" TV show, and in the game, up to eight Protoss Zealot chefs (complete with rolling pin weapons and little chef hats) are tasked with cooking a set of three recipes using ingredients found on the game's map.
To make one dish, for example, you might have to go grab a couple of pears from an orchard in the north, pork steaks found by killing some "pygalisks" and some Templar Honey, extracted from a High Templar wandering around the map. Collect the right ingredients, bring them back to the kitchen counter in the middle of the map and you earn points by making the dish. After teh match time expires, the chef with the most points wins.
Aiur Chief is very silly -- not only does the game make you run around looking for wacky items, but occasionally you'll find temporary power-ups that might let you move more quickly or cause the other chefs to dance uncontrollably, essentially stunning them. And yet, despite all the silliness and simplicity, I was sucked into the gameplay: By the end of the third round (each match features several rounds; each with its own "special ingredient"), I was excitedly racing about, trying to find some "Holstein Cheese" to finish a recipe and win the game.
Aiur Chef was the sort of unintentional outcome of the development team tinkering with the StarCraft 2 game editor -- specifically, they were seeking to show off how the game's models could be altered and to test out the inventory system. The result turned out to be a pretty interesting mod. Aiur Chef is not the kind of game you'll see on stage at Blizzard's Worldwide Invitationals, but it's a charming and original example of the vast possibilities of the StarCraft editor.