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Hands-on: StarCraft II multiplayer

Kevin Kelly

It's been nearly two years since we were first embarrassed in a StarCraft II multiplayer preview, but we recently got our long-awaited shot at redemption. During the interim, we've logged countless hours with the original StarCraft and its Brood War expansion (having picked up new, digital copies for a mere $15) in order to prepare for this opportunity. The bad news? We still managed to get owned. Although, in our defense, we were playing against some hardcore fansites, and the setup of Blizzard's recent hands-on event was not unlike being dropped into a televised StarCraft tournament match in Korea with an announcer saying, "Okay, and ... GO!"

That's the bad news. The good news is that StarCraft II looks simply amazing, and it plays even better. After you've pounded your brain with several hundred hours (for some of you, it's probably thousands of hours) of StarCraft, and you fire up StarCraft II, it's like being jolted by 1.21 jigawatts of mouse-clicking rapture -- which, thankfully, also numbed the pain of our ongoing losing streak.

Gallery: Starcraft 2 (6/29/09) | 32 Photos

Before our play date began, Blizzard's Rob Simpson, from the tournament / e-sports team, StarCraft II lead designer Dustin Browder and PR maestro Bob Calyco treated us to a live Battle Report featuring three, player-vs-player multiplayer matches in a cozy screening room. Game balance designers -- and SC2 Battle Report players -- David Kim and Matt Cooper squared off against each other on several maps, with Kim trouncing Cooper each time. You'd think it would be strange sitting in a plush movie theater and cheering on players that weren't in the room (they were manning their armies from separate locations), but it was actually exciting and opened us up to the possibility of theaters selling tickets to watch massive gaming events in the future.

StarCraft II supports up to 12 players in custom games or 8 players in ranked matches with four additional slots designated for spectators.

The match was shown to us through the game's new spectator mode. StarCraft II supports up to 12 players in custom games or eight players in ranked matches with four additional slots designated for spectators. Custom match players can mix and match any combination of viewers and spectators up to 12. Viewers can watch the game with a user-controlled, free-roaming camera, or they can choose to view exactly what any one the other players is seeing. It's a voyeuristic experience, and one that feels like it could give you a seizure at times. Some of these players move around faster than a hummingbird on Red Bull.

StarCraft II also tracks just about every metric you can conceive: number of workers built, resources gathered, resources spent, technologies researched, units built, units destroyed ... even clicks per minute. As a spectator, you can select and view any of these stats from a pull-down menu, or you can just continue to watch the game sans data. Every game is also saved for replay, and these files can be fast-forwarded, rewound, and studied ad infinitum, so you can highlight your victories or figure out where you went wrong.

We should note that you can't scrub through a replay in fast-motion, since the screen will stay put on the last played video frame while you scrub forward or backward, but the mini-map will reflect what's happening in real-time as you scrub, which makes it easier to find the moment you're looking for. While you're watching a replay, all of the game metrics are available to you, and you see how everything breaks down on multiple charts as well, detailing army size and so on; it's a bit similar to the way Civilization charts different player and country performances. Despite all the functionality, the replay files are very small in size and can be easily shared between players.

Everywhere you look, StarCraft II is a wondrous visual improvement over the original.

After the screening, we were able to get out own mitts on the game. Following a few "unbalanced" matches against the aforementioned fansites, we switched to playing against the A.I. with the settings dialed down to what we like to call the "dumb as a brick" level. While it felt good to finally log a few wins, we also were able to take time to explore the levels and admire the graphical enhancements in the game. Everywhere you look, StarCraft II is a wondrous visual improvement over the original, which isn't as much a surprise as it is a joy to finally behold. After all, it's been more than ten years since the first game was released.

Gliding across the terrain we soaked in the lush environments, which now include destructible barriers that block certain paths. There are pools of water, hulking alien ruins, waves of plants that act as line-of-sight shields, and even climate effects like pouring rainstorms. Even the character portraits that reflect what unit is selected have improved dramatically, and they look stunning compared to the original iteration. It's as drastic as the movies going from black and white to technicolor, or even from the era of silent films to sound; on the aural front, StarCraft II features delightful, ambient music, the clashing sounds of battle, and excellent voice work.

When you select, for example, the new Terran Thor unit, a hulking, bipedal mech that packs tremendous firepower, you'll hear a spot-on Schwarzenegger impersonator belting out lines like: "I'll be back!" and the fourth wall-breaking "I am here! Click me!" It might get old after the hundredth time you hear it, but we were laughing about it all day long, even as we were being gutted by an opponent. There are new voice-overs for all units, including a clever Batman reference in the Terran Banshee when the female pilot announces, "Turbines to speed!" as you move the unit around.

You'll hear a spot-on Schwarzenegger impersonator belting out lines like: "I'll be back!"

We were also eager to play around with the tweaked economics in StarCraft II. The Terrans have a new temporary unit called a Mule that can be called down from orbit and looks like a steroid-ridden Wall-E. The Mule quickly harvests more material, giving the player an immediate resource boost. Likewise, on the Protoss side, there's a new unit called an Obelisk, which has a "proton charge" that speeds up harvesting. The Zerg Queen has a new ability, too, allowing her to "spawn larvae" on Hatcheries, which will provide four new larvae in about 40 seconds, allowing the player to rapidly build new units.

In addition to the added units and abilities, there are new minerals on the field, including yellow minerals that yield more resources than the typical blue stuff. We didn't noticed any enhanced Vespene gas geysers, but the yellow mineral locations are understandably more valuable, and are often in locations that are very difficult to defend, adding a welcome layer to an old StarCraft strategy.

The destructible environmental hazards, which often block paths to more minerals, add an additional layer of gameplay complexity. You have to decide if you want to spend resources to bust them down and gain quicker access to the untapped minerals or wait until you've developed air units and can drop workers beyond the obstacles, which can double as natural defenses. Another environmental tweak are the Xel'Naga watchtowers, which provide large line-of-sight reveals of the map. These towers must be captured, and at least one unit must remain with the structure to gain the sight advantage.

We're true Terrans at heart.

After wrapping up our play session, we were definitely buzzing. If we had to pick a side, we'd have to go with the Terrans. We loved the new units, including the expensive, but so-worth-it, airborne Raven unit that drops automated drone guns and the Thor mech, which, while looking and sounding cool, is actually very handy as well. That's not to say that the other sides don't feature equally compelling deployments. The Zerg changelings, which mimic the look of other players' units and infiltrate their bases, are extremely fun to unleash, and the Protoss High Templars with their time bombs that slow down the enemy are equally as enjoyable. Still, we're true Terrans at heart.

In the coming months, Joystiq will take part in Blizzard's StarCraft II beta, and we'll be bringing you more impressions, breakdowns, and direct videos and images from inside the game. We still haven't played the much-speculated-about single-player campaign, but we'll be heading back out to Blizzard's offices to check that out in July, along with the new Look for our coverage of all this and more very soon.

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