Blizzard has been handing out Starcraft 2 beta keys like free lunch, but it's not just for the benefit of starved-craft fans. "Oh, we don't think of this as a demo," Blizzard's Dustin Browder told me during a recent studio visit, "It's a beta test." So-called testers are contributing piles of feedback data, which has led to nine game patches so far, with more surely in the works. "The Archon has been on my chopping block for months," Browder muttered, referring to the powerful Protoss ground unit.
The focus of my recent visit to Blizzard HQ was not to talk beta, however. It was to preview three new single-player missions from StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty. In doing so, I learned more about how the developer is incorporating at least one other race into the Terran-centric game and tried out some new game-altering mechanics and the new tech upgrade process.
Blizzard showed off three new missions that will be part of the campaign: "Welcome to the Jungle," "The Dig" and "Whispers of Doom." Jungle involves going down to a planet to harvest terrazine gas at the behest of Gabriel Tosh, a Spectre with mysterious motives. You start this mission with a small base that has been slightly built up. You have to send out your SCVs – the workhorses of the Terran army – to harvest tanks full of the gas from geysers in the area, and then bring them back to the base. You also have to be careful about the Protoss forces in the area, who are trying to cap the geysers in order to prevent you from getting at the precious gas. If you successfully capture seven tanks full, you win. If the Protoss cap seven geysers, you lose.
"The Dig" was easily the most enjoyable new mission that I played, sending players down to the planet with just a small squad of four marines, two medics and a Marauder. An orbital drop provides you with two siege tanks, and eventually you'll take control of an extremely large drilling laser. You'll be repurposing the drill to crack into an enormous Protoss vault containing a sacred artifact. This is where things get interesting: the Protoss are stationed all around you, and definitely don't want you pulling an "Indiana Jones" and stealing their relic. So, they send forces to stop you. You have a small base at your disposal, but you'd still be quickly overwhelmed ... unless you turn the laser into a weapon. It may rotate left and right slowly, but it packs a wallop.
Of course, with the laser trained on Protoss troops, you aren't getting any closer to chewing through the vault door, which has a "health" of 100,000. Once you get through, though, the mission is complete. So, you have to balance drilling bad guys (which only seemed to attack in small, easily dispatched batches) and getting through the door, which effectively offers a variable timer for the mission. There are also three ruins scattered throughout the level, which you can laser drill to unearth relics. These secondary ruins are a good opportunity to play with the drill, which doesn't come with you at the end of the mission.
The final mission I previewed, "Whispers of Doom," was my first peek at the promised control over other races in the game and it's a slightly mixed bag. Raynor encounters Zeratul in a cutscene (above) about the Hyperion, and leaves behind a mysterious artifact. Raynor takes it to the laboratory, stares into it, and is transported into the past where he takes control of Zeratul who occasionally has reinforcement Protoss troops at his disposal. There's a brief tutorial during which you get to use all of Zeratul's awesome void-based powers, but you won't be harvesting resources or building bases as the Protoss. Zeratul's levels are much darker than the Terran missions, and the one we got to play was a lot of fun -- just don't look for a deep experience in the other races in this segment of a mostly Terran-focused title.
Overall, Starcraft 2 finally feels like a living, breathing world. Blizzard has done this in a wide range of ways, like making the mission briefings dynamic with moving cameras; no longer are you staring at a single screen with talking heads on it. All of the main characters -- Tosh, Tychus, Raynor and so on -- inhabit the ship, and clicking on them often leads to cutscenes that are rich with story points, though unnecessary to complete the game. Missing them would be a shame, because a lot of effort has gone into the look and feel of these. You'll get insight into everyone from Tychus to Zeratul, on an emotional level that wasn't attempted before.
There's a lot of dress-up going on as well throughout the ship. Take the Armory, for instance. It's located in a massive bay, and as you play through, different pieces of actual Terran weaponry and infantry will appear in here. It's a great reference for size: ever wonder what an actual Firebat suit might look like close up? Now you know. It adds absolutely zero to the gameplay, but it fleshes out the backstory and makes everything feel that much more realistic. The Laboratory gets this in spades, although we'll let you discover those fun tidbits on your own. The Cantina also has a live news feed running on a large screen overhead, a jukebox with a wide range of punkabilly electro-twang western tunes, and an (unplayable as of yet) Lost Vikings arcade game.
Blizzard has also added Challenges, which are accessible from the Multiplayer menu right now, but not within the game, although this will most likely change. There are nine different challenges, ranging from basic to expert, and only two were made available to us. Most appear to involve surviving waves of advancing enemies, using only a few units. Think Horde mode, Starcraft-style. You'll be awarded medals based on how many enemies/waves you are able to survive. It's a nice toss-in for people who want more challenging content in the single-player mode, although it doesn't add anything to the story.
Blizzard showed us how the technology upgrades and research elements, available only in the single-player missions, work. You can spend credits earned in missions in the Armory on upgrades to buildings, vehicles, and infantry. Each item has two upgrade levels; one basic and one advanced. For example: marines can get stimpacks as a basic upgrade, and combat shields as their advanced upgrade. Obviously, advanced upgrades cost significantly more.
You can also use credits to hire mercenaries. There's a mercenary agent in the cantina of the Hyperion, and you can access his console to hire mercenaries. As you progress, more merc groups are made available to you, and once you've hired them, they are always available to you on the battlefield when you build a Merc Compound. You can only use them two to three times per battle, and they come in different flavors, like four elite marines, or two siege tanks and so on with different health and damage upgrades. When you "purchase" them through the merc compound with resources, they are instantly made available to you and under your control.
Research is a bit different. Each mission offers you the chance to find either Protoss relics or Zerg DNA. As you collect them, you can spend them towards researching one of two different technologies per tier; however, once you've made a decision, you're locked out of buying the other one. For instance, do you want to choose a bunker with 150% more health, or a bunker with a turret mounted on it? You'll have to make tough decisions like that as you work your way up the Protoss and Zerg research trees. Personally, any time a building can fire a weapon is fine by us. You only pay for these with relics or DNA, so credits aren't going to help you here, which means that missions with relic or DNA bonuses are welcome. If you complete the other objectives in a mission, it will immediately end without giving you the chance to then go and collect the bonus items. Blizzard estimates that by the end of the campaign, players will have unlocked 70% to 80% of the technology in the game, providing a motive for replays.
The Verdict (So Far)
Unfortunately, the build we were playing did have a few bugs in it. The screen went dark about a dozen times, and while you could still hear the game audio, it was actually frozen and we had to wait upwards of 30 seconds for things to resume. We were told this was a bug Blizzard is working on, but it happened so often that we had to quit and restart the game -- not completely reassuring if the game is still supposed to ship in the first half of this year. Blizz is also in the process of tweaking the AI for the multiplayer, and we hope that means the single-player as well. Enemy units are fairly sharp, for the most part, but we couldn't understand why they'd just sit there and wait for us to drill them with the laser in "The Dig."
We aren't sure how many missions still need to be designed, but it does feel safe to say that, between the multiplayer and the single-player, you're going to be getting a lot of bang for your buck.