So this is it eh? The final furlong, the last hurdle, the golden mile... after roughly seven years of development and Too Human levels of hype, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is finally within our sights. Heralded by the god-like voice of Blizzard Co-Founder Frank Pierce asking "Anything you want to add to that Bob?", this July will see the classic sci-fi franchise get the sequel everyone's always wanted.
Anything you want to add to that, Bob?
Huddled together in a small hotel studio located in the heart of London, Strategy Informer was treated to a Starcraft 2 blitz of information and content. Not only were we lucky enough to get a sneak peak at the hitherto secretive Single-player mode, we were able to rock out to some multiplayer as well. Since the beta has been out a while now, we'll kick off this hands on report with some multiplayer-madness.
It's funny how things can change, but at the same time remain utterly the same. For example, you can play through the radically different campaign and immerse yourself in new experience, and yet jump into multiplayer and get Zerg rushed in 3 minutes. The Starcraft 2 online mode is basically a way to formalise and expand on the evolution of online gaming, as well as lead the charge with their new Battle.net service. Something they really seem eager to push forward is social networking and integration. Facebook integration, cross-game chat, broadcasts, RealID's... these features, whilst they don't directly enhance Starcraft 2 gameplay, they do make the social side of gaming easier to manage.
The multiplayer matches themselves revolve around three key aspects: the factions, the maps and your opponents. Each of the three factions has been improved and expanded upon, with old units being updated and brought forward, new ones thrown into the mix, and even the 'style' of the three factions have been enhanced to really show the contrast. There's the basic tech tree in place, with buildings that unlock other buildings, as well as requirements and your basic upgrades. All very old-school RTS, and something veterans will instantly be familiar with.
The multiplayer maps have been perfectly crafted for balance, and can revolved around themes, or be really geared towards battlefields. The map you play will heavily influence your strategy, stopping people from doing the same thing over and over (to an extent, anyway). Finally, enhanced ladder and matchmaking systems will prevent you from playing against people ridiculously better than you - always a plus.
The possible loss of LAN support will be a bit of a blow to the more homebrew online communities out there, but in today's modern age most of you should have internet by now, and larger tournament organisers will know how to compensate. There will be many levels of competition, from professional leagues to more casual gatherings, and Blizzard are also talking to many eSport companies about possible deals in those areas as well.
The other interesting feature about the online aspect is the Map Editor. This is actually a bit of a misnomer, as the 'Map Editor' actually lets you do almost anything, and some really innovative maps have already been put online. Pierce says you can make full blown mod 'packs' that you can then distribute over the Battle.Net, and it's highly likely this editor will supplant the more traditional SDK mod tools, so don't expect much beyond this editor in terms of mod support.
The key to any gamer's heart: a giant laser drill
The single-player experience however is truly something else. Pierce, who as well as being a co-founder is also the Vice-President of Product Development mentioned how they wanted to really do something unique this time around, and the team really has remained true to that. Unique to an RTS anyway. Wings of Liberty uses a more interactive method of presenting its campaign, with the player able to walk about Raynor's Ship the Hyperion in order to talk to NPC's, do research or upgrades, and discover bits of the story not available through missions. It all feels a bit Bioware, but it doesn't feel forced or even clichéd.
The story itself is proving to be very interesting. We don't want to spoil too much for you as to be honest, it's more compelling to find out for yourself, but as previously confirmed, the Xel'Naga do play an important role. Kerrigan has returned with her swarms and seems to know what they're up to, whilst the enigmatic Zeratul tries to find out what's actually going on. All amidst Jim Raynor's revolution against the Terran Dominion lead by Emperor Mengsk. There is a definite 'End of the World' vibe that gets teased enough throughout the game to compel you onwards, although with another two whole separate games to come, it's unclear at this point which parts of the story will be more far reaching.
The single-player is extremely different form the multiplayer. Each of the maps are specially tailored to the specific mission using Blizzard's powerful new map tools. Each mission can easily last over half an hour or longer as well... on some missions can sometimes lead you to feel a bit bored, or that you're 'grinding' a little bit, but for the most part missions are well crafted, with multiple parts, and plenty to keep you occupied. Despite this being a Terran focused campaign, you do get to play around with the Protoss a bit as well, so keep an eye out for that.
Unique single-player units, research techs and upgrades are also available by doing side missions and earning credits, which adds a certain degree of replay-ability as you can't unlock everything in one play through, and so you play the campaign in different ways. In order to maintain the balance of the game, these single-player units won't feature in the multi-player, but they can be 'modded' in using the tools mentioned above.
It's clear Blizzard has devoted a lot of time and resources to making sure this first game is done right. If their corporate message is to be believed, the development team themselves have a lot of control over how things are done, so if you're wondering about certain things, for once you don't have to blame the upper management (only if true, however). How much of the framework in Wings of Liberty will affect development on the remaining two remains to be seen, but hopefully they won't take as long as Blizzard will probably want to capitalise on whatever successes this game has. One thing's for sure though, there's definitely a whole game's worth of content in this release at least, so it should be well worth the money.
What are you up to, Zeratul?
This is truly a Starcraft game for both the current and past generations. There's plenty of stuff for the old-school fans to sink their teeth into, and it's more interactive style will help ease new comers into the story and into the Starcraft universe. Multiplayer may still be too hardcore for the more casual gamers, as after all this is the game that invented the term '(zerg) rush', but hopefully the casual leagues will help those who don't like the faster paced games to have some fun as well.
Starcraft 2 is due out on July 27th on PC and Mac.