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Word War Three: Part 1

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[As you’re probably aware, the Starcraft 2 Beta is ticking along. We’ve played it enough so each of the RPSers have their own favourites. Or, at least the one they’ve gravitated towards so far. We thought we’d take it in turns giving a little picture portrait of each of faction, and why we’ve been drawn to them and how playing them is effecting us. First up is Quinns…]

I got my hands on the Starcraft 2 beta and I chose…

…the Zerg.

Why? Because I’m an idiot. Because I am so stupid that when God gives me lemons, I eat them like apples.

When I had the Starcraft 2 beta downloading I began studying the basics of multiplayer and read that the Zerg were “hands down” the hardest race to play. Immediately my underdog gene was transformed into a red, flashing batphone. I picked it up. “You’re playing the Zerg,” it said. “Right on,” I said. And that was that.

In a nutshell, what makes the Zerg interesting is that they’re shit. It often takes several Zerg units to defeat either their Protoss or Terran equivalent, and they only have a single offensive ground unit (the Hydralisk) which can attack aircraft directly.

But before I move onto their real bummer, you first need to understand that Starcraft 2 is all about economy. Far more so than in other RTS games economy is vital in Starcraft 2. It’s blown up into this giant risk-reward mechanic that dominates absolutely everything. The tech tree in Starcraft 2 is deceptively small. In theory, you’d be able to scramble up it in 5 minutes. In practice, you climb it over 15-20 minutes because you’re spending your money first and foremost on defending yourself, secondly on enlarging your economy, and finally on unlocking the next type of unit.

Understand then that it is a torturous pain in the ass that the Zerg harvester unit, the humble drone, doesn’t build structures like the other races. Instead, it mutates into them, so every time you build something you lose economic momentum. If you have a base with an extra hatchery, two vespene gas extractors, a spawning pool, an evolution chamber, a roach warren and two anti-air emplacements, you’re already 8 harvesters down on everybody else and you haven’t even reached tech level 2. Assuming everyone else has built, say, 16 harvesters at this point, you’ll need to have built 24.

My breakthrough realisation playing as the Zerg (and the highest praise I can currently give Starcraft 2) is that to overcome the Zerg’s weaknesses you need an actual insectoid mentality. It came to me after I’d been soundly whipped by Kieron’s Protoss for the fortieth time. Clutching my aching ass I demanded just one more game, and it was here I finally saw the light.

The Zerg’s saving grace is how they make units. Each of your hatcheries spawn up to three larvae which can become almost any unit in the game, and three’s enough to let you out-produce both Terrans and Protoss from the moment the game begins to the second your final overwhelming assault arrives at their base. Likewise, the Zerg’s party piece is that the moment you research a new unit you can start producing 3, 6, even 9 of it simultaneously if you have the resources.

No, you’re never going to win in a stand-up fight. Playing as the Zerg, the trick is to think of yourself as a swarm. Your strength isn’t in numbers, it’s in the ability to produce those numbers, and that base of yours will never be a fortress but you can (and must) turn it into a hive.

A single thing stands in the way of you and chittering, slurping victory, and that’s micromanagement. Endless micromanagement. Micromanagement like an ant running an accountancy firm. This is the wall I’ve come up against now, and it’s the reason I still haven’t beaten Kieron’s Protoss.

Unlike other races you can’t queue up unit production. You have to wait until the larvae are spawned, click on them (or, to prevent insanity, click on your hatchery then hit “s”), then select what you want the larvae to become. This is a bastard. When you have three or more separate hatcheries, some of them whole screens apart from the rest, all producing larvae to their own timing, this is the biggest bastard.

More than any other race, then, the Zerg bases demand constant attention and cultivation. You need huge numbers, and you need to painstakingly bring those numbers about yourself. The cruel joke is that the Zerg’s big offensive advantage, Burrowing, requires a mass of micro too.

But I can’t complain. I adore Burrowing. The way it works is that after a dirt-cheap research project all of your ground units gain the ability to bury themselves, making them invisible unless the enemy has a detector unit or turret around. Two types of units, the Roach and Infestor, can even move while underground. It’s beautiful. You can vanish you forces when they come under attack from superior numbers, or lay ambushes, or even sneak around to the enemy’s delicate resource-gatherers. The only snag is, you personally need to be around to supervise.

That’s your situation then. To win as the Zerg you need to play them like a swarm, but to master a swarm you need the inhuman brain of a hive queen. Or a pro gamer.

I am getting faster though. Every match I can feel the flow of play becoming more routine, the defensive responses becoming instinctive, and (most importantly) the number of units and hatcheries I can control without losing my shit is growing, one by one.

Slowly, I’m becoming less and less human. And I’m loving every second of it. Especially those seconds where I’m pulling off an early Zergling rush.

Fresh from this morning, here’s a video of myself (orange Zerg) and Kieron (light blue Protoss) neatly obliterating PC Gamer’s own Rich McCormick (purple Protoss) and Graham Smith (dark blue Terrans).

PCG? If you’re listening, I want you to know that I’d be thrilled to teach you how to play Starcraft 2 and that my rates are very reasonable. Take care!

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Quintin Smith

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