This is the first in a month-or-so of pieces on the games we're interested in for 2008. Please do leave your comments and let us know why you're anxious, excited, or apathetic towards these games. We need to know.
There's an anecdote about Blizzard's office in Irvine that I've promised not to publish. It's so absurdly appropriate to their nature as games designers that I had to stand in front of a mirror and smack myself around the face to avoid reproducing it here. It's also the /perfect/ introduction to a piece about Starcraft 2, and it's painful to have promised not to use it.
Anyway, that same office is where I sat down and played Starcraft 2, just prior to its demonstration at last year's BlizzCon. I should first point out that I thrashed the pants offa' my colleague from PC Gamer Sweden in our second multiplayer session, and that I was just testing in the first game... then perhaps we should move on to some details about Starcraft 2 itself.
There's a kind of extra gravity to the coverage surrounding those games which have enormous fanbases. It changes the demeanour of the developers and how the present the game you're looking at. Starcraft 2's lead designer Chris Sigaty spent a bit of time talking about “The Legacy” of Starcraft 2 which, in terms of PC gaming, is certainly one of the most impressive any game has achieved. It's the game which turned South Korea into an international oddity, where the RTS featured in the most heavily televised, highly sponsored online leagues and tournaments the world has ever seen. It's something I've written about before.
But it's not just that: Starcraft has a huge impact on the RTS genre generally. It was a game that introduced largely asymmetric factions and nevertheless balanced them. It was the game that honed and perfected the speed base-building multiplayer games that so many thousands of gamers became hooked on. None of this would have been possible if Starcraft hadn't been designed with an eye for detail and that dedicated played-to-artistry production value.
The legacy that Signaty and his team need to live up to is one of creating an absurdly solid, highly playable RTS that as both an approachable, faultless single player campaign, and exquisitely balanced multiplayer games. This being Blizzard, of course, the game I played last year was already as good as most RTS games we see released on PC, at least in terms of being playable, looking finished, and placing a splendid, comprehensible interface over the top of a low-end but entirely presentable 3D engine.
The real tweaks, of course, come in the varied faction functionality. Everything is based on what had gone before in Starcraft, but with various tweaks. Terran bases can be reconfigured to alter production values, for example, allowing you to pump out infantry faster in the opening moments of a battle. The more obvious changes come in the form of various super-units, which seemed like pop versions of the beasts we got in Supreme Commander. Blizzard have been careful to make sure that these ultra-expensive end-game units require support to be used correctly, and Signaty demonstrated an unsupported Thor (Dai-X style Terran mega-bot) being taken down by fast moving enemies. Like the factions as a whole, Blizzard are trying to make the additions and changes as different as possible - keeping to the philosophy of asymmetry between the various races.
Of course this is all just what we want from a sequel: keep the values of the game the same, but add new toys, new visuals, and maybe some new challenges. Ground Control 2 failed to be a genuine sequel to the original game because it broke a good deal of what made the first game so appealing - such as completing levels with a single deployment of units - was lost. Starcraft 2 won't have that problem. Whether it will have enough to entice those left cold or sceptical by other Blizzard games seems doubtful.
It seems clear that this is going to be a typical Blizzard game: the remixed elements and improved visuals will be enough to justify the lack of genuine innovation. Blizzard understand the theory behind creating RTS games like a maths genius understands basic arithmetic: it's a second language and they make the delivery and construction of these games seem effortless. They're not effortless, of course, this is a game into which vast amounts of effort and money has been poured. Despite their bombast and approved presentations, the residents of the Irvine studio seemed genuinely nervous about how Starcaft 2 will be received. There are so many people, expecting so much... but they needn't be nervous, because this is going to be a stone cold smash hit.
Starcraft 2 is scheduled for release "when it's done" but we'd expect to see something more concrete in early Spring.