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Protoss, Jim's Hands-On With SC2

It's interesting that Blizzard are really cranking up the Starcraft 2 hype this month, especially when rumours suggest the game is still so far off. If they keep this up we'll be properly fed up by the time it hits...

Anyway, it occurs to me that I've not pointed out that I was one of the first people outside Blizzard to get to play Starcraft 2. So after the jump I've posted an extract from my PC Format feature, published in 2007. That and the nine-minute Protoss gameplay trailer.

Blizzard's office in Orange County, California is a (non-alien) hive of activity. We're ushered past giant models of Starcraft Ghosts and threatening Warcraft orks and into a hi-tech boardroom with LCD screens adorning each wall. The long boardroom table is crammed with PCs, each one with its own set of ludicrous internal LEDs and flickering RAM temperature gauges. The first thing we're going to see is a demonstration of the Terran faction as re-imagined by designer Chris Signaty and producer Dustin Browder. They cheerily narrate a sequence of small battles intended to illustrated the ever-unfolding tactical complexity of the new Starcraft game.

The first thing they show off is the way that different parts of a Terran base can be detached and flown to land on various other auxiliary base units. This allows a commander to reconfigure production on the fly. As anyone who has played the fast-paced original Starcraft will know, being able to change tactics within a few seconds can be really tough. Being able to alter the capabilities of your base, perhaps by simply shifting the focus of production from vehicles to infantry, in just a couple of seconds, could dictate the course of an ongoing battle. Starcraft has always been fast and furious, but it has also always been about knowing how and when to counter enemy units. Being able to react faster makes the Terrans more versatile than they were as a faction in the original game.

Soon the action flares up. It's a Terran versus Terran battle. The old-school battlecruiser class units arrive, toting their new weapon upgrades. Beam-lasers and plasma-missiles are flying, but they're quickly countered by a new transforming unit: the Viking. A swooping platoon of this new airbound unit destroys the battlecruiser formation and then, to everyone's Transformer-noise-making joy, they land, and after becoming chain-gun toting walker-robots, they engage ground units further across the map. The walking Vikings are soon under heavy fire, however, and save themselves by taking to the air once again.

The Vikings are going to be supported by the Banshee, a cloaking air-to-ground unit with massive area-of-effect damage weapons. This a new tankbuster for the Terrans, and its stealth capabilities suggest some scary tactics for games in the future. Also new to the field are the jet-leaping Reapers – heavy infantry who can hurl out explosive charges to deal massive damage to structures and slow-moving units.

But the best is yet to come: the hulking form of the Thor. This is a high-level unit that some multiplayer games might not ever reach: a lumbering behemoth that is constructed in the field by the Terran support units. This massive unit engages the enemy with pounding heavy guns. It is illustrative of the way in which Starcraft II's units must integrate and support each other if they want to survive. While the initial attack goes well, the marines and smaller ground vehicles with the Thor are rapidly killed, and fast, sleek Cobra tanks are able to circle the Thor and outpace its slow-tracking guns. Without help from supporting troops the giant is soon slain.

Once this demonstration is over we're treated to a session playing with the Protoss race, who are Starcraft's super high-tech alien. Their units are based around shield systems and energy attacks, so you can expect loads of beam weapons, electrical blasts and stealthy antics. I start out my multiplayer match rather at a loss: there are more options for the first few minutes of the game that there were in the original game, simply by virtue of there being more to deploy on the field. This means that fights in the opening sections of any Starcraft match are going to be a little more varied than they might have been in the classic Starcraft. This time around you definitely have more options – something that was a bit daunting for me, the first person outside of Blizzard to actually play the game against other people.

As in any Starcraft game I began by hitting the resources hard and making some zealots – the basic Protoss soldier – to scout the field of battle. Having produced a few more units I began to come under attack. First by an enemy Dark Templar, whose cloaking ability could not be countered by anything I had built, and then by the Collossi. These giant “four-legged tripods” can scale small cliffs and rake anything they encounter with vicious energy beams. It wasn't long before my measly defence buckled. Defeat. Silently, inwardly, I cried hot tears of shame.

The second bout was to be different. My opponent (a skinny Swedish gentleman who seemed determined to beat me) did not appear from the map's fog of war for many long minutes. I rapidly built up a primary and secondary base, gaining as much resource as quickly as possible. I left one side of my base relatively exposed, hoping that he would make his first attack with some of the older, more familiar ground-based Protoss units. Choke-points are a great way of holding off enemies, and mining and setting turrets up along their sides can really deliver some killing blows. Of course, he chose flying units.

I encountered the Tempests first – flying cruisers that deployed swarms of disc-like attacking drones. I despatched these only to run into something rather more serious: a mothership. The giant rotating UFO was in the advanced stages of upgrade, and scorched the ground with lasers, devastating my attack force. I smiled to myself, knowing that my own slow-moving mothership was closing in, unknown to him. And then: disaster. I had miscalculated where my own ship was, allowing my opponent to drop a black hole on my mothership, sucking it into a deadly dark vortex. My base was wide open.

The Swede began to burn his way through my weak flank. I clicked at the options in frantic dismay. All I could do was to retreat to a third base and try to rebuild. Luck suddenly shone down on my ailing armies. My opponent spent too long wiping out the last remnants of my primary and secondary bases, meaning the tertiary base had time to pump out a counter force. I first hit his convoy of back up troops, and then defeated the damaged mothership – Protoss shields may repair, but they have have no method of fixing the weak hulls of their craft once damaged. My horde surged through his nearby base defences and delivered the killing blow.

It's the capacity for Starcraft to be so engaging, and so fast, that makes moments like this, where certain death can be turned into ultimate victory, into gaming legend. Starcraft II perfectly recaptures the tooth-and-nail pace of the original game, but seems to provide even more flexibility.

It should also bring us some interesting new angles exclusive to this game. Signaty revealed that Blizzard have “some really interesting plans for Battlenet, and plans for single player and Battlenet.” He went on to explain that the community would be well catered for with the release of a revitalised map-making kit. “Another big thing is that the map editor is a next generation tool, our programmer Brett Wood has been working on this since Warcraft III and has just run with the right way to do tools and editing. We'll be really excited to get this into the community's hands and get them using it. We've also set up a new community team to allow us to work with the community, because we've not interacted with the the players as well as I had hoped we could have in the past.”

We too will be interested in how that turns out. And, looking back now, months after my encounter with SC2, watching the latest videos, I can see that what seemed near-finished at the time was simply a test build. They're building more and more on top of it, and the visuals are looking more detailed all the time. There's every reason to believe that this will be an astonishing RTS. Blizzard can't seem to help themselves.

Finally, here's nine minutes of lovely Protoss action:

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Jim Rossignol