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Rush Hour: Starcraft 2 Beta First Impressions

Kieron: RIGHT! The Starcraft 2 beta is out. We're all in, except John, who doesn't want to be in. Is it the most anticipated RTS ever? Yeah, on the mass-cultural scale, probably. We'll almost certainly be writing a load more down theline, but we thought it'll be an idea to get those first impressions down. Does nothing compare to Starcraft 2?

Alec: I was going to say "I wonder if we can do this entire thing without using the words 'nothing' or 'compare'. We have already failed.
Kieron: Just to make clear how inexperienced we are, how much have you guys been playing?
Alec: I have played four matches.
Kieron: I've done about 5 battles against the PC to learn some shit, and a similar number of online games. Maybe a tad more.
[A long pause]
Alec: Somebody wake up Rossignol
Kieron: Already have.
Jim: Sorry, i was talking about sexy men with Leigh
Kieron: Christ, Jim. We're into Terrain. Not the lovely terrain of a man's inner thigh
Jim: I like 'em butch, I realise.
Kieron: How much Starcraft 2 have you played, friend Rossignol?
Jim: A handful of games now I went straight in with a 1v1, won. Then did some 2v2s with Tim [Edwards, of PC Gamer fame] as a wingman, where we got thrashed, and I mean THRASHED. I got like 20% of the output of the winning top dude. It was hideous
Kieron: My first win online was that first 2vs2 we just played.
Alec: The thrashing is fascinating. It's not as though the game's counter-intuitive to any extent, but there's so much learning involved.
Kieron: I think coming to it a few days later has made all the difference. The difference in play between where Alec is and where I am is pretty steep.
Alec: I'm a complete novice, yeah. My bottom has been soundly spanked... but, having been playing Supreme Commander 2 this week also, the difference is enormous
Kieron: Care to elaborate?
Alec: You can at least see why you've failed in Supcom 2, to a reasonable extent. In Starcraft 2, the armies others can raise seem like superhuman feats. If I lose a SupCom 2 match, it's about inefficiency. In Starcraft 2 (so far), it's about not understanding. At all. Despite every unit and building have a very obvious purpose.
Kieron: It is that sort of robust thing where x leads to y leads to a flying Z which destroys your enemy if they haven't prepared for it
Jim: Starcraft's MP is interesting because pace *really* matters. I mean it matters in all competitive RTS, but this massive tech-tree building process has to be really fast and efficient. It's almost a physical challenge.
Kieron: It is. This is totally old school.
Alec: Yes, the actions per minute are all.
Kieron: This is going clicks per minute. To do well, you're going to have to scout at the same time as managing an economy
Alec: And I still find myself in periods where there doesn't seem to be anything I can immediately do. And i get awfully tense then, because I know full well that means I'm doing something fundamentally wrong.
Kieron: I said a while back that how they're going to balance it between the evolution of the genre - which has got rid of a lot of the really raw micro - and what its fanbase (i.e. the nation of Korea) like, which is a tricky thing to pull off.
Alec: Yeah, they have to consciously ignore what' happened in the last 10 years. On a less personally whiny level, it also means you can't really watch battles, because you have to go do something else, which is a shame.
Kieron: Nah, I agree. It's a shame. There's some lovely detail in there, like with the Protoss bisecting a marine with a slice of their combat weapons.
Jim: Yeah, that move to pure actions, rather than spectacle, is interesting. It feels diametrically opposed to, say, Dawn Of War 2, where so much of the game is in the fact that these battles play out visually.

Alec: I'm quite sure I can learn it. The question is whether I want to.
Kieron: As Alec says. To me, it feels a lot like rock-paper-scissors, but it takes 20 minutes for you to make your rock only to discover the opposition has created paper.
Alec: and the third guy has made MEGA-SCISSORS
Kieron: The question which nags is, as Alec says, whether I want to learn it. It's like Street Fighter 4. Yeah, I see the craft. I'm not sure I care.
Alec: I wonder if some of this is games journalists. We're not good at giving ourselves fully to one game, because we have to see more. Unless we're Jim, in which case we play Eve forever.
Jim: Yeah, Tim and I were discussing this. Is it worth becoming masters? I mean I do pick up a game to master occasionally. I did it with Quake 3, then Eve and i guess a bunch of other stuff when i was younger - Speedball 2, GoldenEye. I'm not sure I have that competitive burn for this kind of game though
Alec: I've never got much of a kick out of believing myself to be hyper-skilled at something. I crave experiences, not refinement.
Kieron: It's not even about being hyper skilled. It's about being acceptable. As in, being able to play the game and not be the twat in poker who keeps on betting on the wrong cards and annoying everyone else
Alec: ...which is an attitude that's a big part of the discincentive to learn.
Kieron: Though it really is doing everything to help people who do want to be really good. I mean, the timelines after the game, showing each build action of each side. Tom Chick was making jokes about "Oh no - I lost a second in building my pop-cap-increaser", but that's totally what some people will be doing
Alec: Yeah, it's important to note that this hasn't been made for us.
Jim: Yeah, i mean i have been there with games. Pruning back Quake 3 visuals to create highest performance settings but this is an odd model for me. Speed-strategy
Kieron: Yeah. It's very retro
Jim: It doesn't feel physical in the right way
Alec: It's good that a game has been made specifically to cater for those guys, rather than trying to be all things to all men.

Kieron: It's innovative by default as no-one does trad RTS any more (Which is another chick observation, to give proper credit.
Jim: it's neither properly grand strategy, nor really personal.
Alec: It sort of frees up yer Dawn of Wars et al to try other things
Jim: it's the solidity of it that i can't quite get over though, it's disgustingly slick. Like, even the menus leave you PUMPED. It's the perfect kind of cocktail of engineering and bombast.
Kieron: I think Alec is overstating how much this is made for the hardcore.
Jim: Well yeah - the skirmishes show you could play just an easy game and the single player is probably going to be deliciously different in pace and structure
Alec: Yeah, the singleplayer will be key, and typically laden with Blizz polish
Kieron: Yeah - without the SP it's hard to make a real opinion on its accessibility, but even as a MP game... well, it's not any number of the really mental games. It's very fast. Games are over in 15-30 minutes. I never played Quake 3 to master it... but I played it obsessively in a social group. If I play this, it's going to be like that,
Alec: That's a good point, actually. It will do the trick for groups of four or six friends of roughly the same skill. Boardgame Night mentality. But the multiplayer isn't interested in catering to people who don't already play online RTS extensively though. There is skirmish vs easies, but they don't feel satisfying because it's so obviously gimped.
Kieron: This is the Beta, man. The first week of the Beta. With only very easy AIs. We can't make a statement like that, surely?
Alec: I'm making it, not you.
Kieron: Yeah, but it's mental. What's actually so alienating about the game?
Alec: I'm thinking of the poll I did a while back, about RTS accessibility. Overwhelming people said they were tough to get into. This isn't going to change that.
Jim: Yeah, they really are distancing, more than any other genre, i think. Once you are in there it's fine, but you have to learn them. When i played the first build of SC2, there was no pop-up information on any button so i had literally no idea what anything was or what it could do. This is like three years ago at the preview, of course, but it was really something when I didn't know my shit, and others did.
Alec: I'll be interested to see what stuff's in the full game, in terms of tuition and even how the singleplayer guides you into core concepts but when you read something on a forum that says "don't ever have all 5 build slots filled" but if you haven't read that and you're looking a list of 5 slots... you fill them. I'm not saying people aren't going to learn, but it doesn't seem big on natural ways in.
Kieron: So, are you seriously saying the game would be more accessible if you couldn't queue your units?
Alec: No, and stop being Captain Snark.
Kieron: That's what you just said!
Alec: I'm saying crucial stuff is a long way from obvious, and only learned from a lot of experience and research. This is why it's alienating. Your mistake is to think I'm saying that's necessarily bad. I'm just saying it's alienating.
Jim:That's perhaps purely down to the environment of mutiplayer beta. If you'd played six hours of tutorial SP it'd be different
Kieron: How is "don't tie up money you don't have to?" that obscure? It's the interesting choice they make though when queueing - there's two mechanisms you can go with a game. Either you pay when you queue or you pay when the queue reaches that point. The latter reduces micro at the expense of having to balance your production or having half your queues just fail. The former maximialises the possible efficiency of the system. Assuming someone can ride it. Blizzard went for the former.
Alec: This Have and Have Not mentality. Kieron's bascically saying "noob" here. It's fascinating how quickly that can take hold, which is a big part of why I fear people who are interested in Blizz games but not RTS vets are going to struggle to find a way in here. People who get it lack the language and empathy to explain it to people who don't. And, again, I'm very keen to see how Blizz are going to tackle that - because I'm entirely sure they will, in tutorials, in SP, in trainng matches...
Kieron: Yeah. And the Multiplayer beta, going to people who are big fans, mainly, almost certainly punishes people... vut let's put this another way Alec. Would you rather you were competitive when all the other 3 players were much better than you? As in, we've learned much more than you have because we've played a significant number of games?
Alec: And, in that short time, you've lost all sympathy for those who haven't.

Kieron: I haven't, as you can see earlier that I was agreeing with you.
Alec: It comes back down to do I want to bother to learn more, when it leads to thinking like that? Y'know - I do. I'm keen to get a better handle on it. But that's down to bloody-mindedness rather than the game inviting me in.
Kieron: I just think you're going too far in your comments about it. Coming off the back of being thrashed twice by better players, understandably.
Alec: You're misreading my intent - I'm fascinated by how RTS is trying to respond to its inacessibility, so coming to one that isn't interested in that response is journalistically interesting. I really don't care that I was beaten - I entirely expected to.
Kieron: Yeah, which links back to the whole dilemma of it being the most popular competitive RTS of all time, when there hasn't been a serious competitive RTS in years anyone's given a damn about.
Alec: Again - for that reason, I'm very glad this exists. No half measures to cater for everybody and anybody. It's giving the people exactly what they want.
Kieron: Anyone got anything else before wrapping up?
Alec: I like that the Terran Ghosts can drop Nukes. That's my favourite thing so far.
Kieron: A game with nukes is always > a game without nukes. I find the oddest thing about it is that the Protoss are by far the most accessible of the 3 armies to learn. Terran are just... odd.
Jim: I think I get on with the Terrans best. Lots of little men + turrets. That seems like a strategy game to me. Also: tanks!
Alec: Basically: the multiplayer beta is exactly what I expected it would be. I'm pretty sure the SCheads will feel exactly the same way, which means Blizzard have probably triumphed.
Kieron: Yes. Starcraft 2 is definitely the most starcraft2ian game I've ever played.
Jim: Hooray!
Kieron: Oh - and, as promised, I had to say that Tim E is the best.
Jim: He sure is. But only at Starcraft 2.
Kieron: Though he over-grows his economy unnecessarily, frankly. You heard, Tim. You heard.
Quinns: If I end up getting me beta access after all I think I want to get really good at the Zerg. Like, Competent. I do want to get my head around the terran, but the lure of an easier race is strong. I really like the idea of the creep.

More impressions as and when we get them. Stay tuned to see if Jim will keep his tanks, Alec and Kieron have to be separated by their mums and whether The Creep will be the new Iron for Quinns.

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