When I was asked to fly to Blizzard HQ to check out StarCraft II, I decided against announcing to everyone that I consider the original StarCraft to be one of the pinnacles of gaming right up there with the original Super Mario Brothers.
I didn’t want to seem biased, you see.
After a short wait in the hot California sun, the anxious media that had assembled were herded into a small yet rather comfy theatre to be treated to a series of live shoutcasts (battle reports) by Dustin Browder, the lead designer of StarCraft II.
It was all very similar to what you can experience from watching one of the three reports released so far, with David Kim using his excellent macro management to own the battlefield and outlast his opponent. What is different, and a new experience for me, was watching this happen within a group of people who are all used to competing in the digital realm.
My previous experience with "e-sport" tended to revolve around overly aggressive 19 year olds playing Counter-Strike, nothing that really got the audience going. Here however, the crowd clapped and cheered as quick reflexes turned the tide of each battle, and it was interesting to see how each engagement never went as was expected, and how a single probe could be all it took to ruin a carefully planned expansion. For the first time, I could understand how StarCraft could be a spectator sport in South Korea and I wanted more.
It was an exciting experience and sitting and watching two dudes play a video game was entertaining in it's own right, and made me want to participate more than anything. From listening to Dustin Browder talk, I knew that's what Blizzard were intending.
The information the players receive at the end of each match is far more detailed than simply how much of a resource whore you are. Graphs and stat boxes are displayed over time, giving a simplified view of when and how you won or lost your match. Key information like build orders are selected from a multitude of tabs to showing the player what they need to do to improve.
Now I know from experience that Blizzard aren’t going to mess with the core mechanics of a popular franchise if it is still working and still entertaining, so I knew what to expect, and that isn't where Blizzards focus appears to be with improving the multiplayer. What they want is not to weaken the game, whilst simultaneously allowing beginners to be able to up their game without becoming the type of person who spends days learning the in's and out's of unit path finding. This was made very clear in the multiplayer portion of my interview with Lead Producer Chris Sigaty.
After telling us how all the new information that is presented at the end of each match is designed with the focus of making you a better player (through such stats as resource gathering over time and build order information) as well as a more robust replay function, Dustin released us from David Kim’s Thunder Dome and I rushed upstairs to take on the Australasian media contingent in an attempt to extend my title as the greatest StarCraft II player in NZ, which I achieved by default being the only kiwi present.
As a man-child who digs sci-fi weaponry, I have always primarily played as the Terrans, so I chose to play as my old favourites with the intention of nuking the hell out of my Zerg and Protoss opponents.
From the outset it is apparent that each race has been further distinguished, with the Terran focus on defence getting a solid going-over. The Siege tank is as reliable as ever but the old tactic of walling of your base with supply depots has been given official sanction with the buildings ability to sink into the map, creating a pseudo gate out of your base for your troops whilst keeping the zerglings and zealots out as you wear them down.
Added to this is the ability to upgrade your bunker to now hold six Marines.
Having managed to "turtle" quite effectively as any encroachment into my territory was ultimately crushed, I set about creating my army of Ghosts and stockpiling my nuclear warheads. The Ghost Academy serves two main purposes, allowing the production and upgrade of ghost units, as well as being where you construct and store the nuclear missiles.
I built eight of them.
Like a ground hog with no fear of his shadow, I marched out of my base, my cloaked ghosts ready to lay waste to anything I found. And lay waste they did. For a while at least. What I failed to realise, as I missed nuking a carrier group, was that the ease of my acquisition of arms wasn't due to an abundance of skill on my behalf, but an increase of focus on the part of the designers. Diversifying units and making each one more tactically adaptable means that when it comes to putting together tactics on the fly, you are able to. It isn't purely a case of one or two strategies per game, its about choices. And I failed to choose adequate air defence for repelling the simultaneous attack of two Australians, who happen to be sitting next to each other. Cough.
Prepared for their cheating ways, I went into the next match ready to rock and adapted to the fact that Vikings rule, and the Aussies had no counter to thirty of them at a time.
That's one moral victory, and one actual victory for me, the self crowned Australasian champion! Blizzard's aim with multiplayer is apparent, they want to give each player the tools the improve and win, and with what I have seen so far, they're well on the way to achieving that goal. Now, when's that beta starting?