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PAX ’08: StarCraft II Hands-On

How do you follow up StarCraft?

Sure, every once in a while it’s fun to break out an old classic like Super Mario World amongst friends for nostalgia’s sake, but games that have the sort of longevity to be played seriously – let alone competitively – more than ten years after their initial release are few and far between. Of those, none of them have enjoyed success and acclaim even close to that of StarCraft: Blizzard’s 1998 space-faring RTS stands alone, head and shoulders above the crowd. Gamers might laugh and joke that the game is “South Korea’s national sport,” but really, when was the last time you saw even a groundbreaking title like Street Fighter II played live on television?

Ever since the follow-up expansion pack Brood War ended in a way that was wholly unlike anything resembling closure, gamers have been clamoring for a sequel, and at last, Blizzard answered. Even though – in trademark Blizzard fashion – concrete details about when the game will release are entirely nonexistent, that didn’t stop it from being one of the most popular games on the show floor at this weekend’s PAX (that’s Penny Arcade Expo for the uninformed) ’08. From the moment the floor opened to the instant it closed, the Blizzard booth was packed with gamers eager to get a glimpse of StarCraft II.

I managed to squeeze in a 15-minute session with the game on Sunday morning when the lines at the 12-ish SC2 kiosks were only a few people deep. While all three races were playable, I opted to stick with my tried-and-true Terrans, entering a short skirmish pitted against the AI-controlled Zerg.

The basic building blocks were all in place – I had my SCV workers at my Command Center, there were minerals waiting to be harvested and nearby geysers of Vespene Gas just begging for a refinery. I set to work building up my base – a Supply Depot here, a Refinery there, producing some more SCVs to keep my resource generation up – and found that it was all familiar, it was easy to slip back into the swing of things: this was StarCraft.

Since this was an open skirmish, players had access to what seemed to be the entire tech tree, both Basic and Advanced Structures. Since I was still easing in, though, I opted to start with what I knew, and constructed a Barracks. While I immediately started training a handful of Marines to provide my fledgling base with badly-needed defense, it was here that I hit my first real hurdle of unfamiliarity. I had the Marines, I could see the option to train Ghosts once I’d progressed enough up the tech tree, but the Firebat and Medic were gone, replaced by two new units: the Marauder and the jetpack-sporting Reapers.

As in the original game, Terran players can construct modular “addon” buildings next to their main production structures, though it’s been streamlined in SC2. In the first game, each building had its own addons – the Machine Shop for the Factory, the Control Tower for the Starport, etc. In the PAX build, though, it seemed as if they all shared the same two addons: the Reactor enabled players to build two units simultaneously at the adjacent building, while an attached Tech Lab was a requirement to build some of the more advanced units (for example, you can only train Reapers and Ghosts at a Barracks sporting a Tech Lab).

Since each building can only have one attachment, this forces players to choose between either producing less-powerful units more quickly, or having the option to build the more advanced troops, albeit at a slower rate. However, since Terran structures retain the ability to lift off and move around, this offers some interesting strategic possibilities: while in SC1 a Physics Lab would be useless next to a Factory, SC2 presents the option to cycle a Barracks/Factory/Starport with one Tech Lab if the player chooses.

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I began to mass my forces, constructing a handful of the swift, buggy-like Jackals (replacing the old Vultures) to explore the map and find the Zerg base. While there were some shiny, brand-new units to play with at the Factory, part of me couldn’t help mourn the loss of my beloved Goliaths – the Siege Tanks were the only returning Factory-built units from the first game. In their place, however, was the Goliaths’ bigger, meaner cousin: the Thor, the hulking Terran “super unit.”

The Thor is certainly an intimidating force, and it was easily the most gigantic thing I’d seen yet in StarCraft – dwarfing even the Ultralisks of the first game. It was also very slow, so I made sure it had Marine guardians as I decided to test its performance against the Zerg base I’d discovered (thanks to a sacrificial Jackal or two).

Naturally, though, the Zerg had been busy amassing an army of their own. While the Thor certainly packs a punch, it’s not indestructible, and I quickly found myself trying to rebuild after my entire expeditionary force was promptly slaughtered – before I could mount a second assault, however, my time limit was up and I had to pass the game onto the next eagerly awaiting con-goer.

15 minutes is barely enough time to cook a pizza, let alone get a good feel for a game as deep (and hotly-anticipated) as StarCraft II is. I’d only just gotten a chance to sink my teeth into the real meat of the game by the time I’d had to pass the mouse on, and I was understandably left hungry for more. That said, there were some things that were immediately evident, even in that short span of time.

StarCraft II will be a fantastic game. If there was ever any doubt in my mind (despite the unrivalled AAA Blizzard pedigree) that the game would be any less than – pardon the pun – stellar, those fifteen minutes were more than enough to lay those worries to rest. The interface is slick and the graphics are great, and even in this unfinished build there are already hints of the trademark Blizzard polish.

Even so, I admit that the demo left me with some nagging doubts in the back of my mind: yes, the game will be fantastic … but the original StarCraft is a tough act to follow. To some gamers, asking Blizzard to make SC2 would be like asking Da Vinci to paint a sequel to the Mona Lisa. The fact that they’ve got some mighty big shoes to fill is certainly not lost on Blizzard, and they even directly address the question on the game’s website, pointing out that they’ve had the bar set pretty damn high for them before. They followed up Diablo with Diablo II, and bested themselves not once but twice with the Warcraft trilogy. If there is any developer in the entire industry who could potentially deliver on what fans are expecting from a StarCraft sequel, they’re the ones.

I’m just not sure that the SC2 I played was it. The Warcraft sequels had huge changes from the previous games – WC2 added naval combat and a much deeper resource system, fleshing out the comparatively shallow Orcs & Humans. The third game did away with the naval combat and oil as a resource, but added two new playable races as well as Hero units that completely changed the dynamic of gameplay. They’re all recognizable as being part of the same series, but are completely different games.

With SC2, you have … the Terrans, the Zerg, and the Protoss. You have glowing blue minerals to harvest and Vespene Gas to refine. You have SCVs. You have Marines. You still need to Construct Additional Pylons. Sure, there’s plenty of new stuff and absolutely no reason to reinvent the wheel, particularly when the wheel in question has served you damn well for ten years already.

When you boil it all down, my concern is that ultimately, StarCraft II will be caught between two extremes: it will be too different from the original to be just more StarCraft, but will also be too similar to feel like a brand-new game in its own right. The game straddles the line between “expansion pack” and “sequel,” and may very well end up disappointing people who were hoping for one or the other, but not both.

Of course, it is Blizzard. If there is anyone I’d put my money on to pull it off, they’re the ones, and whatever they end up releasing will assuredly be fantastic. But whether or not it’s StarCraft is a wholly different question, and one that 15 minutes with an unfinished build simply can’t answer right now.

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