Preview: StarCraft II

If you have ever spent any length of time with Blizzard’s seminal 1998 RTS StarCraft, then the first time you sit down to a game of StarCraft II will feel like greeting an old friend all over again. Your friend may be older and wiser, he may have learned a few new tricks and may have changed over the years since you last saw him, but he’s still unmistakably the same person he was an age and a half ago.

There is no mistake: This is StarCraft. I have put hours upon hours into the StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty multiplayer beta thus far, and in that time I have deployed Siege Tanks into Siege Mode, I have rushed opponents with a fleet of Zerglings, and I have constructed additional pylons. I have eked out narrow victories and seen my base consumed by the fires of defeat. And I have loved every flipping moment of it.

For the uninitiated – and as hard as it is to believe, there probably are some younger gamers out there not educated in the Gospel of Tassadar – StarCraft II is about as traditional and old-school as RTS games get. You train workers who harvest resources – in this case, special minerals and rare Vespene gas – which you then use to build a base and create an army to out-fight (and out-think) your foe. Matches in StarCraft II are usually fast and furious, though some protracted battles I’ve had can last upwards of half an hour (my record is almost 40 minutes for one game).

Here’s how it all goes down: You log onto the shiny new, and either browse for custom games or enter the matchmaking queue. In the final release version, you’ll be able to search for 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, 4v4, and free-for-all matches; at the moment only 1v1, 2v2 and FFA are available for the testing. I almost always found a match within seconds, even when playing at the dead of early morning.

In the full release, it’s easy to imagine that the single-player campaign will help act as a tutorial to teach you the basics of how StarCraft II works, but as it stands, it’s rather unforgiving, especially if you’re a newbie or if you haven’t touched the original game in years. In your first few games, you’ll likely get crushed, and there aren’t any tools yet in place to show you how it’s done – and the intense, frenetic pace of the game itself doesn’t help any. Even if there were a tutorial, the fast-paced, twitchy action of StarCraft II still means that every thing you do counts, especially in the beginning of the game. Small mistakes early on can have large repercussions later down the line.

As with the first game, StarCraft II depends just as much on quick thinking and quick fingers as it does on your strategic planning. Preparation is certainly important, but in the words of Helmuth von Moltke, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Battles can be – and are – won and lost depending on smart, accurate movement and use of abilities, which makes for some very hectic and engaging encounters as you frantically try to keep up with your foe, all the while making sure not to fall behind on your economy.

The original game was renowned for its splendid balance despite the incredible diversity between the three races, and while it still remains to be seen if StarCraft II has the former, it certainly possesses the latter in spades. Each of the three Escapist editors in the beta right now – Jordan Deam, Greg Tito, and myself – agreed to learn one of the game’s three races to the best of our abilities; while I’ve been specializing in the Zerg, I’ve dabbled and played a few games as the other races. It really is striking how Blizzard has managed to keep the races so distinct from each other – not only in the raw mechanics of how they build units and structures, but in how they approach the game from a strategic point of view. (And in case you were wondering, Jordan has the Terrans and Greg the Protoss).

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With all the races being as different as they are, and all of the different strategies and abilities available to each – let alone the battlefield mechanics like rich mineral fields and Xel’Naga Watchtowers – it’s very easy for a newbie to get overwhelmed by the sheer dizzying depth of StarCraft II, particularly given the lack of any tutorial. Thankfully, while StarCraft II doesn’t offer very many resources to get you started, there are some very helpful tools to help you get better.

After a match, you can see the early build order for all parties involved, giving you some hints what to try next. The Replay function is hugely improved, allowing you to rewatch a match with a full understanding of what was going on, in order to figure out just what your opponent did and how they beat you (or vice versa). You may need the help of various internet communities like TeamLiquid or StarCraft2Forum to make sense of all that data, but it’s there and it’s very helpful.

It’s a testament to the new matchmaking system and the Replay data that I very rarely feel like I was crushed unfairly, even when I lose a game. My victories are hard-fought, but so are my defeats, and after watching what I thought was a devastating loss again in the Replay mode, it’s easy to understand and say, “Oh, that’s why I lost, I need to work on X, Y, and Z.” I’ve never steamrolled an opponent, but I always feel like I put up a good fight when I lose – and more importantly, it’s always fun.

The game looks great, of course, but it’s also impressive just how scalable it is. On my home computer, with everything turned up to maximum, StarCraft II has some wonderfully cool-looking fights (as long as you don’t zoom in too much). On my ancient work computer, I have to turn everything down to minimum, but the game still runs fine even on a machine clearly not fit for modern gaming.

It feels strange to be talking about StarCraft II like it’s still a beta (even though it is) because frankly, if this were any other game from almost any other company, it’d be completely releasable. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s incredibly deep, and (as expected from Blizzard) is polished to a mirrored shine.

From the interesting and entertaining new units to the little tweaks under the hood to make for a better traditional RTS experience to the annoyed response that every unit in the game gives when you click on it enough times, it’s clear that the developers haven’t spent these years just sitting around doing nothing – they’ve been making a game that looks like it’s shaping up wonderfully.

There’s nothing innovative about StarCraft II, and it still has some issues that need working out (as does, but it just works in a way that is a genuine pleasure to behold. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can possibly give the game is this: It’s been worth the wait.

Bottom Line: This is StarCraft as you know it – Blizzard hasn’t reinvented the wheel. And yet, all the new changes and additions mean that it isn’t StarCraft all at the same time. It’s fast, frantic, unforgiving and in desperate need of a tutorial, but it simply all comes together to be one hell of an experience. There are still kinks to be ironed out, but StarCraft II is shaping up to be a worthy heir to the legendary 1998 RTS.

John Funk likes to just mass Hydralisks. Sometimes it works.

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