A Portal Into the Starcraft II Beta

The biggest RTS in the making, Starcraft II : Wings Of Liberty, will touch down on PC’s this July 27th, and we were lucky enough to get some playtime in the beta.  Have you jumped in yet?  Can you still Zerg rush?  How is Battle.Net 2.o? Are there any new features, or is this just a prettier same old ball of Zerg wax?  We’ll try to answer all your questions in our hands-on review of the Starcraft II Beta.

Same Game In A Shiny New Wrapper?

It’s tough to talk about Starcraft II without delving into the grandiose undertaking Blizzard has made in it’s integrated Battle.Net 2.0 system.  Blizzard frowned many faces when they announced that the new Battle.Net would not allow the ‘Multiplayer Spawning’ that the original Starcraft boasted-allowing players to install multiplayer copies of their games on unlimited computers, to play over LAN with their friends.  So, for example, you could host a 50 machine LAN party, with just one copy of the game.  In the dawning of a new age of internet accessibility and mass software piracy, Blizzard has taken a page from Valve’s book and created Battle.Net 2.0.  The new overhaul of Battle.Net allows players to manage all of their Blizzard titles, access multiplayer features and game news, and even find game players via their Facebook friends list.  But how does it work?  Surprisingly well, I have to admit.  I was one of the people shooting down Battle.Net 2.0, comparing it to Ubisoft’s new always online DRM scheme-especially since early reviews stated that Battle.Net would require players to log-in, even for single player campaign play.  Luckily, similar to Steam, it would appear that Battle.Net will allow players to log-in and play in an offline mode-of course, that will not be able to be tested until the full product hit shelves next month.  The interface intself is bright, easy on the eyes, and just as easy to figure out and manage.  One fantastic feature is the ability to record and playback your game replays.  We knew this feature was coming, but what we didn’t know was that all of your saves are stored on their servers, where you can play or download them at any time to see how badly you blundered your last match.  The final shiny appeal of the service was that it ran silky smooth, multiplayer matches and all on my home connection that usually nets me a Zerg splitting ping of about 1740 (no, that’s not a typo).

Warped In Changes?

Battle.Net 2.0 is interesting, but what’s new in the Starcraft Universe?  More details and tweaks than I will be able to fully list here, but I will try to cover the major changes.  It will be easier to change this section up between four major section;one for each race and a fourth for the overall multiplayer changes.

Maps and Minerals and Vespine Gas, Oh My!

Starcraft II eases you into multiplayer by ranking your play in Gold, Silver, Bronze or Platinum, after 5 Practice matches.  During Practice rounds, each players Base is sealed off by destructible barriers, saving you from having to throw up those Terran Supply Depots quite so quickly.  Each map also contains one source of high yield minerals, colored gold, that will net the player a 40% increase in minerals mined with each cache returned to your base.  Also new are Observatories, two per map, that allow for a much wider line of sight, when manned with any of your units.  Matches can take place in the form of 1V1, 2V2 and 3V3 as well as co-op modes of the same varieties, against computer AI.  Also possible, is a Free For All mode, where each player takes on the task of wiping the other five off the map.  Good luck with that one!

You’re Terran Me Apart!

The Humans in Starcraft are called Terrans.  If you didn’t know that, you’ll be easy Zerg food in the Multiplayer!  First in their new abilities, is that ability to build a new base, load it with SCV’s(the Terran gatherers/builders) and fly it to a new location for deployment.  Replacing Firebats, for balance issues, are the Reapers-convicts trained to be lethal grenediers.  Equipped with jump jets, these units can be churned out quick, for a human equivalent of the Zerg rush.  The Viking is a cross between the Wraith and a Mech, allowing for counter-attacks on all fronts, ground and air.  The new unit to aim for is definitely the Thor-massive, and packing a huge punch, the Thor’s firepower is balanced by it’s inability to fire at anything not in front of it, so beware of smaller and faster units.

Don’t Toss Aside The Protoss So Quickly!

The most interesting, and controversial twist in the Protoss arsenal is the Phase Prism.  This building acts as a teleporter for your units, as well as a power supply for structures you want to build outside your base and within it’s reach.  This, alone, takes the Protoss from a difficult to master race, and drops them to a more accessible plane, if used wisely.  Also new is the Warp Ray.  Remember what happened to the White House in Independence Day?  Welcome to the Warp Ray.  Same idea, only that the strength of the beam gradually increases, rather than what we saw in the movie, making this a great structure assault, but not as well suited for unit attacks.  Also ripped from the movies, it would seem, is the Colossus.  This unit resembles the tripods from War of the Worlds, with the functionality of the Terran Reapers.  Their size and agility allows them to traverse the gaps between land masses on the maps, opening up the options for flanking and maneuvering your attack.  Similar to another Terran unit, the Mothership, is massive and powerful.  It’s movements are crippled, but it’s attack is two-fold;normal attacks pack a huge punch, but an alternate attack will open up a black hole to banish your enemies.  It’s a wonder if this unit, and the Thor, will be a big factor in multiplayer matches, or if quick assaults will negate the ability to have the tech and resources to call them forth.  Either way, it’s definitely obvious that the incentive for scouting and attacking early is a well laid one.

Crunchy On The Outside, Gooey On The Inside!

We certainly can’t forget the Zerg, now can we?  Oddly enough, only three of these units are detailed on the official website, as opposed to the dozens for the other races.  Blizzard wouldn’t mess with the Zerg rush, would they?  You bet your cigar chomping, space marine hide they would!  Zerglings now have the ability to slip into a cocoon and emerge as banelings-suicide units that rush and explode with acid-like goo, dealing damage on anything near it.  The Hydralisk and Mutalisk are the best two-pronged attack I’ve seen.  Hydralisks are heavy damage dealing, armored bugs, deadly in high numbers.  You may remember Mutalisks as a flying, death from above unit with a ricochet shot that bounced between enemy ground targets.  Not to be ignored, are the new Zerg Roaches.  These nasty ground units are heavy armored, acid spitting bugs, similar to the Terran Reaper, but without any jump jet feature.  Don’t forget, many of the Zerg units-including the above mentioned ones, and the Zerg Queen-can be burrowed, allowing for movement and health regeneration while avoiding attack, so don’t just click and send them off to their death!

A Kinder, Gentler Starcraft?

Not on your life!  If you thought the old Starcraft was tough, wait until you sink your teeth into this one.  Blizzard paid heavy attention to focus on many secondary abilities for many of the units in the game, opening up attack strategies-not that you’ll have time to use them when you are being swarmed.  It’s still a tough barrier for entry, but one well worth the investment.  My best advice is to find friends to test the waters with, or find some decent people online to play with, that will help teach you some strategies.  My time in the Beta was spent getting fairly thumped, but there are lessons to learn from each defeat, especially if you playback those  replays.  The replay captures not only what your opponent did and built, but how they moved their camera around, giving you some insight into how they were thinking.  The matchmaking was fairly quick and painless, and I ran into almost no glitches, save for the last patch wiping out my profile for some unknown reason.  If repeatedly losing online sounds terrible, it actually played out extremely well.  Wise strategies were rewarded, and each match served to illustrate more about the game, keeping things interesting, even in defeat.  If anything, losing provided a challenge to come back and hooked me into a multiplayer forum I had not previously been dazzled with.  After all, much like football, not every strategy is going to provide a win everytime-change yours up, or players will counter and continue to counter.  Blizzard has promised that the Beta is not a full snapshot of all the multiplayer features, but a balancing tool they will use to tighten up the game.  Also promised is a Challenge Mode for Wings Of Liberty.  This will serve as a proving ground for those unfamiliar with the multiplayer tactics, and wishing to learn some lessons without taking their lumps at the hands of human players.  Each challenge will focus on tactics Blizzard has picked up from the community, from the Zerg rush, to base expansion, it should be fantastic.  If that isn’t enough to keep you vested, don’t go uninstalling that beta just yet!  It may be closed for now, but Blizzard promises to reopen it one to two weeks prior to the games launch, and I’m willing to bet a Protoss Mothership that there will be some new, unannounced goodies for us when they do!

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