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The game we're all patiently waiting for is absolutely amazing. Although it's still a work in progress, it's currently better than many other released RTS games. This is what we've learned to expect from Blizzard Entertainment, not because we're spoiled, but because Blizzard always delivers. It was great to finally experience StarCraft II firsthand. The graphics were the first thing I noticed - they created an impressive first impression. You can't really tell if the graphics, art direction or hue/saturation fits StarCraft II until you play it. However, I did, and the graphics were amazing. Since Blizzard started making 3D games I have always loved their way of animating models. And as we all know, screenshots are a poor gauge of animation quality. Blizzards art style has always been what made their games look great, not the graphic technology used, and so is the case in StarCraft II as well. There's a great sense of thoroughness in StarCraft II, and I only expect it to get better towards release.
Feel is important. Blizzard games usually have the right feel. When you scroll around, trying to order your minions, it is important that you accomplish what you want in as little time as possible. And for that to be achievable, among other things, the game needs to do a number of things right: the interface should be helpful and easy to navigate, the field of vision should make it easy to spot units and buildings, units should be differentiable and unique, and there needs to be a minimal amount of clutter.

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"..the graphics were amazing."

The StarCraft II interface is simply a continuation of the original one from StarCraft - which was, and is still, great. Some attempted improvements have been made, of course, like multiple building selection, queuing orders (with lines showing where the unit is going and in which order it is going to do them), and transparent notifications when upgrades and buildings are finished. You can click these notifications and your view will instantly shift toward the area of interest. Whether all these interface improvements are good for the game is of course up for debate. My opinion is that multiple building selection and rally points simply give any player, pro or casual, the ability to do more things in a shorter period of time. Some interface changes might make the game easier for the casual player, but will be ignored by professionals, thus shortening the gap between the two kinds of players. I don't think this is a problem though. While Blizzard makes things easier - they've also been experimenting with new micro and macro elements to keep the knowledgeable player in control.

Something unique for the Zerg is that when you select multiple Larva, you must click multiple times to build the units you desire. For instance, if you have three Larva selected, and want to build two Hydralisks and an Overlord, you have to click Hydralisk twice and Overlord once. If you want all your selected Larva to turn into the same unit, you can easily spam the hotkey. So it's not a problem of any sort, I actually think it's a good addition, because it makes it easier to control which units you want to build, fast.

In some of the newer generations of RTS games, there are very big differences in terms of elevation. There are huge buildings and hills along with deep pits where units can traverse. In my opinion this is not good RTS level design. I prefer to have a better field of vision where the camera doesn't have to zoom in and out all the time. Thankfully this is not Blizzards way of doing maps. I really liked the maps at the WWI, characterized by good balance and not too much eye candy. There were a couple of new things though: First, there were two Vespene Geysers at every starting location and expansion point. Second, there were golden minerals, that are worth more than regular minerals, in most of the maps. Third, there were some expansion points that were walled in by giant destructible rocks, some of them with golden minerals and some with the regular kind. I noticed that the natural expansion points often were walled in by rocks. These rocks often had a large amount of hp, but it was fairly easy to destroy just one and pass through with a worker and build a base. Some expansion points had one huge rock right on the spot were you would like to place your building. The maps were symmetrical and balanced, and thus the starting locations were all good with plenty of expansion choices, along with the natural one. I think there was only one 1v1 map at the WWI, so scouting usually required a lot of effort.

I mentioned differentiable units as an important point on how to give the game a unique feel. The Zerg fail at this. For some reason units like the Roach, Lurker, Hydralisk, Zergling and to a degree Mutalisk all have spikes. In the heat of the battle it's close to impossible to differ one unit from another. Sure, if you're just playing casually, you shouldn't have any problems. But when playing a serious game and time is of the essence, you don't really want to spend the majority of your time trying to ascertain what each unit actually is. The creep, which is in your field of vision a lot of the time, makes it even harder to differentiate units because of it's matching color with almost every Zerg unit. But at least the creep plays a bigger role in the game now, with units requiring it to move at normal speeds and for the Queen to use Deep Tunnel. The creep is slimy, vibrant and generally very cool visually. It can even can spread onto ramps thus developing the world even further.

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"..spikes."

On to my next point, minimal amount of clutter. This isn't in as bad a state as the former point. It's mostly good, since there are not much particle effects and spells among the Zerg. They are mostly melee or have a simple range attack. There are some issues that needs to be addressed though; have you ever seen a Baneling explode? I'm surprised the goo doesn't hit the screen. In all seriousness, this needs a review, and it will probably get one. The only other thing that needs change is the Swarm Guardian, which is huge. Both the Baneling and the Swarm Guardian look great and the animations complement their look very well, but when the Baneling detonates, there's an area of about three times it's length and width that get covered in green goo. And the Swarm Guardian is simply too big, but cutting its tail would probably solve the problem. But then again, it would look pretty much like the Guardian from StarCraft. The Infestor's Infest ability is also a bit cluttering as it spews red goo on the target structures. The amount simply needs to be reduced. All in all it's alright, but there's definitely room for improvement.

First up, rushing with Spine Crawlers and Queen against the Protoss. As you might have imagined this failed miserably. I spat out some creep with an Overlord half a screen away from the Protoss' ramp. I rushed my Queen over there, along with two Spine Crawlers I had already built. This went slow, as they got Creep Move, which means whenever they aren't on creep they walk...slow. Along with four Zerglings I hoped this would prevent the Protoss from exiting his base and expanding. I started to build my second expansion, but as I did that, my opponent came at me with his entire force. Which consisted of about five Zealots and a Stalker. He probably got a bit confused when he saw my base defense out in the open, which was probably the reason I managed to hold off the first wave. With my awesome Queen micro I managed to heal up one of the Spine Crawlers, while all my Zerglings where slaughtered. At this time I was getting Roaches as well, which was probably a bad choice since they also require good micro. When I had about three Roaches, a Queen and two Spine Crawlers I got attacked again, this time with a larger force. More Stalkers took out my Overlord, and my creep started to retract. I had to micro my Queen, my three Roaches and my two Spine Crawlers that I had to uproot and run away with. Way too much micro for someone like me. It was gg.

My second strategy however, involved fast teching to Roaches. When I had three Roaches, my Protoss opponent had five Zealots and a Stalker. Amazingly enough, I managed to pick off three of his Zealots, without loosing a single Roach, until he got reinforcements. Stalkers, Zealots and Roaches move at the same speed, so it was very possible to pull my strategy off. To make things clear, my strategy was to harass effectively with Roaches, and win the game by microing better than my opponent. As he got his reinforcements so did I. However the more Roaches I got the harder it was to micromanage them, but at that time I had weakened him so much it was already settled. Victory was mine, and the Roach rush proved successful.

I wanted to try many more strategies, but the games were so short that we never really got to the endgame. Though once you've played the game, it's easy to think of tons of strategies that would be fun to at least attempt. Some of them will most likely fail, but it would still be a lot of fun. For example, I would love to try upgrading Roaches with the increased regeneration, go Infestor with Dark Swarm, and see how that would work.

The Queen has been a hot topic of discussion, with good reason, because it is one of the hardest units, along with the Thor and the Mothership to get right. The Queen no longer builds the base defense, but she is definitely best suited for defensive usage rather than offensive. Early in the game both the Transfusion ability and her range attack proved useful, taking out a scouting Overlord required little effort. Transfusion is best suited for healing base defenses, and heals about 200-250 HP. Mutant Larva probably needs some improvements, as it costs energy from the Queen, and you would like to keep her energy for Transfusion. Not an optimal synergy in the early game, though energy is not a problem once you've upgraded her once or twice. The Mutant Larva is best used by getting a large number of them, storing them in your Nydus Network, and unloading them when you need to build a large number of units at once. Note that they can not evolve to Drones, Banelings, Lurkers or Swarm Guardians. Though I believe having the ability to morph directly to evolutions of existing units would make the Mutant Larva both more interesting and viable.

When the Queen is upgraded to the Large Queen she receives the Deep Tunnel ability, which means that she can burrow in any creep, even creep made by your enemy, and unburrow at one of your own structures. This is great for jumping between expansions, which brings me on to the next ability; the Swarm Infestation. She gets this ability when she is upgraded to a Huge Queen, and it is great as an additional defense on small expansions. You simply target an area with the ability, and all the structures within that area now have a range attack that automatically attacks nearby enemies. You can easily target up to four or five buildings if they are built closely together. The lore and function of this ability is not yet finalized and the description was rather vague. I really liked this ability though, so I hope it stays.

Many believe the Queen to be obsolete without the ability to build base defense, but I think the Queen will be a must-have once Blizzard gets the balance right. The biggest issue with her right now is that she is really weak against focus fire, you have to watch your Queen at all times. As a Huge Queen she has only 600 HP, the same as an Ultralisk. Raiding Mutalisks, Dark Templars or even Banshees could probably take her out really fast, and if she still was the only unit that built defensive buildings, the player would have a big problem. When an upgraded Queen dies, you don't have to build a regular Queen and upgrade her again. You can build her again from your Hatchery, Lair or Hive in her upgraded form.

The Hydralisks role in the swarm is considered by many to be obsolete now, as the Roach fulfills the job as an early game ranged fighter. The Roachs only obvious drawbacks are low health and the lack of a ground-to-air attack. So Blizzard gave the Hydralisk more health and a better ground-to-air attack to differentiate the two units. But the questions remains; is the Hydralisk obsolete to the Zerg swarm? As of the WWI build, the Hydralisk did not work very well as an anti-air unit. They can pick off Nomads, Medevacs and Overlords, but they have big problems versus the larger air units. Battlecruisers, Carriers and Motherships are all slow, but they can acquire their targets more easily, since they aren't limited by the environment. They are also excelled at killing big numbers of low health units. This suits the Hydralisk awfully, as the essence of the Zerg is their numbers, and the increase of health to 90 is still quite low. So, currently, my answer to the question is Yes, unfortunately the Hydralisk seems obsolete.. An iconic unit as the Hydralisk should definitely have a place among the ranks of the swarm, but for that to be possible, Blizzard has to find the right role for it. My suggestion would be as an additional alternative of the Roach and the Baneling. You can't evolve either of those, so the positive thing about choosing Hydralisks, apart from being decent at their job as ranged fighters, should be that they can evolve into Lurkers and possibly a new variation of the Infestor. So basically, when you choose Hydralisks instead of Roaches, you invest in the future. A risk worth taking?

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"Is the Hydralisk obsolete to the Zerg swarm?"

The Zerg air units feel unfinished, and they consist of basically the same units as in StarCraft: Brood War. Mutalisk, Guardian and an air-to-air fighter with a special passive ability. The only one missing is the suicidal Scourge, which might be a good idea to bring back. The Corruptor doesn't really do what it's supposed to do, which is to effectively destroy other air units. An excellent unit from the original game was the Mutalisk, a fast air unit that harasses effectively and is superb at raiding workers. While the Mutalisk is a unit one should keep for StarCraft II, it's evolution; the Guardian, could be replaced. It complemented the other air units well in the original game, but the successor will have to replace units to actually be a new game, and what department would be better to replace than the troubled Zerg air force? I would love to see a mostly new Zerg air force, with new innovations and creativity. Keep the Overlord and the Mutalisk as core units, leave the rest up to the imagination.

This is a theory of mine; Battlecruisers, Carriers and Motherships are difficult for the Zerg to deal with, and Blizzard realizes this. I know for a fact that Blizzard experimented with a big Zerg air unit that was not in the WWI build. This might have been a high health air-to-air unit, a unit that would solve the Zergs problems versus the mentioned units. This would cause a new issue though; how many high health units should the Zerg have. The only Zerg units that have more than 200 hp are the Ultralisk and both upgraded Queens. Thus apart from these very fitting exceptions the Zerg is still numerous and swarming, but is there room for another high health unit? This is what, I believe, Blizzard asks themselves. They probably take racial differentiation very seriously, especially since that was one of the things that made StarCraft both unique and great. They would definitely want to keep this in StarCraft II as well.

One of the Zergs strength lies in the Nydus Worm. Currently it works like this: You build a Nydus Network(which also is the prerequisite for Hive), then you can place a Nydus Worm, which is a stationary structure, anywhere on creep. They cost 100 minerals each and have 200 health, and it takes five seconds to build them. You can load your units into a Nydus Network and unload them at the same Nydus Network or at any Nydus Worm you have built. Imagine how fast you could invade an enemy base by unloading creep with 4-5 speed-upgraded Overlords, building a Nydus Worm and unloading all your stored units there. And this is only one of many ways to use the Nydus Network and Nydus Worms. You could use it to quickly move some drones over to a newly built expansion. You could use it to expand on an isolated island by creating creep there with an Overlord. You could store your Mutant Larva in the Nydus Network to keep them safe. It might prove useful to build the Nydus Network close to your Drones, in case of enemy raids. Conclusively, the Nydus Network and the Nydus Worm is a great addition to the Zerg.

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"One of the Zergs strength lies in the Nydus Worm."

The balance of the game has said to be the last part of the development, which is comforting, because there are some serious balance issues as of now. While some relate to unit stats like health, damage and armor, build times for both for units and structures are crucial to balance. E.g. four-pooling ZvZ and rushing with Drones to build Spine Crawlers is abusable. If you're lucky enough to find the enemy base right away and start to build Spine Crawlers before his Spawning Pool is finished, you've won. This is a strategy that will most likely not be possible when StarCraft II goes retail.

However balance issues like this are to be expected in the current phase of the development. During beta testing balance is the part of the game that will get improved the most.

Even though the Zerg still have some issues, the good aspects and design ideas definitely outweigh the bad. The Zerg is the most newly developed race, and thus the least polished one. I'm a hundred percent sure that the issues of the race are already being worked on by Blizzard. And they will change the Zerg in many ways during the coming months, and I hope they want the same thing that I want: an evolution of the Zerg that is even more interesting, fun and challenging to play. Not to mention swarming, terrifying and murderous. We learned that the Protoss is the next race (after Terran apparently) that will get a review by Blizzard, and then it's the Zergs turn. I look forward to seeing how far they've coming along at BlizzCon '08 since this years WWI.

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