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StarCraft is the world's foremost RTS. It's brilliantly fun, balanced play set the bar for the genre. It's longevity is unprecedented but most definitely warranted. To create the sequel of what is considered by many to be the pinnacle of RTS gameplay, is one of the hardest conceivable tasks. How do you re-imagine the perfect game without reinventing it? How do you improve upon incredible gameplay? How do you make a sequel, an heir, to the greatest RTS game created? And hardest of all - how do you do it when a rabid and critical community is watching your every decision and scrutinizing your every change? How do you assuage their fears about their favorite game's sequel? You let them play it.

Late last month, 11,000 people packed into Paris' Porte de Versailles Exposition Center to watch StarCraft: BW, Warcraft III: TFT, and World of Warcraft played at the highest level. In addition, each of the attendees was encouraged to play the latest builds of StarCraft II and WoW's latest expansion: Wrath of the Lich King. Despite the dozens of computers and the 20 minute game time limit, the wait to play StarCraft II was never short. Everyone wanted to play the sequel to one of the most lauded games in RTS history. The following is the product and recollection of over 12 hours of press pass playtime with the latest WWI build.

 

Index
Protoss
Terran
Zerg
Conclusion

 

The Protoss

For most of the last decade I've been a Protoss player. When I played last year at BlizzCon I was by far most impressed by the Protoss and once again they took the cake in Paris as well. The Protoss are sleek, powerful, and incredibly mobile. They are an excellent representation of a broken peoples that has risen from the ashes and forged itself anew. The Protoss' theme seems to be this newly found mobility. The Zealots have Charge; Stalkers, Blink; Colossi, terrain mobility; and every ground unit can be warped-in, virtually anywhere on the map. It's a fun and powerful mechanic. So many new strategies will be derived from it that it makes, in my opinion, the Protoss the most interesting race in StarCraft II. The entire race feels polished. The models look great; the abilities are solid and the units feel both new and familiar.

The backbone of all great Protoss forces, the Zealot, has been reinstated with the upgradeable Charge passive ability. It's a fantastic and necessary component to this classic fighter. The Zealot still does remarkably well against both Zerglings and Marines. The Charge upgrade is a necessity as early as you can get to it. With the Terran's rolling out Marauders, Charge is the only chance Zealots have to be useful. They do better all the way through the game against the biological Zerg.

 

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The Stalkers are one of the more fun units to use. Their Blink ability makes them incredibly useful, especially in the first half of the game. They're a must-have unit as it's the earliest unit that can attack air as well as ground. While they aren't especially hearty, Blink gives them a new lease on life and makes them a dangerous force in groups of four or more. In groups, their focus fire is enough to take out Roaches with ease and their extra mobility makes sneak attacks or harassment an enjoyable addition to the game. Stalkers were present in every game I played or witnessed; they're a worthy addition as a new staple of the early to mid-game Protoss force.

Nullifiers are actually more useful than I had anticipated. Their Anti-Gravity ability was very useful in destroying chokes and taking key enemy units out of commission. While Anti-Gravity removes chokes, Force Field excels at creating them. In many of my games my force fields funneled the Zerg into Psi Storms or Colossi beams - creating the perfect death trap. The Nullfier's attack, while not overly powerful was enough to make them useful even if they didn't have the energy to cast their abilities. It could attack air and ground, which complemented any force and made a nice supplement to the early game Stalker air defense.

The Immortal is a fantastic unit. The re-imagined Dragoon fits a perfect role for the Protoss. With its hardened shields no longer requiring an upgrade this unit is a Tank's worst nightmare. In PvP groups of these units became even more necessary as Immortal vs. Immortal battles were extremely common. While Immortals are not the most massable unit they fit well with StarCraft II's overall "balanced" force theme. They supplemented the perfect Protoss ground force and served admirably as the shock troops - absorbing as much high damage firepower as they could while allowing your less hearty forces to deal the real damage.

The High Templar is one of my favorite units in StarCraft. It was with some apprehension that I tested these units out. Despite my anxiety and the horrible purple web-like animation for Psi Storm they still pack a massive punch - dealing up to 112 damage in the target area. Combined with the Nullifier's Force Field or a choke point, the High Templar shines. Players that had obviously played StarCraft extensively went right for the High Templar and explored the new strategies and mechanics that could be employed. One of the more interesting scenarios I experimented with was to bring in a of group two or three High Templar and a few Zealots in with a Phase Prism, deploy the Phase Prism, use the Zealots to Charge into a group of defending enemies and Psi Storm the entire area thus securing my position while my units were warping-in from the Warp Gates. This strategy became even more effective when I Blinked in Stalkers to help cover my position. Another variation of that tactic was to bring in nothing but High Templar and Nullifiers in with my Phase Prism and use Force Field to create chokes and Psi Storm them while the bulk of my force was warping-in. Both worked extremely well against either enemy - as long as you stayed away from the Zerg Creep (thus keeping both the Queen and the Spine Crawler out of reach).

The Dark Templar's role has been enhanced. Since all three races tend to have later detector tech, a Dark Templar rush is even more effective than it was in Brood War. The high gas cost can be a bit prohibitive but the unit really hasn't changed all that much at all. Once again - combined with the Nullifier's Force Field created a bloodbath that was worth the price of admission.

The Archon is still a nice unit to have mixed in your force but it still isn't all that massable nor is it invincible. Focus fire destroys them as does the Ghost's EMP ability, which conveniently, massacred my Archons on more than one occasion. It still does an excellent amount of damage and since it can attack both air and ground, it's quite attractive. But because of the increased gas costs for both Templar units - it isn't super cost effective.

The Colossus is amazing. Right now it's definitely imbalanced. But this unit is pure carnage. Despite their ridiculously high gas cost in this build, these robotic war machines destroyed just about every ground unit. Their Twin Thermal Lances were like hot knives slicing through butter. Even one or two of these raped almost every unit. If they were backed up by any other ground units they were virtually unstoppable for several minutes while your enemy was forced to adapt and get air units, Banelings, or some other equally, massively destructive units, to take them out. In general - whenever I built three or four of these I was guaranteed the win. These were so much fun to use. Blowing away your enemy's carefully constructed army has never been more satisfying. While I'll agree with just about everyone else who either played with or against the Colossi, that they need a nerf, they embody the Protoss' mobility and purely destructive power. Even with the high gas cost I found myself expanding and saving up my Vespene just to get a few more of them. I hope that once balancing is completed, the Colossi is still able to turn the tide of battles, even if it costs more to do it.

The Phoenix is a worthy successor to both the Corsair and the Scout. It combines the best of both units. It has a relatively low cost and it's ability to wipe the air-field is unparalleled. Swarms of Mutalisks and fleets of Banshees stood no chance against well managed Phoenix and their powerful Overload ability. The ability's cool-down resulting in a temporary "offline" status for the Phoenix offered many innovative strategies. For example, players expected their opponents to jump the gun and so would send in a decoy force and then swoop-in and destroy the entire Protoss fleet. Likewise, some Protoss players were able to anticipate that and so only incapacitated half of their Phoenix, mimicking a "leap-frog" strategy, alternative groups of Phoenix would Overload and then when the next wave came the next group would and so on and so forth. Additionally Overload was fantastic for massacring Zerg players who grouped their Overlords. I could almost hear the screams of anguish from across the hall.

 

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The Phase Prism is probably the most innovative and important unit to the re-imagined Protoss force. The Phasing Mode, which allows the Phase Prism to become a mobile Pylon and thus provide the matrix necessary to warp-in units is a unique and powerful ability. Since they also fulfill the Shuttle role they're even more valuable. Their importance cannot be overstated. The mechanic that the Phase Prism provides makes it the most valuable unit on the battlefield. Any game that progressed to the "warp-in phase" was decided by how well these units were protected. The advantage that the Protoss gain from the added mobility really makes them unstoppable if used correctly. I can't imagine some of the amazing strategies we'll see from the placement and subsequent warp-ins we'll see.

The Warp Ray is another unit that makes me glad that this just isn't an updated Brood War. It's a fun and powerful unit. The damage that these things can do if left alone is unprecedented. These can make mincemeat of Ultralisks, Carriers, Battlecruisers, Archons, etc. Any heavy, powerful unit should fear the skies. They're best used as part of a balanced force to both ensure their survival long enough to do their high-powered damage and so their usefulness as beams of destruction is maximized. Let your other units keep most of their force busy while you eliminate their high-cost, high-damage units.

The Carrier was by far my biggest disappointment. I was thrilled that the Escorts weren't in the build but I was quickly discouraged with the extremely high cost (400 Vespene!) and the pathetic damage that one, or even a few of them, were able to produce. It reminded me of why the Carrier was a massable unit - and almost used exclusively in that regard in Brood War. There was no justifiable reason to build Carriers unless you had both the ability, time, and resources to build them en mass without ensuring your own destruction in the meantime. The one characteristic that I was glad to see was the smart-casting Build Interceptor. Otherwise this unit has not changed in any significant way since Brood War. It either needs its cost cut significantly or it needs a significant buff to justify its creation.

The Observer hasn't changed - its importance as a detector is underscored by the fact that Ghosts are not as late of a tech as in Brood War. Besides periodic cannon placement, Observers still fill that essential role.

The Mothership still doesn't feel as though it has found it's place or it's purpose. It seems like a glorified Arbiter. None of it's three abilities, Summon (think Recall), Time Bomb, or Recharge seem to be essential. It's supposed to be a support unit but it is ungodly slow and that makes it unworthy as an attacking support ship. The role it seemed to slip into at the WWI was that of a Protoss Queen. Once your Mothership was built it would sit in your base. Its Time Bomb ability was useful in delaying an enemy attack that was too bunched together. And its Summon ability was able to bring your army back to your base to defend it. Since you could only buy one and its cost was comparative to that of a Carrier - if you had the resources there wasn't a reason not to build one. But it wasn't the support unit that I think they had envisioned and it didn't feel unique enough to justify me getting excited about purchasing one. This is one of the few Protoss units that I think will be continually tweaked, if not removed, throughout the beta.

The Protoss force seems to be a fusion of two new themes. The first, is mobility. Every unit is more mobile than they ever were in Brood War and the warp-in mechanic just elevates the Protoss to a whole new level. The strategies that are going to come out of this are going to separate the good players from the fantastic players. This is where the heart of the new re-imagined Protoss lie. The mobility combined with their expensive, powerful units has now leveled the playing field with the Zerg and Terran's ability to rapidly produce and deploy. The warp-in mechanic inherently encourages its use. The time to warp-in a unit is less than the time it would normally take to build the unit. This direction really redefines the Protoss, or I should say, adds a new dimension to the already powerful Protoss. The second broad theme is that the units encourage the creation of balanced forces. It's obvious that a real effort has been made to make the lower tier units useful in the later stages of the game. Every unit is complementary - not just to another unit, but to the entire range of Protoss units. I most often found myself winning, not by massing one or two units, but with a balanced force of each, based on their strengths and abilities. The only units that really seem out of place are the Mothership, Carrier and to a certain extent, the Archon. It's like their purpose, their role, isn't defined. They seem confused and I didn't find them to be essential the way I did almost every other unit. That isn't to say that massable units won't win you the game or you have to build one of every unit - but the more you balance your force the more you get out of each unit. the micro-management opportunities are incalculable - I feel even more so than in Brood War. When you find that magic formula of units and abilities the Protoss will be a force to be reckoned with, once you master the warp-in mechanic and the various abilities, they'll be unstoppable. I came to the WWI expecting to have fun with the Protoss - I walked away more excited. The Protoss are living up, and exceeding all of my expectations.

 

The Terran

The Terran are extremely polished as well. Their traditional "turtle" role seems to have been exploited and has shifted the focus in that direction. Some of the recent Q&A's seem to suggest that this is why the Terran's aren't inhibited in the early game but I found that they have far more advantages than that. The most important mechanic that the Terrans posses is their ability to build Reactors, which effectively double their unit output. Marines can now be pumped out at incredible rates. With the addition of the Marauder, which is a fantastic unit, the Zealot and its Charge ability is effectively marginalized. While scorned by many in the community, the Medivac, the shuttle, re-imagined to include the Medic's biological healing, only reiterates the focus on the infantry. The Ghost, no longer at the highest level of tech, serves as their primary "spell-caster" and does so quite well providing devastating EMP blasts to the Protoss and dropping Nukes on the all-biological Zerg. Certain units like the Reaper (despite their Terrain jumping ability) and the Jackal (despite it's AOE attack), were actually quite disappointing. Neither seemed to do all that well against, well, anything. The Reaper's mines were actually interesting to harass with - but they still embody the infantry principle - low health, low armor units, which didn't make them at all effective much past the time you had teched to get them.

 

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While their focus is on infantry, the Terran's still boast several excellent support units, including the surprisingly fun Viking. The Viking's ability to transform itself from a ground fighter to an airborne air fighter has important strategic implications. One of the best Terran strategies I witnessed while in Paris was using the Vikings in air mode to escort Medivacs full of Marines and Marauders into an enemy base and then transform into their ground incarnations. While their damage seems lower than in previous builds, for their cost of 125 minerals and 75 gas - their mobility is well worth paying for. In addition the Viking is quite good at eliminating Mutalisks - something the Terran air force tended to have trouble with in Brood War. Another unit that goes beyond the infantry mantra is the classic Battlecruiser. In the WWI build the Battlecrusier felt unstoppable. It massacred Hydras, demolished buildings and no damage is wasted; It fires a long burst of small lasers that immediately moves onto the next target once it's current target has been eliminated. The Zerg, with their lack of high damage anti-air, especially, took issue with Battlecruisers. Seige Tanks are the obvious staple of the Terran offense and defense. Their range was increased for this build and it showed. It was phenomenal. Everything about it is great. Even the Immortal is no match for Tanks protected by Marines.

Lastly, the Terrans seem to have a few units out of place. A dedicated air-to-air fighter doesn't seem necessary given the Viking's ability to adequately deal with Mutas. But without longer games and further testing it's hard to say. The Reaper needs to have a bit more health to be useful in the mid to late game - it currently just doesn't fit with it's harass purpose. And the Jackal, while experimental, a fusion of the Vulture and the Firebat, it just doesn't deal enough damage to the Protoss - against the Zerg it did much better but some tweaks will need to be made to ensure that it has a useful purpose in all match-ups. The Thor is another unit that seems to have lost its way along the course of development. It doesn't really do anything... The few times that I faced them as either Protoss or Zerg - they were massacred within seconds. Since their high-yield damage is air only and the games were almost exclusively ground based the Thor's role - was marginalized. This is another unit that I believe the development team needs to evaluate again and again as each change to the build is made. If a better niche isn't found that complements the Terran structure - it needs to be cut.

Overall the Terrans have received a graphical revamp - they look fantastic and they feel like the classic Terrans that we've played with for the last decade. The improvements that have been made since BlizzCon definitely show and the Terrans are becoming increasingly more coherent and focused. Despite their heavy reliance on infantry - which has been beefed considerably to hold through most of the game - the Terrans are now a fusion of the Protoss' sleek high-powered war machines and the Zerg's cheap, mass-produced units.

 

The Zerg

This was my first time playing the Zerg and the first time since Irvine in March that we've seen all three races perform together. It's obvious that the Zerg have the furthest to go in terms of polish and purpose. The core of the Zerg gameplay is the same - mass produce cheap, quick units to overwhelm the enemy. But the re-imagining of the swarm has created some interesting new units and some things that are obviously problematic. One of the most interesting things about the Zerg is the advent of the Queen. The Queen serves a role that didn't exist in Brood War and still has many old players anxious. In general, I wasn't sure about the Queen; she still retains that heroish stigma even though her role has been reduced since her announcement, but she didn't feel that she warranted her description. Her saving grace was the fact that she had a ranged attack (which isn't nearly as awesome looking as her melee one was), but did make her helpful in defending your base against early Mutalisk rushes. Another interesting thing about her - which was actually very cool and innovative was her new Mutate Larvae ability. You target the ability at a Larva, it mutates into a Mutant Larva. The Mutant Larva can them move away from the Hatchery, which allows the Hatchery to spawn another Larva. The tactical advantage is that you can stockpile Larva and thus be able to produce even more units than your Hatcheries would otherwise allow. Overall I felt that the Queen was a tactical necessity for the Zerg even though I wasn't ever sure exactly how I ultimately felt about her.

 

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An interesting caveat about the Zerg - they are the ones who would have benefited the most from the controversial MBS (multiple building selection). The ability to control your entire swarm and hatch whatever unit you wanted from all the Larva that you had would have had definite consequences for your enemies. But interestingly enough a unique compromise was put in place you can still select as many Larva, Gateways, Barracks, etc as you have but you have to click (or hot-key tap) once for every Larva, Gateway, Barracks, etc. as you have selected. This is extremely different from the Zerg in BW. In BW you selected 12 Larva and spawned 12 Hydras with one hot-key tap or click. Now with this MBS mechanic you'd have to click or tap 12 times to do the same thing. Personally, I think this is a fantastic compromise to the MBS problem and I hope that it, or some variant of it stays.

The Zerg forces in general are a mixed bag. Units like the Zergling, the Baneling, and the Roach are all extremely fun and interesting. The Banelings use has probably been understated despite the fact that they are a bit slower. The Roach is very unique and while it isn't as difficult to kill as many, it still provides new micro opportunities and diversifies the Zerg a bit. However, units like the Hydralisk, Mutalisk, and the Corrupter are hurting. All of them are weak and their damage is quite pathetic. Despite the information that we had on the Hydra - it's a definite glass cannon. The problem is that it doesn't even feel like it does the damage as advertised. The Hydra needs to gain some serious hit points to be considered viable. The Mutalisk suffers from much of the same problem. It's weak and it is now countered effectively but several units in both other races reducing it's effectiveness even more. The Corrupter has been weakened as well. They're no match for dedicated air to air units and the Corruption effect isn't all that good. The Lurker is currently a complete disgrace. The tech required to get it is discouraging and the game is probably over by the time it's reached. I barely saw anyone use it at all.

The one very cool tactic that I saw used quite a bit was the Overlord's ability to drop creep and then Nydus Worm behind enemy positions, etc. Basically the Zerg are even more mobile than they were before. The multiple exits they can build is an extraordinarily awesome advantage. Overall the Zerg look quite cool and things like the thicker, more vibrant Creep makes the race look more polished. But overall the Zerg most definitely need the most work. Each unit needs to be evaluated for a graphical redo and to see what their position really is. Still the progress made from what we saw in Irvine is impressive and we have been repeatedly assured that the Zerg are nowhere near done.

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Conclusion

The races flow; the game flows - it's familiar and new at the same time. It's like greeting an old friend but both expecting and knowing that since the last time you saw him, he's changed. The new game mechanics are a fitting tribute to the uniqueness of the three races, which is precisely what Blizzard wanted. They wanted to re-imagine StarCraft - not reinvent it. The new mechanics enhance the racial differences that were inherent in BW. They only add to the unique complexity that exist in the match-ups between three very different but balanced races. There's enough nostalgia to make the StarCraft II a sequel - not a new franchise and enough new material to make it a new game - not just a revamp of it's predecessor. What we've waited for, for so long, is taking shape; even when I was trying to be critical - I couldn't help myself, I was having fun.

 

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