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StarCraft II has come quite a long way from the last time I really had a chance to play it a few months ago in Paris and it has evolved completely from a year ago when I was first able to play, at BlizzCon 2007. As the game evolves and moves closer to its beta there's less to tear apart and report on - the game isn't new anymore. It's been refined and it looks gorgeous and it feels great; it is coming into it's own. So instead of a multi-page article focused on every minute detail/change - this report is going to be about the different things, the fun things - the things that really give StarCraft II its own flavor.

The Protoss:


An Overview:

The Protoss are still my favorite race, despite the awesome strides the other two races have made since last year's BlizzCon and even from Paris just a few months ago, nothing can compare to warp-in. The mechanic is probably one of the few things in the game that I would say the developers have 100% met their goal of re-imagining the game rather than reinventing it. Warp-in is so Protoss - it even feels classic. In one of the games I played during the first day - I devoted the entire game to just playing with it. Phase Prisms are the perfect catalyst for this feature and have so many uses I think that we'll see warp-in and proxies used in phenomenal ways. A force of 2-3 protected by a few Phoenix were easily able to deploy the pseudo-pylon ability just out of my enemy's site. With my twelve Warp Gates working at full capacity - in a little under two minutes I had a ground force created and inside his main. It's brilliant and what's more is that it is fun. Other units also have as much potential and feel right too. The Stalkers, Immortals, Colossi (in theory - see below), and Dark Templar all have that same feeling to them - they all fit. This Protoss race really feels like a worthy successor to the classical feel and handling of StarCraft's. And they're still powerful, expensive, and incredibly pretty to watch.

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Changes - What They've Gotten Right:

Since WWI 08 the Protoss haven't really undergone too many changes - especially positive ones but there's at least a few. The Mothership feels better - a lot better. In Paris, this unit felt like a glorified defensive Arbiter - that was the weak equivalent of the previous incarnations of StarCraft II's Zerg Queen. Now it feels like it's coming into its own a bit more. The abilities are solid and while they aren't as powerful as the original StarCraft II intro game-play demo they still are useful. In addition, its speed has seen a bit of an increase, which helps it move out of that sluggish role that it had fallen into before. The Void Ray is an amazingly fun unit. As a matter of fact, currently it is my favorite unit in the entire game. It is the most solid support unit in the whole game. Armies of these things can cream quite a bit of enemy bone and metal. Their cost and tech is perfect and they will play a perfect companion role to warp-in.

Changes - What They've Done Wrong:

These are really a bit more subjective and as a Protoss player, I admittedly have a bias, nevertheless these changes didn't feel good. Firstly, the Colossus has been nerfed hardcore. In the WWI build the unit was definitely over-powered but the nerf it received was way more than we expected. The damage is still done concurrently to all units in the line but it's been reduced significantly. Where before it was able to annihilate small Zerg armies, now it falls to small expeditionary forces. It doesn't feel like the backbone of the Protoss ground force but rather a support unit. This change also made it less viable as a good harass unit. Its high cost doesn't merit stepping over cliffs into an enemy camp just to be destroyed, and since no other Protoss ground unit can accompany it like that, it means that warp-in has to be used to support it. That in itself isn't necessarily bad - but it changes the dynamic of the unit. As for the Archons, they still suck. They don't do the scale or type of damage that we would expect them to considering what an Archon can do in StarCraft - and it isn't that this unit was nerfed but that its classic enemies have gotten better. This unit feels less like a heavy assault ground warrior and more like another support unit that is to be used carefully and in moderation, lest its cost bankrupt you. Right now - the unit just isn't worth it. My next comment isn't really a change from the previous build but rather a long-standing complaint aimed at the Protoss air. Carriers are ridiculous. Right now they could cut the unit and it wouldn't matter in a game-play sense. Critical mass is essential to the viability of these units and it is just too difficult to do that. Even as a support unit they aren't worth the tech - their role needs to be seriously re-evaluated. The Phoenix was, I think, supposed to be a melding between a Scout and a Corsair. Each of those units had a particular use, purpose, and role and to a debatable degree, they did them well. The Phoenix doesn't do anything very well. It's weaker, inflexible, and more expensive compared to its Zerg and Terran counterparts. Since WWI it has gained the former Nullifier ability, Anti-Gravity. This is apparently an attempt to make the unit more useful, more flexible - and it works - kind of. The ability works because you can pick up ground units to blast them away but because its an ability you can't spam it - so the Phoenix is still limited. Additionally, this change means that Anti-Gravity is now a later tier ability.

Protoss Conclusion:

Ultimately, my biggest gripe (and it is really more food for thought than anything) about the Protoss is their lack of clear backbone units. To some degree the Stalker has filled that role for the ground force but in every other regard the Protoss force is full of support units. I've lauded this choice before because it forces you to have variety and not rely on one or two units throughout the whole game but the more I play it, the more I feel like it also takes away an important element. The Stalker is a good example of how this problem can be mitigated. The unit itself isn't overly strong, it is cheap, mobile, and has more than one use. Unlike the Stalker, almost all of the other Protoss units are incredibly specialized making the game more frustrating than fun. This problem isn't huge but it definitely changes the way you play. However, this doesn't change what I think about the Protoss. Despite their shortcomings the Protoss are fun, sleek, sophisticated, powerful, and the warp-in mechanic makes the race truly a joy to play.

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The Zerg


An Overview:

The Zerg have evolved and it feels good. The Zerg felt pretty polished and the devs have made huge strides in pefecting this race as a whole. I played the Zerg quite a bit compared to what I had in the past and they're definitely my second favorite race. The theme for the Zerg in the BlizzCon 08 build seemed to be "global" and that fits - very well. There are, as with the Protoss, many new mechanics and avenues which are probably going to make the Zerg the most mobile, adaptive, reactive, and innovative of all three. And that's just the way it should be.

Changes - What They've Gotten Right:

Since March I have been one of the biggest and most outspoken critics of the "hero" Queen. Now? I love it. The Queen is no longer unique and it has taken on a more economic role and I think it works perfectly. The Queen can spawn Mutant Larva (with a cool-down) at any Hatchery/Lair/Hive, which virtually provides an awesome quick response army. When I had some time to sit down with Dustin Browder he explained that Mutant Larva was really the economic push that they had been looking for. Early game you can get a leg up on mining and later the Mutant Larva become versatile and, with proper micro, really become game changing. In most of the games I played as the Zerg I would spam this as soon as I could, creating huge pools of mobile larvae. When I was attacked I could react and adapt to the situation much easier because I was producing units closer to the front lines, closer to the action. In addition the Queen provides a defensive ability to help ward off pesky intruders. Her Creep Tumor ability provides even more of a unique role for the Queen. Over the past several weeks discussions about the Creep have made theory-crafting particularly interesting. Creep Tumors are just one part of the huge potential that the re-imagined Zerg Creep has going for it, as a mechanic rather than a hindrance. I'd liken it to the Protoss warp-in and I'm just as excited for its possibilities. Pushing Creep is going to change the way StarCraft II is played and it's going to take some inventive and innovative thinking for classic players to understand and use properly. And even though the Queen's damage seems to have been nerfed a bit and Deep Tunnel has been removed, the fact that you can make several of them more than makes up for this fact. The Lurker is also a unit that I've railed against in the past but in this build has returned with a vengeance. The Lurker now has an even bigger bonus against "armor" than before, with an improved attack (the swath now cuts twice as wide), making it harder to dodge, and combined with the fact that it is now Lair tech, the Lurker has come back from the dead. The infantries' bane has returned. Another interesting, yet potentially positive change, is that the Zerg Baneling can now be purchased almost entirely without gas (150 for the Baneling Nest). This is probably a double-edged blade. It makes Banelings awesome and even more useful but balance-wise it creates some interesting scenarios. Protoss ground is still expensive and is pretty vulnerable to this type of attack. The Banelings high damage plus new low cost has me questioning what this will do. I'm not overly concerned because I imagine that this is something that will get sorted out during the beta. The final thing that really put the cherry on top of the Zerg for me was the Infestor. This unit is incredible. Yes it doesn't actually infest anything but let's reflect for a moment on what it can do. It's the only Zerg unit that can move while burrowed, it can "spawn" Infested Terrans (it throws little goop balls that in seconds morph), it has Neural Parasite (a 10 second Mind Control ala a limited Dark Archon), and it has a new ability called Fungal Infestation. The new ability is awesome - once a targeted unit has been infested it is going to die. But the unit's health determines how long before it explodes (Note: no massive units can be targeted), but when it does explode it does splash damage. Think about the possibilities of this unit - sneak mineral attacks, flanking, behind enemy lines, etc. And to top it all off Samwise confirmed that the Infestor would be getting an art makeover.

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Changes - What Still Sucks:

I don't think there were any drastic Zerg changes that I didn't think were positive but rather I still have some gripes that have persisted since the beginning. Firstly, Overlords aren't detectors. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but it is certainly a change and it takes some conscious thought to ensure that you upgrade some of them as soon as you can. Secondly, the Zerg still don't have a great transport mechanic. Yes, the Nydus Worm is nifty, but it isn't as mobile or practical for expansions, specific unit drops etc. It definitely has an offensive design bias. Mutalisks looked way better than they did in Paris but the stacking isn't as smooth or as true to StarCraft as we'd like - I think that's something else that is still a work-in-progress. Hydras too still bother me a bit. They don't feel quite as weak as they did in Paris but they still don't fit their traditional role as the Zerg every-unit. I'm not sure if this was a conscious choice by the devs to diversify the practical Zerg force or if it was a casualty in refining everything else. None of these complaints especially turned me off to the Zerg - but I think that the beta will show whether or not they are truly important issues or just my subjective and limited biases.

The Zerg Conclusion:

The Zerg have truly stepped up here. They look and feel far better than they did in Paris and while I don't think they are polished to the point that the Protoss and the Terran are, they nevertheless are coming into their own. Many of the previous glaring problems have been mitigated or outright fixed and the direction they are headed with the Creep and mobility is fantastic. I really think that the Creep dynamic is going to change vZ match-ups. It was apparent to most that played for an extended period of time at BlizzCon that comparably the Zerg isn't balanced and as such it was slightly more powerful than the other two races. But we have to remember, this was a status report, a pre-beta trial run, and the Zerg surpassed my expectations for their progress. Most importantly though, they're still very fun to play and the innovative potential has me very excited to play them again - possibly even enough to abandon the Protoss as my primary race.

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The Terran


An Overview:

Despite the changes that StarCraft II has brought to the Terrans, they're still my least favorite race. Regardless of my personal bias the Terrans probably are the most polished and most functional of all three races. It's the Terran, more than the Protoss or the Zerg that come across as finished. With very few exceptions, things work. They're still the middle of the road race in terms of individual unit power and cost, so they still fit their niche quite well. It's just that they are, well, boring.

Changes - What They've Done Right:

Marauders - the replacement for the Firebat is fantastic. As a matter of fact it's probably too good. Coming out of BlizzCon we heard many reports that with a few Marauders and Marines the game was quickly over. The unit itself is innovative (for the Terran) and makes for a nice addition to the ground force. When I spoke with Dustin on Thursday he actually expressed that there was some concern from the devs that the Marauder was eclipsing and overpowering the utility of the Marine. Reports coming out of BlizzCon addressing this have been mixed and I personally think that there is that potential but we won't really know till the beta. Another positive change is the Nighthawk. It fits better with the Terran than the Nomad ever did. It's new abilities compliment the Terran's forces in new ways and fits with the covert story very well. Actually, I'd say that the Terran airforce is probably the most polished and most functional of all three races. Every unit has a purpose, they're good at their purpose, and the cost, in general, adequately reflects what you're getting. The Reaper, too, is far better than I had anticipated. It is very close to a perfect harass unit - it's moderately powerful, has an alternate ability, and can cliff jump. It's great and fits so well with the other diverse infantry that the Terrans can push. I even found myself likeing the Medivac - I think it really changes up the game-play choices and opprotunites both for the Terran player and for counter possibilites. You have to worry about AA as instead of just countering another ground force. Overall, the units seem to have found their place, even units I previously hate. The Terran units have a purpose, they are functional, and they're defined. They fit into the new standard direction the Terrans are headed - "standard".

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Changes - What Could Still Be Improved:

My biggest strike against the Terrans coming out of playing at BlizzCon was the relative worthlessness of the Thor. I honestly don't think this unit, in its current form is worth anything. The concept was cool when it was built by an SCV, the rebuilding (battlefield self-repair) was also neat, but even in it's AA capacity I think it gets creamed by any air force worth its salt. While the Zerg Queen, and the Protoss Mothership have both found their roles, the Thor still remains the odd man out. Another unit that is awesome in concept but didn't translate well in the BlizzCon build was the Viking. It's the perfect compliment to the Tank and just about any other force but it's weak, but a little buff and it's right back to being quite good.

The Terran Conclusion:

The Terrans actually feel the most done and for what they are they look and feel good. When I said that the Terran were boring - I mean in terms of innovation. The Protoss have warp-in, the Zerg have the Creep dynamic, and while the Terran have some neat infantry mechanics going on (the Reactors, the new role of the Ghosts, etc) there isn't any sweeping change for the Terran. There is no evolution. They are the middle of the road race; there isn't anything wrong with that - they're very solid. I would have just liked to see a little more innovation. But honestly, the Terrans at this point, are very well done.

The Gas Mechanic:

The new gas mechanic is far better than Paris' forced attempt. This time the mechanic is automatic. After 300 gas have been mined the harvesting structure must replensish itself. It goes down for 60 seconds. During that time you have the choice of whether or not to use your three miners for something else (thus increasing macro) or not. After the cool-down period any miners that were left there will automatically go back to work. This still places an added emphasis on gas over minerals and it still accomplishes its goal of rewarding the macro-minded player. Honestly, the mechanic is a very good thing. Not only did it feel right but it wasn't prohibitive of your goals - rather it encouraged rather than forced better macro application. I think players really just wanted to have the choice rather than be forced into participating in what was ultimately, a prohibitive mechanic.

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Conclusion:

The game still feels absolutely fantastic. It has been an amazing journey to watch and play it at many of its stages of development and I can say from personal expierence that it is getting better. The beta will be here before you know it and then the true analysis will begin - the true fun will begin. And while some user interaction debates still rage i.e. MBS (which is actually very good in its current form - see the WWI write-up) and Automine (still lousy), my suggestions, at this point, are just that - suggestions. There is nothing inherently broken in this build and it is poised to be the worthy successor to StarCraft: Brood War.

This is a StarCraft: Legacy (http://sclegacy.com/) BlizzCon 2008 feature article.

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