The young American, dressed in t-shirt and jeans, stops his flurry of fingers and maniacal mouse movements to move his headset away from his ears. He leans forward to talk to his opponent. “Hey, Phil! I've got 12 hydralisks!” “Oh crap” comes the response. 12 giant, terrifying caterpillar-like creatures with claws descend on Phil's base. There's nothing to be done – terran marines fire weapons in futile defence. Blood splatters and the hydralisks cackle in victory. “GG.”
It feels as if the playable StarCraft II multiplayer build at the Warcraft Regional Finals 2009 in Cologne, Germany, is generating more of a crowd than the tournament itself. 64 gamers from across the US and Europe have turned up to duke it out for the handful of BlizzCon spots that are up for grabs. Oh, and the small matter of a $5,000 pay check for first place. You'd think they'd be spending every waking second practising. They're not. They're playing StarCraft II, an RTS that may well dwarf every RTS ever released. On the evening of day two of the contest, at 10.30 pm, Blizzard's IT manager for Europe had no choice but to pull the plug on the server on which the game was running to get them to stop playing. This, from Blizzard's point of view, is a good sign.
As an average real-time strategy fan, playing the game with the best of the west standing arms folded behind me is unsettling to say the least. These are the guys that input over 200 actions per minute (APM). These are the guys that practice four or five hours a day. These are the guys that have fans. These are the guys that can make more money from one weekend's worth of competitive Warcraft play than two summer months of gruelling work selling burgers. And these are the guys that are impatiently waiting for me to finish my noobish, slow fumbling so they can take their turn destroying someone in the blink of an eye.
But I persist, and start to get a feel for the game that's been 11 years in the making. Immediately it rekindles memories of Blizzard's 1998 sci-fi RTS original. All three races from that game are present and accounted for – the terrans, the zerg and the protoss. The terrans: gun-ho humans, all rounders perhaps, with a digestible tech tree and self-explanatory units. The zerg, if we continue the analogy with the races from Warcraft III, are the orcs, an alien race of fast moving creatures that attack in swarms. And the protoss are the night elves, complicated, mysterious, technologically advanced psionic aliens that excel in mobility and surprise.
This time around the races are more differentiated in terms of strengths, weaknesses and play style due to the addition of new units and tweaks here and there, but they look and play much as they did. Terran SCVs, zerg drones and protoss probes build structures and gather resources from mineral fields and vespene gas geysers. Natural expansion is sought almost immediately – a productive economy is key. Infantry units are pumped out – marines, zerglings and zealots. The zerg send out lumbering overlords to scout. Probes warp in structures then get on with something else while buildings make their way onto the map. Terran tech labs lead to valuable upgrades. The unit cap is raised. Do I rush? Do I harass? Am I building my base quickly enough? Where's my opponent? What's he doing? What units counter his? Where are those damn siege tanks!
Like the original, StarCraft II is fast-paced. There's no time to ponder strategy and consider your options. Bases can be constructed quickly and units move at speed. The emphasis is on big armies with lots of units clashing in tightly balanced RTS action. If you don't know what counters what and don't have a handle on micro-management, an entire army can be decimated in seconds. Terran Hellion vehicles can burn the zerg to a crisp with its mounted, long-reaching flame thrower. The zerg Queen, about as close as StarCraft II gets to Warcraft III's hero units, is a powerful offensive ground unit that can destroy an invading assault before you've even had the chance to click on it. And the protoss' flying Warp Rays incinerate powerful single targets, even terran Battlecruisers, when they concentrate their fire. In StarCraft II, you won't be wasting time watching a hit point bar tortuously decrease as your units smack it with sticks and boulders. In StarCraft II, there's usually an enormous laser that'll get the job done in a jiffy.