I go hands on after Raynor and his Raiders have "liberated" the alien artefact. He is standing in the Bridge, studying StarCraft II's star map. Clicking on it, I have four different missions available to play at this point during the campaign, all part of the game's "branching storyline". Next to Raynor stands faithful first officer Matt Horner. The perspective is fixed in place. When I click on Raynor he says something depressing about the zerg. When I click on Horner, the two share a cutscene where they chat about their new cargo: the mysterious alien artefact. Tosh, an untrustworthy voodoo-loving operative who's part of a secret project called the Spectres (next-gen Ghosts), stands in the background. Talking to him, he suggests "another job". But what's in it for Jim? "Everyone knows Jim Raynor wants to put the hurt on Mengsk," Tosh says. "I can help you with that. I can help you big time." Once the cutscene is over, it's back to the fixed bridge view.
From here I can visit the Hyperion's three other sections with a simple click of the left mouse button. In the Armoury stands Swann, a rotund, short fellow who would almost certainly be a dwarf were he in Warcraft. Here cash I've earned through completing missions can be spent on upgrading my infantry, vehicles and structures (with the aid of nifty little videos that demonstrate the text descriptions. I was able to buy almost all the upgrades in one fell swoop, but then my coffers were packed with unspent cash gained from the game's first few of missions; in reality careful, considered spending will be essential.
In the Laboratory the hyperactive geek Stetmann (look closely and you'll see small squares of tissue paper covering up shaving cuts on his face) messes about with experimental research and the sexy female scientist Hanson ponders the alien artefact. Talking to Stetmann for the first time, he explains the research opportunities system. During missions you can earn research points from optional secondary objectives, the idea being that it takes more skill to search out side areas of the map that might have hidden protoss technology items or zerg artefacts while you're tackling primary objectives. Research points are spent in two research ladders: one for protoss and one for zerg. Every five levels you get to choose one research upgrade from a choice of two. The first choice you'll make on the protoss ladder is between adding Ultra-Capacitors or Vanadium Plating. The Capacitors will make weapon upgrades increase your units' attack speed by five per cent in addition to increasing damage. The Plating, on the other hand, will make armour upgrades increase health by five per cent in addition to increasing armour; basically, do you want to kick more ass or take more punishment? Further up the ladder, at the 20 points of research mark, I can snag the Science Vessel - a classic unit from the original StarCraft which doesn't appear in the SCII multiplayer because it would unbalance the gameplay - or take the Raven, which does appear in the terran multiplayer army.
The idea with the Lab research panel, and the Armoury research panel to an extent, is that you'll get your grubby mitts on unique, super powerful units that aren't in the multiplayer. Take, for example, the giant transport that can carry dozens of infantry units and soak up loads of anti-air abuse. The transport, obviously, isn't balanced for multiplayer, but it is loads of fun to mess around with in single-player. Blizzard also hopes the A or B system will add replayability - maybe you'll play the campaign again just to try out the units you passed up on previously.
The Cantina's easily the best section of the ship, though. It's packed with lovely little details: a The Lost Vikings arcade cabinet (Google that Blizzard fans) which will hopefully be playable in the final build, a television that sprouts satirical news reports, and Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds busting out of the jukebox. Here I can hire powerful mercenary units from a broker called Hill. Mercs are great: Devil Dogs are, basically, elite Firebats. Hire Hammer Securities and you'll get Elite Marauders - one of the best infantry units in the game. Out on the battlefield, hired mercenaries instantly spawn from your mercenary building, once you've got enough minerals and gas.
Navigating the Hyperion brings back hazy memories of Wing Commander and a live action Mark Hamill hamming it up in front of a green screen. It's an old school system but there's something refreshing and exciting about it. Just being able to click on people and trigger a cutscene (the game's packed with non-interactive in-game engine cutscenes, almost 45 minutes worth according to Blizzard) isn't something we're used to from RTS games. Sure, StarCraft II's story isn't going to win any writing awards, but there's a cool Event Horizon vibe going on. Talk to Hanson and Raynor will ask whether the alien artefact could be behind some strange noises and other creepy shenanigans the crew's reporting. She dismisses the concern, but it's obvious the artefact will end up playing a major role in Raynor's battle against the Dominion. As you'd expect, Frank is enthusiastic about StarCraft II's single-player, highlighting the game's 29 missions, branching campaign and lovely cutscenes: "This is by far our most ambitious story mode campaign for an RTS ever."
Still, you, the player, will spend more time pointing and clicking and commanding and conquering than marvelling at lip-synching. The terran campaign will live or die by the quality of its missions. Thankfully, the two available for play test suggest StarCraft II will most certainly live.