Welcome to the Jungle (Blizzard hasn't licensed any Guns N' Roses songs, but you won't care - the music is superb) tasks you with escorting SCVs as they harvest seven canisters of Terrazine gas on a map defended by the fanatic Tal'darim protoss clan. The mission quickly spirals out of control - you have to recover the Terrazine while dealing with protoss base rushes (anti-air Goliath units do a great job here), and their attempt to seal the Terrazine away. Once seven bits of Terrazine have been brought back to your base, the mission ends. In a nice twist, the Terrazine becomes a bone of contention back on the Hyperion Bridge. It turns out that Tosh, who initiated the mission, wasn't exactly upfront about his motivations.
The second mission, called The Dig, is the highlight of our play test. Tychus asks you to recover an alien artefact from a planet called Xil. It's a morgue, he says, packed with ruins excavated by the missing "Moebius" team. The mission begins with a drop off - you're in control of seven units: four marines, a Marauder and two medics. It's not long, though, before you encounter Tal'darim protoss. Swann drops off Siege Tanks, which you use in siege mode to rain down artillery from a safe distance. Soon after you find the Moebius team, start building a base and fire up a giant laser to melt down an ancient temple door.
The mission then expands to multiple fronts. As the laser ekes down the temple door's many, many hit points, protoss attack from all directions. Merc units packed into bunkers placed in choke points leading in and out of my base, coupled with as many siege tanks as my economy provides, make short work of the AI. Then, I get to control the laser myself. F2 selects it and the right mouse button fires, disintegrating pretty much any enemy unit from halfway across the map. The relentless assault continues until I eventually bust down the temple door. Wicked.
It's these kinds of interesting mechanics that should propel StarCraft II's campaign missions above the glorified multiplayer tutorial fare we're used to from most RTS games. And, by the sound of it, the rest of the missions will be just as good. In one players will have to contend with an active volcano that spews lava flow onto low ground - coincidentally exactly where the resources you need are. In another, a star is exploding, launching a wall of fire that marches across the map. You have to get your resources and complete your objectives while fleeing the burning doom bringer.
Almost as impressive as the cutscenes is the new and improved Battle.net, which Blizzard is billing as the Xbox LIVE of online PC gaming. Some of its social features, in addition to the in-depth profile statistics and in-game achievements, are truly impressive. You can add friends via Facebook integration, or add them with email addresses via the new Real ID system - entirely optional, Pearce says with reference to the paranoid.
The best thing about Real ID is that it'll give you access to cross-game chat. Say, for example, you're playing StarCraft II's single-player campaign and your guild mates are playing World of Warcraft. They'll be able to quickly and easily ask you to fill a space in a raid, and you'll be able to quickly and easily answer the call. Or, say you're playing StarCraft II, but really you're waiting for a heroic dungeon run in WoW. You can leave a message saying just that as a status broadcast. Then when your mates jump into WoW, they'll see the message and be able to pull you in. Cross-game chat will work for all Blizzard games: StarCraft, Warcraft, Diablo, or, if the developer has something brand new up its sleeve, that as well. Basically, it'll bring together players of all Blizzard's games into one happy blob of gaming goodness, plugged in to the company's all-encompassing, all conquering Battle.net/Skynet/The Matrix digital hive mind.
So, finally, StarCraft II's gloves have come off. We knew the multiplayer side of things will provide a wonderfully-balanced but familiar experience. Now we know the single-player will be much more than the poor cousin. For those of us who love RTS games but dare not battle other players online, this is hugely exciting. With StarCraft II's release only a couple of months away, it won't be long before we're all embracing our inner geek.
StarCraft II is due out on the PC on July 27.