It's the music that accompanies the destruction that makes StarCraft II kick lumps of awesomeness out of every real-time strategy game ever created. Particularly, the Terran music. When you've got five Marauders, a few flamethrower-packing Hellions, and, of course, as many Siege Tanks as your minerals and gas resource will allow, all marching towards impending doom, and that hard rock riff kicks in as if the game somehow knows that, very soon, there will be blood and guts and the clash of metal and plasma, the hairs on the back of your neck don't just stand on end, they shoot out of you like deadly spikes. For this reason, you should play StarCraft II alone.
Actually, you shouldn't. You should most definitely play StarCraft II with other people. This, as I've discovered over the last fortnight, is happening right now, via the new and improved Battle.net, which is currently acting as a gateway to the StarCraft II closed beta. The experience has been a largely punishing one: I've had my virtual arse served to me on a virtual platter so many times now, that I fear I may not have much virtual arse left. Still, I can't help but keep trying. As Chumbawamba said, "I get knocked down, and I get up again".
The thing is, when it comes to StarCraft II, and indeed all RTS games, there is definitely someone better than you. Really, it was silly to think otherwise, as if the ten long years since the release of the first game have somehow resulted in a resetting of everyone's skills. Hah. If only. StarCraft II is of course a different game to its predecessor, but the fundamentals, the basics, the stuff that works, are the same. It's like riding a bike, isn't it?
So, when Battle.net sends the little matchmaking fairies out to find an appropriate opponent for your woeful skill level for the very first time, and the little countdown at the top of the screen begins its inexorable journey to zero, make sure you brace yourself for a flying kick to the balls.
This is my experience, anyway. I've always been more interested in the single-player components of RTS games, and have a keen eye on what the all-mighty Blizzard will do with StarCraft II in this respect. But the StarCraft II beta isn't about single-player. It's about multiplayer, and competitive multiplayer at that.
This is the thing: for loads and loads of RTS fans, multiplayer is a no-go, because it's just not that much fun. You will lose - no doubt at the hands of someone who has perfected their build order to within a millisecond of its life, and can input 70 commands in the blink of an eye. These people aren't so much people, but android spawn of DATA and D.A.R.Y.L., and the beginnings of Skynet and the nuclear destruction of the WORLD! Ahem...
So, I had some hope that somehow Blizzard had worked out a way to make competitive multiplayer a less intimidating place for the likes of me: genuine fans who understand how RTS games work and love how they play, but aren't good enough to get any enjoyment from going up against real life human beings as opposed to forgiving AI. This is a problem that has plagued the genre for years. Will StarCraft II bring with it an answer? Is there even one?
But first, let's attempt to answer less problematic questions. The beta finally takes the lid off of the new and improved Battle.net. It's an interface streamlined and made more user-friendly; it's nigh on impossible to get lost - everything is doable from the front end, from quickly getting into a match to setting a custom match up for yourself. Aesthetically, it's a soft, welcoming sci-fi blue, and very, very Blizzard. The phenomenally successful developer made its name making the complicated uncomplicated, and its work on Battle.net shows it's lost none of its power.
Everything you can do in a competitive multiplayer sense can be triggered from your profile page. After deciding on a user name - your visible tag - a secondary title, and your avatar picture (expect new avatars to become available upon completing in-game achievements and climbing the ranking ladder), you can go ahead and go. The matchmaking's great. All you do is choose your preferred game type, be it 1v1 or 2v2, your race, League (the game starts you off in a practice league that has no bearing on the ladder system), and then the game will find you an opponent that is, in theory at least, of a similar skill level as you. I've never had to wait over a minute to find a match - unsurprising considering the popularity of the beta. And all of my matches have been lag free, too. Essentials you'd expect from Blizzard, but reassuring to confirm nonetheless.
There's just no compensating, however, for those who casually enjoy the genre. Let's be honest, RTS games are complicated, and hard, and require loads of concentration, strategy, and adaptation. This is both what's great about them and what holds them back from mass market penetration. StarCraft II, like all Blizzard games, doesn't play by the same rules, of course. It will no doubt be the most popular RTS game since, well, Starcraft, which is still played by millions of people around the world, and is even broadcast on prime time television in South Korea. There's something about Blizzard games that make complicated, hardcore mechanics and genres somehow palatable to millions of hardcore and casual gamers alike.
In StarCraft II's case, it probably has something to do with balance. StarCraft is considered by many to be perfectly balanced. Its three races: the human Terrans, the space elf-like Protoss, and the terrifying, swarming Zerg, all play differently from each other, look unique, and have weaknesses and strengths that make them all viable. Rather than chucking new races into the mix at the risk of upsetting StarCraft's legendary balance, Blizzard has decided to stick with what works, implementing new units, structures, and the odd build tweak to freshen things up a bit.
This, from the point of view of someone like me, is a tad disappointing. StarCraft II is a game ten years in the making - a brand new race would have been, well, cool. But the original game's avid fanbase is more concerned with the minutia of micro-management: how many minerals does a Protoss Immortal cost (the answer is 250); how long does it take to build a Zerg Overlord (the answer is 25 seconds); and, how many hit points does the Terran Battlecruiser have (the answer is 550)? In short, the hardcore want to know what they need to know to win. This is all that matters.
The answers they crave are hidden underneath the hood of the StarCraft II closed beta. Unfortunately, I can't decipher them: when I play StarCraft II, I see the trademark Blizzard art style (StarCraft II will no doubt run on a computer from 1995), pretty explosions, and cool as hell units. When the hardcore play StarCraft II, however, it sees green-coloured code like Neo observing the Matrix.
At least StarCraft II does its best to help you learn from your mistakes. After a match is finished, you can watch a video replay of the carnage - nothing new. But, wait! What's this? You also get a complete breakdown of the build order of both you and your opponent. What a fabulous idea! Here is an RTS that you may actually learn from, with a feature akin to an FPS killcam that's destined to be copied by every RTS released post-StarCraft II.
So, maybe there is hope for the likes of me after all. I'll lose all of the time, but if I pay attention, concentrate, and study my opponents' build orders, perhaps I'll improve my game and climb - slowly - that ranking ladder. With the addition of one simple feature, StarCraft II may well have raised the eyebrows of the millions of RTS fans who are attracted to the idea of playing competitively, but have always been too intimidated to get stuck in. If, in reality, all it does is help the really good StarCraft II players get even better, well... I'll just download the official soundtrack to my iPod and stick to single-player.
StarCraft II is due out exclusively on PC at some point in the first half of 2010.