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.
What's clear is that StarCraft II will be a very new RTS when Blizzard finally releases it, but it will be a very new RTS grounded in RTS tradition. Blizzard's attitude with StarCraft II is, despite having a decade to think about it, if it 'aint broke, then don't fix it. It's refused to be tempted by the success of recent RTSs that have shaken to the core the very foundations on which the genre is built. Relic's removal of base building and resource gathering in the superb Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II lent both games a distinctly Diablo feel. Massive's excellent World in Conflict showed how accessible and action-packed an RTS could be, slashing the unit count and making micro-management easy. In the 11 years since StarCraft's release, the RTS has evolved, and yet Blizzard seems not to have noticed. We criticise RTSs that encourage the genre's stubbornness to evolve. Will we do the same when StarCraft II is released?
Perhaps the feeling of familiarity is exaggerated because the new 3D graphics engine gives the game a bright, colourful look with expressive animations rather than a photo-realistic, graphics card-melting one. The emphasis here, as with all Blizzard games, is not on the bleeding edge of technology, but on the art design, and it's realised so most PCs will be able to cope with it. This, for me, is no bad thing. In fact I absolutely adore StarCraft II's look and responsive feel. The protoss, in particular, have a mysterious other worldly design that's hard to pin down and demands further attention. Their units, more than those of the other races, catch the eye (although a mention must go to the terran's Merc Compound, a building that comes with a holographic pole dancer who struts her stuff on the roof). The maps, too, catch the eye, but because of clever design rather than insane graphical fidelity. Scrap Yard, which you've probably seen in the latest Battle Report, is little more than a rock in space, but when you can see stars and planets through the narrow gaps in that rock, you can't help but think, yeah, that's cool. Some might say StarCraft II looks basic when held up against the likes of World in Conflict, and there is a degree of truth to that, but when basic is this captivating, who cares?
That StarCraft II seems too similar at this point to StarCraft isn't a criticism, it's more of an observation. We know relatively nothing about Blizzard's controversial StarCraft II single-player campaign (the game will ship with a terran campaign only, with the zerg and protoss campaigns coming via expansions). Excitingly, the developer says it wants to "push the boundaries of storytelling and character development in RTS games" with it. It may well do exactly that. It may well revolutionise the genre. It may well throw up more surprises than a well coordinated protoss assault. Only Blizzard knows at this point.
And then there's the hotly-anticipated overhaul of Battle.net, Blizzard's online gaming portal. The key features have yet to be announced (keep your eyes on BlizzCon), but if what we're hearing off the record from Blizzard is realised, Battle.net's reimagining could be as exciting as the game itself.
Whatever your opinion on Blizzard's steadfast commitment to evolution, not revolution, you simply can't ignore the fact that StarCraft II will be a superb RTS. It will be played by millions across the world (some will even make a living playing it). Even though I've only managed to dip my toe into StarCraft II's intoxicating waters, I find myself thinking about playing it when I'm not. I find myself considering strategy, build order and counters. I find myself gravitating towards the protoss and their cool, slightly odd occult tendencies. I find myself with a StarCraft II itch that demands to be scratched, and that's got to be a good sign.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is due out for PC later this year. A beta is expected to launch soon. See what the pros think on the next page.
Consider yourself an expert RTS player? Want to know what the pros think about StarCraft II? We caught up with two Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne pro players at the Warcraft Regional Finals 2009 in Cologne, Germany, where StarCraft II was playable, and asked them for their thoughts.
Nikolaus Cassidy, aka SonKiE, 19, from Pennsylvania, USA. Finished runner up in the Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne tournament, winning $2,000 and a place at BlizzCon 2009.
"I like it. It's fun. It's different from Warcraft, which is refreshing. There are no heroes. Obviously the races are different. The gameplay is a lot faster. All of the different units are cool to play with. Taking them and trying new things... it'll be fun.
Every new player is going to be starting at skill level basic. I'm going to have to learn the new strategies, the new unit mixes and things like that. Once I get a handle on that I should be okay.
It's going to be a lot easier to play. Not having to worry about annoying things like, here's the Blademaster, the Warden and the Demon Hunter. It's going to be more fun actually. A lot less worrying.
Everybody's going to switch to it. The WoW players are going to switch to it. The StarCraft players are going to switch to it. Maybe even some Counter-Strike players are going to switch to it. Most people are going to give it a try. Maybe the top players will stick around for a little while longer but the majority of the players are going to switch over."
Michael Phil Crawford, aka LongWalk, 18, from New York. Finished first place in the Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne tournament, winning $5,000 and a seeded spot at BlizzCon 2009.
"It's going to be a great game. They added a lot of new features while still keeping the game relatively balanced, even for just being in dev and not even close to coming out. I can't wait to play it. Actually playing it, now I can see why there's so much hype.
I'm just going to put it out there, I think StarCraft II you have to be, not more intelligent, you have to have a lot more information in your head to play it. Warcraft, several major strategies have risen to the top. You can see that because in matches with the same race versus the same race, they do the same things versus each other. Otherwise if there wasn't one best strategy they would counter something with something else and someone would counter that. But with StarCraft II there are so many counters to units because there are no heroes. Heroes are a lot stronger than normal units. Warcraft has heroes and StarCraft II doesn't. Heroes allow you to overcome counters, whereas in StarCraft II you would have needed to make the counter. In Warcraft you might say, I'll get these units to counter these units and my hero will do the rest. In StarCraft II there is no do the rest. So it becomes more about strategy and getting resources. In Warcraft it's more about controlling that hero and making sure you use him to his full potential.
I guess the game speed is a little bit faster. The best players of Warcraft are probably moving almost as fast as the best players of StarCraft II. In StarCraft II, because you have no hero, no concentrated power, there's a lot of small battles happening around the map. It's less about controlling an army to its optimum potential. It's more about making a strategic attack appear so you can divert his attention from down here, so you can take his left while you're attacking the right. Warcraft is more like a battle. StarCraft II is more like a war."