PC Preview

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

Can Martin perform enough actions-per-minute?

Forget simple pylons, the reality of StarCraft II is that you must construct additional everything. My gaggle of Mauraders was my pride and joy until I looked up and saw the sun blotted out by a Mutalisk swarm. GG, f10, surrender. I even thought I was doing a pretty good job, up until the game told me I was performing a terrible 83 actions a minute in the post-match report.

I'm ashamed of myself and you, the reader, probably pity me. StarCraft fans still without access to the beta are probably fuming: "how did he, someone who is rubbish and a bit fat, get to play this game early when I was left out in the cold?" The answer is luck, mostly, alongside the fact StarCraft II is so daunting every other member of our staff was too afraid to have a go. That's the kind of game it is.

Blizzard's taut dedication to difficulty is impressive, and whilst other developers seem to be going out of their way to simplify every conceivable facet of the RTS genre it's refreshing, admirable but still somewhat fear-inducing to see Blizzard proudly declare their game has been built from the ground up for the competitive eSports crowd. It's serious business, for serious gamers, and it elicits such dedication that peripheral designers will release keyboards and mice specifically tailored to StarCraft II. People who just nip into their games for six hours and then move on need not apply.

It means, for better or worse, thirty minutes of StarCraft II will do to your mind what an hour of boxing does to your body, and most of us would probably rather try our chances at the boxing. The original has become the stuff of legend, discussed with hushed tones and a hint of nostalgia in dusty corridors, and its famed multiplayer has transgressed into internet meme legend: a friend of my 16-year-old brother said "omg Zerg rush" the other day, in complete earnest, without actually knowing what the Zerg are. Its twelve-year success is almost baffling.

Almost, that is, until you sit and actually play the thing. StarCraft II does not make its devastating click-click-click formula easy for newcomers, so it's the kind of game you definitely won't be very good with at first - or even after thirty hours, if we're being honest. Still, it's that unrelenting passion for challenge that gives it the power to incite a crowd of Korean spectators into thunderous cheering as one man uses a mouse to drag a green rectangle around a group of little space army men.

Blizzard understand that most StarCraft II players won't be at the level where they can disassemble an opponent's entire tech tree and game plan by simply looking at a handful of enemy units trundling out of a base, and they have absolutely no intention of holding your hand as you slowly become proficient. But what StarCraft II will do, if you let it, is make some room for you to breathe, learn and get to that point where you too can appreciate when a man drags that shiny green rectangle.

We've seen that in the multiplayer beta, as the game gives everyone five practice matches and then buckets its players into leagues based on player rank - including beginner leagues which run at a slower speed. What most people probably won't have seen is how Blizzard intends to ensnare players with a single-player mode that loosens its belt a bit, gives the player a bit of time to breathe and throws in a bag of toys that could never possibly be included in multiplayer because they're totally unfair.

Still, it's very much StarCraft, and anyone who assumes those creative freedoms will make the game easy shall take a prompt one-way trip to the game over screen. The single-player shifts are not designed to simplify, but to give Blizzard a chance to widen their scope, expand the game's potential and give the player some things to do outside of straight attack and defence.

Take "The Dig", a mission which starts out as a gentle foray through ancient canyons with a small pack of your space marines, who blast at packs of Protoss designed to fall victim to gunfire. Eventually you grind to a halt against a wall of cannons, only to blast them away with some newly-deployed Siege Tanks.

Jim Raynor's Terran squad have landed on an ancient Protoss world that holds some of their most prized religious artefacts - although, knowing the fanatical Protoss, that doesn't really narrow it down much. What we do know is that Protoss artefacts are worth loads of cash, so nicking some is the order of the day.

Moving on, your lot takes up fortifications in a disused Terran base, the focal point of which is a whopping great laser cannon designed to blow the bloody doors off a nearby Protoss temple. Here the level turns into a frantic mix of battening down your hatches against a raging Protoss horde whilst the drill gets to work.

It sounds like a typical RTS defence mission, but within a couple of minutes the game gives you direct control of the cannon. It takes a good few seconds to switch targets, but the thing can easily blow away the packs of wispy-blue Archons that keep rushing your base - though every second you spend without the cannon firing at the temple door gives your opponent a chance to further bolster its ranks.

The temple door comes with a whopping 100,000 HP, so there's plenty of time for beginner players to learn a few tricks of the StarCraft trade: where's the best place to position your siege tanks? What's the point in building Terran bunkers? How many SCV's should you have mining minerals at any one time? Answers: on high ground; they're great defence; LOTS.

While we're on the subject of SCV's and minerals, "Welcome to the Jungle" has you using your stalwart miners to hoover up fertile deposits of yummy terrazine gas. We're on yet another sacred Protoss site, so they're certainly not too impressed when they cotton onto the fact you're leaving tyre treads on their pristine fields.

There are a few strategic options to play with here. Firstly, you can take it slow and steady and only ever collect from one deposit at a time, but that's boring and takes absolutely ages. The briefing warns against harvesting multiple sites at a time, so it was naturally the first thing I did: the Protoss armies considered it tantamount to taking the mickey.

The final option has you building up a massive Terran force and just steamrolling the enemy base, leaving you to mine away at the terrazine in peace. It's possible but not easy, requiring plenty of unit micro-management and the ability to have new units in production whilst simultaneously being on the offensive. You'll need to be able to pull off more than 83 actions per minute to take it down, basically.

Whatever happens, the Protoss don't take kindly to your efforts and start sending their own Probes to collapse the terrazine mines, which forces you into frantic, desperate movements as you progress into the level. Manage to harvest seven deposits and it's time to wave goodbye to the Protoss (for now) and return to the Hyperion, Raynor's personal Battlecruiser.

Fancier than a series of briefing screens, although those are present, the Hyperion is home to a share of areas - each offering various features to upgrade your units, immerse yourself in StarCraft's lore or just dive into the next level. Mass Effect style dialog scenes are rendered in-engine, along with 45 minutes of competent cutscenes, which shows off the versatility of the engine - which, it happens, can run fairly well on my dusty white MacBook with Intel GMA 950 graphics.

It's clear to see that focusing on the wild, creative and unbalanced in single-player has given Blizzard license to turn their campaign into 29 missions of booming explosive snapshots. They're doing what other RTS developers have spent years focusing on - simplified, one-trick vignettes - multiple times over, and at the same time keeping their highly competitive multiplayer component fully intact.

The Protoss and Zerg campaigns will have to wait (knowing Blizzard, they might be a while) but it's very hard to argue with the sheer amount of content you'll be getting inside Wings of Liberty when it launches on July 27.

E3 Trailer