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StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

Hands-On With StarCraft II's Campaign
by Adam Biessener on Apr 23, 2010 at 06:40 AM

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Platform PC
Publisher Blizzard Entertainment
Developer Blizzard Entertainment
Release 2010
Rating Teen

The multiplayer beta for Blizzard's upcoming RTS has been getting all the attention lately, but today we can share a rare substantive look at the story-based campaign. The three missions that Blizzard recently made available to the press showcase several of the ideas that drive the design of the single-player side of the game. Don't miss the videos embedded in the story and the high-res screenshots in the media gallery below.

Stealing Gas For Fun And Profit

Gabriel Tosh – the Jamaican-accented fellow with the dreadlocks and the voodoo necklace seen in the video below – has a job for Raynor's Raiders. He's found a planet with reserves of Terrazine gas, for which he is willing to pay handsomely. The trick is that a splinter group of Protoss, the Tal'Darim, regard the shrines built around the geysers as sacred and will do everything in their power to keep the Terrans away.

Tosh isn't interested in divulging his reasons, but revolution is an expensive business, so Raynor is in no position to turn down a chance to make a fat profit. His home base, the battlecruiser Hyperion, makes its way to the Terrazine planet.

As the mission opens, I take control of a reasonably well-formed base awaiting orders. A barracks, factory, and mercenary compound are set to start pumping out troops, and a small army and complement of SCVs are ready for action. Tosh informs me that the Protoss will be attempting to seal the geysers, at which point they will become permanently unusable for our purposes. Also, once we start harvesting the first Terrazine node, the Tal'Darim declare their intentions to come hard at any SCVs that dare defile their sacred shrines.

This setup draws players out of the traditional single-player RTS mentality of turtling within a well-defended base until you have enough units to steamroll the opposition. Players have no choice but to aggressively seek out gas nodes to harvest while sending hit squads of their own to stop the enemy probes from locking the shrines down. You still need to defend your base (an unopposed warp ray makes quick work of any buildings), but managing multiple fronts is a necessity. With the way this mission forces players to pay attention to timing, take control of disparate zones of the map, and defend the home front, it has more in common with a good multiplayer match than a traditional single-player RTS mission.

Ultimately, the ubiquitous Terran "bio ball" of marines, medics, and marauders proves too much for the mixed forces of stalkers, scouts, and warp rays that the Tal'Darim send after us. A huge air raid on my base takes me by surprise at one point, but the quick hire of three mercenary companies (who are expensive upgraded versions of regular units who build instantly) carries the day. It's a struggle, but finding an undefended back door into the Protoss base in the middle of the map significantly reduces the incoming assaults and gave my forces enough breathing room to get the job done. The gas is ours!

The sense of accomplishment is fleeting, however, as the post-mission briefing informs me that I missed two achievements – preventing the death of any SCVs, and not allowing the Protoss to seal a single node – and two of the three research opportunities on the map. I'll be coming back, that's for sure.

Intermission: Making It Rain

The good news is that my basic victory unlocks the goliath for use in later missions and fills my bank account with 120,000 credits. Wandering through the four rooms of the Hyperion, I chat with the crew and investigate a host of interactive objects, like a fixed-viewpoint adventure game. A few tens of thousands of credits go into hiring a newly available company of goliath mercenaries. I throw significantly more money into the armory. My medics are now outfitted with better equipment that increases their healing powers while reducing the energy cost for their abilities, and firebats get bonus armor and a larger spread for their flamethrowers. Things are looking up.

Poking my head into the laboratory, I find out that, holy crap, Adjutants (the weird bio-mechanical ladies who run command centers) are creepy as hell. Their arms trail off at mid-forearm, and their lidless stare is just human enough to be gross. More pertinently, inspection of a captured Protoss crystal reveals that it appears to be making Newton cry by growing and giving off energy despite being suspended in a vacuum. Likewise, a Zerg tissue sample is somehow both dead and regenerating with no apparent source of sustenance.

The lab presents a gameplay hook of its own in addition to dropping story hints like Galileo dropped the orange. The one piece of Protoss research I picked up while liberating the Terrazine gas pushes me up to the next tier along that research path. Collecting Zerg DNA advances a parallel track, but that's for a later date. On the Protoss side, I'm faced with a choice: Gain a five percent bonus to attack speed every time I upgrade weapons in a mission (sweet!), or tack on five percent more hit points with every armor upgrade (nice!). I'm feeling awesome and aggressive, so attack speed it is. The hit point upgrade is permanently locked after I pass it up, but dead foes do no damage, so no worries.

Back on the bridge, I find out that Tosh is a Specter. Ghosts are bad enough, but this class of psychic spec-ops soldiers is a new level of wrong. Rumors hint at Terrazine gas being a key component in the creation of Specters, and they're even more mentally unstable than their troubled forebears. Surely this won't come back to bite us in the rear later on in the story; a renegade Specter wouldn't be so rash as to try and create more of his twisted kind on his own, right? Kerrigan turned out okay, so I should be good.

Raynor grits his teeth and gets on with it. There's a Xel'Naga temple that might hold the key to a power that can oppose Emperor Mengsk and his brutal regime, and Raynor's not the kind to let a bit of doubt about the future scare him into inaction. The Hyperion jumps, and I take control of an abandoned mining camp that happens to have a super-strength mining laser powerful enough to penetrate the temple's shielding.

Drill, Baby, Drill!

The Tal'Darim are really pissed now. Stealing Terrazine was bad enough, but desecrating a sacred Xel'Naga temple is beyond the pale for these traditionalist Protoss. It's a good thing I have the siege tank schematics finally loaded into my factories, because their massive firepower is going to be necessary to keep the enemy away from the drill.

The base once again starts out ready to go, so I begin cranking out units as fast as possible. Setting up a defensive grid of bunkers, siege tanks, missile turrets, and a fast response team of marines, goliaths, and medics is second nature at this point. The initial Protoss assaults are easy enough to repel, but the situation gets progressively worse as the waves of incoming enemies quickly outstrip my capacity to produce defenders. After surviving a particularly nasty combined attack where ground forces run interference while several phoenixes set up shop to allow direct teleportation of reinforcements on my doorstep, the whole scenario changes.

Up until now, the drill has been relentlessly chewing its way through the doors of the Xel'Naga temple. With such a grave threat to the base, though, I am given direct control of the monstrous weapon. The attacks start combining a half-dozen avatars with multiple colossi and immortals and stalker/zealot mobs, which is far more than my single base can defend against. I've now got to balance using the superlaser to thin the ranks of my enemies versus letting it hammer away at the temple, which still has 40,000-plus hit points to get through. In addition, the research opportunities on this map are behind fortified enemy chokepoints and require immolating ancillary shrines with the drill.

Being mostly free to set up an effective static defense could easily make for a boring mission once you figure out the right mix of units and structures. Between the mixed ground and air assaults and the sheer size of the forces being thrown at the drill, though, I stay completely engrossed for all 44 minutes of the mission. There is no legitimate comparison to sleeping through the Mar Sara defense in the original StarCraft.

It's a long haul, but eventually the doors fall and the mission is complete. Once again, the post-mission briefing taunts me with incomplete achievements. Between those and the four difficulty levels, it's going to take a long time to full-clear the campaign. Blizzard expects a single playthrough to take 20 or more hours, and that estimate seems reasonable from what I've seen.

Having transported the odd artifacts found inside the temple up to the Hyperion, a surprise awaits Raynor as Zeratul makes an unbidden appearance on the battlecruiser.

Whispers of Doom

The dark templar Zeratul bears grave tidings. An ancient prophecy is coming to fruition, and the fate of all life in the sector hangs in the balance. Handing Raynor an alien device, the Protoss begs him to heed this warning before fading into the shadows and taking his leave. What, you didn't think that the StarCraft II campaign was really about a measly rebellion against Mengsk, did you?

After picking up some more upgrades (double repair speed for SCVs and a secondary AOE attack for missile turrets) and hiring some siege tank mercs, I head to the lab to figure out what the deal is with Zeratul's odd gift. My comely assistant explains that it holds Zeratul's memories, and could allow Raynor to relive the events that the dark templar found so important that he tracked down the Hyperion while wounded in order to share them with Raynor. Nothing for it but to jump on in.

The device loads me into a Zeratul-centric flashback mission that takes place on a barren world deep in uncharted space. After years of searching for clues, he has finally tracked the fragments of a mythical Xel'Naga prophecy to this wasted world. Unfortunately for our hero, the Queen of Blades (née Lieutenant Sarah Kerrigan of the Terran Confederacy) has similar ideas. In an impressive cinematic, the two powerful beings clash as the Queen tries to convince Zeratul of the ultimate futility of his efforts -- her unusual senses have apparently granted her some insight into the future, and she claims that only by standing together can the three races of the Koprulu sector survive the coming storm. Blinded by hatred, Zeratul refuses any kind of alliance with the Zerg and uses his psionic abilities to fade into the twilight gloom.

In-game, I'm given control of Zeratul and no one else. Using the permanently invisible hero, I must access three pieces of the prophecy, hidden in three shrines scattered across the map. A new UI element showing the range of enemy stealth detection comes in very handy here, as Zeratul has to make careful strikes while hidden from the Zerg forces that infest the map. His blink ability and void prison spell (which immobilizes a unit and suppresses its stealth detection) are critical to progressing through this puzzle-like mission.

With just a handful of units (Zeratul gains some stalker support), this level is focused squarely on micromanagement and stealth. Unfortunately, the map is designed in such a way that you're often waiting for overlords to pass by so that you can sneak past, or tapping your foot while Zeratul's abilities cool down so you can get past an obstacle. There are discrete "correct" ways to approach each challenge, which strips the game of the tactical and strategic creativity that make the StarCraft formula such a classic.

That said, it's amusing to use Zeratul's powerful psi blades to wreck a bunch of enemies that can't fight back. The finale of the mission is also a cool setpiece on its own, with a force of allied high templar and zealots running interference so that Zeratul can slip past a heavily defended chokepoint and make it to his ship before the world is completely overrun by the Zerg.

At this point, our demo finally ends. The three missions have spanned roughly two hours of pure in-mission gameplay, plus several minutes of Blizzard's amazing cinematics and a bunch of time exploring the Hyperion and diving into the upgrade system. As this is just a small swath of the campaign that will ship with the game, I can't help but be impressed. Would I rather have all three factions' stories available to me right away? Of course. If the level of quality on display in the slice of gameplay shown here is indicative of the entire campaign, though – and there's no reason to believe it wouldn't be – I'm going to be more than happy with the content I get for my $60 when the game comes out.

With the arguable exception of the Zeratul flashback, what I've played of StarCraft II's single-player is the high benchmark for story-driven RTS. You can make an argument that the genre doesn't do plot terribly well, but I'm not going to take you seriously until you get into this one. I've never been that much of a fanboy for the StarCraft lore (outside of a few legitimately awesome moments like Tassadar's final encounter with the Overmind), but the sequel has me completely hooked and it's not even out yet. Blizzard's undeniable skill at crafting gameplay to go along with the story doesn't hurt, either -- these are some of the absolute best RTS missions I've played to date, and trust me when I say I play a lot of RTS.

Blizzard unsurprisingly refuses to commit to a release date for StarCraft II, but my money's on August. The company isn't going to want to launch the game too close to Cataclysm, which is also slated for this year, and hasn't yet entered beta. Unless Cataclysm slips to 2011, which seems unlikely, I bet that we see Starcraft in late summer/early fall and the WoW expansion in November or so.

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