You may remember that, last summer, I gave you a look at how StarCraft II's single-player mode was shaping up. Earlier this week, we were invited back to see what's changed as the game gets closer to release.
Because most of the fundamental gameplay systems haven't changed, this is going to focus mostly on the three new levels we saw, how they eventually decided to handle the research aspect of the game, and the new Challenge Mode. If you're not familiar with the overall structure of StarCraft II's single-player campaign, read my previous article before continuing on.
All caught up? Hit the jump!
StarCraft II (PC)
As I mentioned earlier, on this visit we were shown three new single player levels, all from around the middle of the game. In line with Blizzard's philosophy of making the single player missions unique experiences, these three levels showcased a wide variety of gameplay that's a bit different from the standard "Build your base up and attack" type of levels from the original StarCraft.
The first mission I played was called "Welcome to the Jungle," the mission that introduces you to, and unlocks, the Goliath unit. In Welcome to the Jungle, you've landed on an ancient Protoss world in search of a rare and valuable gas. The Protoss aren't real thrilled with your arrival, and consider you to be intruding on sacred ground (I'm sure they want to keep the gas, too).
Multiple geysers of this valuable gas are scattered across the map -- around 13 total. Your job is to capture seven of these gas nodes before the Protoss are able to stop you. To capture a node, you must bring an SCV (guarded, if you want to succeed) to it, protect him while he gathers the gas, and then send the SCV back to your command center with your new gas prize. Sounds easy, right?
Not quite. While your SCV is harvesting, the Protoss send squads at you (mostly flying units), to try and take your SCV out. They have numerous small bases and cannons scattered around the map, and will also make attacks on your main base at various intervals. You have to balance base defense and SCV and strike team defense, all the while making sure you can push forward through the various bases they have set up so you can access enough geysers.
That's not all you have to juggle. If base defense and capturing wasn't enough, the Protoss are also trying to capture the geysers. While you attempt to claim nodes, the Protoss are also sending small groups of guarded probes around. If a probe manages to stay on a geyser long enough, they are able to seal off the gas completely. If the Protoss seal off seven geysers before you are able to capture seven, it's game over. This can make for some interesting strategic choices, especially on the higher difficulty levels.
If you're on your way to capture a geyser, and the Protoss start sealing off a different one, you have to decide between capturing gas for yourself or leaving your options open. Ignore the Protoss too often, and they'll seal the geysers before you can capture them all (because they don't have to return their probe to their Nexus). Spend too much time dealing with Protoss probes, and you risk a full-scale assault on your main base. It plays out like a big game of Capture the Flag with a whole bunch of different flags, and it's quite a bit of fun.
The second mission we saw was "The Dig," the Siege Tank mission. Here, you're trying to gain access to an old Protoss temple to recover the valuable artifact inside. Only problem is the temple is sealed shut tightly with some big-ass doors. Luckily for you, there's an abandoned mining facility right outside the temple, as a group was doing some serious excavation of the area in front of the temple. Early on in the map, you take control of the abandoned base... and the abandoned giant mining laser.
The goal here is to use the mining laser to slowly blast through the temple doors so you can get in and steal the artifact. However, while you're chipping away at the doors, the two large Protoss bases also on the map are sending units towards your base to try take down the laser. The general goal here is to set up enough Siege Tanks to stop the waves of enemies coming to your base, while keeping the laser focused on the temple.
As time progresses though, the Protoss start getting stronger units. Soon, you'll be facing Archons and Colossi, and they make quick work of your Siege Tanks (and pretty much every other unit you have access to at this point in the game). Solution? Blast them to hell with the mining laser! A nice introduction to command queues, you have to take out the major units with the laser, and then quickly switch back to the door. Spend too much time focusing on lasering units to death, and it'll take you forever to get into the temple (and give the Protoss enough time to build a massive army to blow up your base). Ignore even one or two major units for the sake of getting into the temple, and you'll quickly find big chunks of your defenses missing.
Skilled players will be able to try to take out the main two Protoss bases for an achievement (only available on Hard difficulty or higher), but it's not easy. As I mentioned, the Protoss forces out-tech and out-number you, and by the time you work through a big chunk of the base, you'll find that a lot of your defenses have been depleted, just in time for a massive push from the other base on the map.
The final mission we played was my favorite, and it's called 'Whispers of Doom'. In an encounter with the Dark Templar Zertaul, Raynor is given a crystal that allows him to relive some of Zertaul's memories. Without getting into heavy spoilers, this mission has you playing as Zeratul as he navigates through a cave infested with Zerg.
What starts out relatively easy, thanks to the Dark Templar's cloaked status, turns into what is essentially a stealth mission. As you progress through the cave, you run up against more and more detectors, and a number of powerful enemies. As long as you're out of range of the detectors, you can slaughter Zerg to your heart's content, because they can't see you. However, while you're hacking away at that Ultralisk, be careful of an Overseer sneaking up behind you, because as soon as you enter their detection range, you're in serious trouble.
In addition to just being cloaked, the Dark Templar also has a teleport ability, Blink, and an ability called Void Prison, which stuns any units for 12 seconds and also stops them from functioning as detectors. The entire map becomes an incredibly entertaining game of jumping into detection really quickly, throwing a void prison to lock down an Overseer, blinking over to a unit and killing it, and then running out of detection range before the Overseer starts functioning again.
You do get a little bit of help in the form of a few Stalkers, but it's not much, and they're mostly there to help you take care of air units. They're also not cloaked, so your Dark Templar often has to run in and do some scouting and killing first before the Stalkers can safely proceed. The entire mission ends in an awesome, Metroid-like (without the platforming, of course) timed 2:00 min escape through a corridor jam-packed with detectors, enemies, and obstacles. You have to be especially quick with Blink and Void Prison to get your Dark Templar through alive -- I was actually a little surprised I made it through the escape on my first try.
So, those are the three new missions. The other major change to the core campaign is what they ended up doing with the technology upgrades. Like I mentioned in my first preview, there are bonus objectives on most maps where you go out of your way to collect either Protoss relics, pieces of Zerg DNA, or both. The fundamental idea is still the same, but whereas in the previous build you just traded them in for straight upgrades, you now have to make choices.
Each time you collect five relics or bits of Zerg DNA, you are presented with two upgrade options (look above). You can only choose one, and your choice is permanent -- you are locked out of the other choice for the rest of your playthrough. Do you want your bunkers to have turrets, or do you want them to hold an extra unit? Do you want to be able to build two SCVs at once from your command center, or do you want refineries that automatically harvest gas by themselves? A new unit, or a massive upgrade to an exisiting one? Given that you can only get a total of 50% of all possible upgrades in one playthrough, there's an incentive to play the campaign at least twice, possibly with completely different strategies than you did the first time.
The final portion we were shown was the new Challenge Mode. Dustin Browder touched on Challenge Mode briefly in my interview with him last summer, but this was the first time it was shown in action. From what we saw, there were nine challenges (only two of which were playable), all designed to teach you some fundamental aspect about the game that you pretty much have to master in order to be competitive in multiplayer.
The challenges were split into three groups - Basic Challenges, Advanced Challenges, and Expert Challenges. The Basic Challenges all seemed pretty similar -- titled 'Tactical Command', 'Path of Ascension', and 'For the Swarm'. A Terran, Protoss, and Zerg challenge respectively, each claims to send three waves of enemies at you that you must fight off. Your job is to identify what units are coming your way, and to quickly use your limited resources to build your race's appropriate counter to that wave. Seems like relatively simple stuff, but a great way to teach novice players what units counter what.
The Advanced Challenges were a bit more specialized. Again, there was a challenge Terran, Protoss, and Zerg, but they don't appear to be as similar as the basic challenges. 'Cover Ops', the Terran Advanced Challenge, gives you a small force (presumably Ghosts and other cloaked units), and has you kill as many enemies as possible in a given time limit. The Zerg challenge, 'Infestation', sounded somewhat similar -- you're given a group of Roaches and Infestors and have to use stealth and burrow to again kill as many enemies in the given time limit. The Protoss Advanced Challenge, 'Psionic Assault', is a bit different, and is also one of the two challenges I got to play.
In Psionic Assault, you start with six High Templars and nine Sentries. Rather than face a time limit, you face repeated waves of enemies that spawn every thirty seconds. You have to use the combined abilities of your two units (Or of your Archons, if you choose to merge any of your High Templars) together and hold out as long as possible. I managed a decent defense, enough to kill the 150 enemies required for a silver medal, by using the Sentries to throw up force fields to block the waves and then having the High Templars use Psionic Storm. Eventually though, I ran out of energy and was overwhelmed by a large mass of Marines and Firebats. Given that I was about 100 kills away from getting a Gold, I assume my strategy wasn't all that great.
Finally, there are the three Expert Challenges, and these seem pretty hardcore. 'Opening Gambit' has the enemy attacking you fairly early on in the game, but with enough time for you to pump out a proper build order and to maximize your economy. 'Rush Defense' is exactly what it sounds like: the computer rushes you, and you have to counter it. For those who haven't had the pleasure of being rushed in inventive and creative new ways in the beta, I expect this will be the most useful Challenge of them all. The last Expert Challenge is the other one that I played, and it's called 'Harbinger of Death'.
The objective of this one is simple: you are Protoss, and you have two and a half minutes to kill everything you can, with everything being small pockets of Zerg that are plentifully scattered across a relatively large map. You have a big army -- eight Phoenixes, three Warp Prisms, five Carriers, eleven Stalkers, eight High Templars, seven Sentries, and then a host of Observers scattered around the field that are there so that you can see the entire map. The catch is that you can only use hotkeys to select your units. Put your unit into what you feel are the most effective Control Groups before the match starts, and once you're ready, the only clicking you'll be able to do is click to attack, or click to target enemies with abilities. It, obviously, forces you to learn to hotkey effectively, and will be another Challenge you'll want to master before jumping into online multiplayer matches.
The last little bit I got to see was the Tutorial mode, which is simply an interactive map where you're taught how to complete very basic objectives. Topics include 'User Interface', 'Camera Controls', 'Movement', 'Combat', 'Construction', 'Collection', 'Production', and 'Supply'. Anyone who has played StarCraft before should be able to skip these with no problems, but people new to StarCraft or real-time strategy games should find them helpful.
Overall, the game is looking great. All the major systems are in, the single player missions seem to be coming along nicely, and it sounds like the dev team is devoting most of their work at this point to bug squashing and balance tweaks. There's still no official release date (it's Blizzard guys, come on!), but the version we played was 0.99.abunchofothernumbersIdidn'tgetthechancetowritedown -- take that as you will. Hopefully the next time there's a major StarCraft II event, it's for the launch.