Back at the end of July, I got to go back to Blizzard headquarters to take a look at StarCraft II once again. This time, instead of crushing other publications under the might of my hydralisk swarms, I got some hands-on time with the single-player mode of the game. I also got the chance to speak with Andy Chambers, the lead writer for the game, as well as Chris Sigaty, the lead producer, who gave us some interesting insights into how the single-player mode of the game was created and the challenges they faced while working on the game.
Hit the jump for the details.
StarCraft II (PC)
Before we actually got our hands on the game, we sat through a short presentation by the Blizzard guys. It was brief, but it gave insight into the core philosophy behind the single-player mode of the game. Unlike the previous game, which was entirely linear, the design idea behind the campaign mode in StarCraft II is 'choose as much story as you want.'
When I asked him about how the story was designed, Andy Chambers described it as a football. There's a definite beginning and a specific end, but how you get from start to finish may vary from player to player.
What exactly does this mean? It means that the single-player experience you remember from the original StarCraft has been replaced with something much more ambitious.
Let's talk about how exactly the single-player works. After you complete your first mission, you find youself in a bar on Mar Sara looking at Jim Raynor. For the first three missions, the bar serves as your home base. You can click on Raynor (or whoever else happens to be around) to hear some dialogue and watch Raynor pound down booze; look at a bulletin board, which has a whole bunch of newspaper clippings and photos about Raynor's exploits in the past and missions you've just completed; click on various trinkets around the bar, like a giant Zerg skull, to hear Raynor tell little stories about how he acquired him; or click on your control unit to launch the next mission.
This really adds a lot of character and flair to the world. Sure, it's stuff you can ignore, but I found myself spending tons of time clicking on every single thing I could between missions, just to try to find more tidbits about Raynor's backstory. Even nicer is that Raynor will say different things after every mission, and if there are other characters in the bar with you, clicking on the news clippings will make those new characters talk and joke with Raynor about all the various stunts he's pulled in the past.
For the first few levels, you're confined to the bar on Mar Sara, but quickly you gain access to a starship, and this becomes your new home base. It's similar to the Mar Sara bar in that there are lots of things to click on, but it's much, much bigger and has way more people to talk to.
There are four main areas in the ship. The bridge is your main control point -- it's where you select your missions. If you want to play a new mission, you'll head here. If you want to replay an old mission, you'll go here too. You'll very likely be replaying old missions, since StarCraft II is going to have achievements unique to each mission. From what I saw, every individual mission will have 4 achievements tied to it -- some are completing each mission in a certain amount of time on a certain difficulty; some are completing them without losing any units; some involve getting a certain number of resources before you complete the level. There was a decent variety, and it'll be enough to motivate you to go back and replay the missions you've already done before.
Why do you need the ability to choose from new missions? Here is where the 'football-shaped story' comes in. At any given time, once you acquire the ship, you have a variety of missions to choose from -- some advance the main story, while others are more like 'side quests' you can do when you feel like it. The side quests all contain interesting story elements, but none of them are vital to the main plot.
So what's the point in doing them?
Every mission you complete gives you access to new units. Want to be able to use Marauders? You have to complete the mission that introduces firebats. You can very easily skip the mission if it's non-essential to the story, but it means you won't be using firebats at all for the entire game.
Also important is that completing the missions gives you cash. No, not minerals -- real, actual cash. Also new to StarCraft II is the ability to buy upgrades and hire mercenery units. While on your ship, you can go to the second main area: the armory. At the armory, you can buy a wide array of specific upgrades for each of your units, and in some cases even unlock buildings. Want your medics to heal more quickly? There's an upgrade for that. Want your marines to do more damage? Upgrade.
The third area in your ship is the Cantina. Here you can chat with various people on your ship, watch the latest television reports (which usually have something to say about the mission you most recently completed), and hire mercenaries.
The mercenaries function kind of like Hero Units from the Warcraft games. For a large fee, you can contract with various groups of mercenaries. Once you've contracted them, you can then use them in battle by constructing a Merc Compound and then buying them like any normal unit. You can only build each mercenary once per battle, but even if they die, they'll be available in any subsequent maps. The build that I played on had a group of four elite firebats that was particularly effective in taking out the tons of Zerg that were getting thrown at me.
The final area on the ship is the Lab. We were told that this was the least polished section, and that it may be in a drastically different form in the final product. The lab is basically for side quests that you'll get as you work through the game. The examples we got to see were two collection quests -- one for Zerg eggs and one for Protoss artifacts. In many of the maps (mostly the side-quest maps), artifacts or eggs are hidden in out-of-the-way places and guarded. By collecting enough of each item, you could unlock various upgrades -- getting enough Zerg eggs allowed your scientists to better understand their biology, and let them create firebat ammo that did more damage. I liked the addition of these quests because it gave you a reason to really explore the entire map area, and rewarded you for going out of your way and not just focusing on the basic mission parameters. I was told they were still heavily involved in fleshing this idea out, so when the final product ships, don't expect to just see a bunch of collection quests.
In terms of the actual single-player level, what we saw was a really nice collection of very diverse gametypes. While the first few levels are fairly standard (mostly to introduce newcomers to the game), as soon as you get the ship, the levels become very different. Gone are the missions from the first StarCraft where you just start with a command center, build up a big base, and kill the enemy. Of the levels I got to play, one had you protecting a convoy trying to shuttle civilians to a starport while being constantly attacked by Zerg, another one had you trying to harvest crystals on a volcanic planet where lava would flood low terrain every five minutes, and there was even a very clever level where you were trying to steal an artifact from the Protoss. The catch was that Kerrigan was also trying for the artifact, and the Zerg were making a push toward it from a different area of the map. You had to sneak through the Zerg without starting a fight and kill the Protoss guardians to grab the artifact before the Zerg were able to complete their push.
My favorite level, though, was one that basically amounted to a zombie movie. You arrive on a planet to find tons of abandoned buildings, all infected, and no signs of life. You start to go exterminate the buildings, but suddenly, night falls, and all the infected Terrans come out of hiding and start attacking you. You have to set up a base and barricades and defend them at night, and then use your limited daytime to clear out all the infested buildings. In a word -- awesome.
As Chris Sigaty said in our interview, this is the full Terran story they wanted to tell. While you can blow through the game, ignore all the optional missions, and just get the core story, careful players will find all sorts of information that really flesh out the StarCraft world and, more specifically, exactly what Jim Raynor has been up to since the first game.
The upgrading system, the quest system, the ability to pick your missions, the uniqueness of each level, and the much heavier story focus should push the single-player mode of StarCraft II far past that of the original. For those of you who thought you were getting cheated by not getting all three races in one box, trust me -- the Terran single-player mode by itself has at least as much stuff to do as the original game's campaign, if not more. If you're not excited yet, you should be.