Starcraft: Ghost

Ectoplasma guns, presumably.

It'll only work once with any individual, but that once is worth everything.

You'll be in a close firefight with some kind of Terran Marine. He's bombarding you with bullets. You are a tiny Zerg creature, caught alone, trying to dodge fire and failing. You press the appropriate button to use your special ability of burrowing into the ground. The best defence is a good offence, yes, but a couple of metres of earthy soil works just as well in most situations.

The Marine runs up, firing at the soil, bemused. Perhaps a friend will join him, firing a few bursts at the mysteriously disappeared Zerg. Eventually, they'll give up, turn away and start to jog off, looking for less mysterious prey.

And then you'll burrow back up to the surface, run up behind them and cut them to pieces with your alien talons.

While laughing.

Loudly.

When playing Starcraft: Ghost for the first time, when the game's rules are a mysterious, unexplored country, everything is simultaneously a joy and a terror. You get the gift of a surprise - in an unexpected yet completely logical feature like Zerg-burrowing - and the cost of... well, I'll get to that in the end.

ghosts

Ghosts kick ass. And the back of knees.

Of the two new games being given hands-on play access at Blizzcon, it's Ghost which rewards most play. The queues move faster, as more games get played. It's perfectly possible to drop in for a quick play and get one relatively swiftly - unlike the enormous lines of people which haunt the relatively slovenly World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade displays. And because it's possible, people do.

The game's development history has been tumultuous to say the least, with the main stealth/action game being conspicuous by its absence from the show. But in terms of multiplayer, we can really get a feel for the game.

And mostly, it feels good. The two sides available to play - the Terrans and the Zerg - seem impressively faithful to their strategy game counterparts. This may be a matter of faith for Blizzard. One moment that snags in the mind involved being led to play a second game. "What side do you want to play?" the gentleman asks. "Humans, please", we reply. "The Terrans sit here," he corrects, pointedly. No matter what failings Ghost may eventually have, you can sense that it's something they care about.

screw

"Don't screw up. Don't screw up". A Ghost Screws up.

Of the two game types on show, the Invasion game was the most entertaining. This is a control-point system, with the two teams' bases connected by a web of other control points. Each has to be captured in turn, and you can spawn at more forward bases if you're able. It's tense, directed and - especially with the mini-map - an immediate experience. A Counter-Strike-style system is included, where the number of kills you make earns points that can be spent upgrading to a better character-type. So, if you play as a Zergling for a few rounds, you're able to save for a chance to fly above the battlefield in the body of a monstrous Mutalisk.

The Zerg side's natural abilities are what make the Zerg fearsome. The Zerglings are small but fast, able to skip across the battlefield with great manoeuvrability. With the burrowing into soft soil, they're especially apt for surprise attacks or infiltration. It should be noted that the designers smartly chose for a fair chunk of the ground not to soil, to provide areas where the huma... I mean, Terrans, can be sure of not having a horrible alien beast jump up behind them.

One step up from the Zergling is a Hydralisk, whose special abilities include tearing pitiful little humans who fight them into pieces. Their devastating hand-to-hand prowess is married to the Zergling's tunnelling. Then there's the infected Marine, offering the Zerg side some more Terran-styled firepower with its automatic machine-gun, married to a nasty twist. By holding down a button, you're able to activate a self-destruct ability that raises a smile during those kamikaze runs into an enemy base. The top level is the Mutalisk, who are the least accessible for the Zerg. Not just in terms of points you have to spend, but the skills required to master their slow flying and ranged area effects.

helios

Hi mom. This is me on Helios. Miss you!

The Terrans are generally a little trickier than the Zerg, relying on more esoteric abilities. The basic soldier, for example, is claw-bait to begin with, but is best put to use creating defence turrets. These are some of the best anti-Zerg rush abilities available, one generally picking off an unaware individual or causing annoyance for a group. Soldiers also able to follow Halo's lead and climb into vehicles. The marine operates much like the infected marine, with a high rate of fire, decent armour and more resistance to being eaten alive. The firebat is a specialised marine with a pair of dual flamethrowers, which are operated individually on the two triggers and are brutal. Finally, there's the eponymous lead of the Ghost, who can do the whole turn-virtually-invisible thing as well as possessing a genuinely nasty sniper rifle.

And in the Invasion mode it works beautifully, playing as a compulsive multiplayer experience. It's lucky it was the game we played first, as the second mode on display, the Global Conflict, made less of an impression. Here two Terran teams fight to capture a flying base of some kind and keep possession of it for as long as possible. Or, at least, that's what we presume we had to do. Seemingly bereft of the mini-map, it lacked the accessibility of the other mode, and the game was swiftly won by someone on the opposite side who knew where the flag was, captured it, and drove it off into the opposition's defended area. Meanwhile, my group wandered around not quite sure what was going until the win timer ran down. Oops.

The teenager to my left grinned, bemusedly. "What happened?" - I replied with a shrug. A kid behind me commented loudly as he walked away: "That sucked!" If it wasn't for the Invasion mode's quality, I'd be tempted to agree. As it is, it makes me glad that it isn't being Zerg-rushed onto the shelves, as there's still much which needs to be polished.

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