So there, right at the top of this invisible pyramid I'm gesturing at, are the guys who play StarCraft competitively. Then there are the guys who are really, amazingly, incredibly good at it. Then there are those who are very, very good at it. Then the ones who are good at it. Then there are the ones who are competent at it.
Below that, somewhere in the giant mass further down this hierarchy, there's a tiny, microscopic dot that is me, and my current howling great lack of skill at StarCraft. Look pretty pathetic, don't I? Yeah, laugh at me, spit on me, say rude things about my mother.
But wait! Below that, there's a yawning expanse of people who are even worse at it. People who just can't click that fast. People who don't play strategy games online. People who don't play strategy games. I know I could, eventually, become at least capable at StarCraft. Those guys, though? It is, as a man once sang to Rambo, a long road.
In its current beta form, StarCraft II isn't what you'd call accessible. It's multiplayer only, with the only available AI so stupefying easy that you'd have a better chance of learning how to be good at this real-time strategy game if you played against a heroin-addled baboon.
That clearly won't be the case in the full, final game, but if you're thinking of dropping £300-odd on a beta key from eBay, know that's what you'll be getting. (People are doing that, you know. This is one of those games where the idea of missing out on several months of practice time is many players' worst nightmare.) There has also been talk that the full version will include a raft of training to help ease relative newcomers into the very precise, entirely unforgiving world of StarCraft II multiplayer.
Even in its current, go-online-and-get-instawhipped beta form, you can tell there's a brewing helpfulness. The lobby/social networking system of the revised Battle.net, which is built into SCII's bones, is an unbelievably slick construct of information, friend profiles and auto-downloading maps as and when you need them.
Blizzard's money, experience and perfectionism have built a robust, beefy online gaming shell that, I don't doubt, every other bugger will soon be aping. It's quite clear it will eventually be filled with resources to ease the traumatic passage from absolute beginner to approximate understanding.
Phew, frankly. That's probably the only hope for rank newcomers, apart from a particularly bloody-minded select few breaking into the game. If you've not played much StarCraft online before, you really don't know what you're in for, even if you've played a ton of other strategy games.
Most of all, if you've looked at any of the released videos and screenshots of StarCraft II and thought, "I know exactly what that's going to be like," you're wrong. Yes, it's an entirely traditional RTS - you build your base and your army, and then you go box the ears of the other guy. In practice, though, it's exhausting brain-athletics.
In most any multiplayer RTS, victory relies on what you have in your hand - the structures and units you've built. In a great many of them, though, what you do with that hand is just as crucial. StarCraft II, if you're going to be playing it relatively casually, is different in that success depends primarily on what you have in your hand, how it's tailored to what the enemy has in their hand, and not so much on what you actually do with it. At least until you're playing at a level where both you and your opponent knows exactly what to build at all times, in which case constant micro-movement of your largely deadlocked armies is a whole new, even harder discipline to learn.
There are three factions - the space mariney Terran, the Aliensy Zerg and the techno-alien Protoss - and all three are totally distinct. This is asymmetrical strategy, rather than every side having roughly equivalent units.
Once you've semi-mastered a race, you're probably going to stick with it, forever. However, you must have absolute understanding of the other two factions, so that when your spies or scouts spot their first unit stride out of a factory, you know exactly what path up the tech tree they're taking, and exactly what to build to counter it.
It's ultra-chess, in its way. The actual fights are almost perfunctory, usually foregone conclusions. Player A has built that, which means Player B is absolutely screwed no matter how many of those he's managed to build. While learning the choke points and open spaces of the map is also key - you can't afford to waste any time wandering aimlessly, or leaving ground troops stuck at the bottom of a cliff overlooked by a phalanx of enemies - information is the real power here. If you don't know what the enemy is building, you can't respond to it. Biff. Dead.
On top of that, you need to be fast. The guys who are frighteningly good at StarCraft and its sequel are essentially superhumans, able to move and click that mouse at lightning speed. The pro players can manage over 400 actions per minute - selecting units, ordering them somewhere, building something, upgrading something else, activating a special ability, selecting, deselecting, selecting, deselecting...
You won't ever need to be that good. But you'll certainly need to manage much better than the less than 100-odd actions per minute you'll likely muster in your first few matches.
Achieving this is as much about will as it is about practice. One recent match saw most of my Protoss factories wiped out by a Terran assault, but his lack of invisible bastard-spotting Ghosts meant his army of robots and tanks was ultimately destroyed by a couple of permanently-stealthed Dark Templars I'd left lurking near my HQ.
Half my base was down, but his entire his army was down. Luck, not judgement - but a vital lesson that, next time, I should use a scout to identify whether my opponent was building any stealth-detecting units (Ghosts, in the Terran's case). If not, I should go full invisible and not bother with aircraft and tanks and whatnot. He'd have no chance. I'd learned something: the sense of understanding was so powerful I could taste it. It meant I could climb slightly further up that great pyramid of skill.
In this oddly fortunate mutual cock-up, however, despite losing almost all my barracks and factories I was left with a reasonable amount of resources, and enough Probes (the Protoss builder units) to come back, to stage enough of a defence to fight off whatever his second assault would be and then push forwards myself, while he was without an army.
I could see exactly what I had to do, the sustained clicking and planning, and how quickly I'd need to do it. It was eminently possible. But I lacked the will. I was weak, I was feeble, and I succumbed to the tiredness I felt when I thought about the physical and mental exertion involved. It was the point where your legs start to burn when you're out jogging; do you listen to the invisible PE teacher screaming at you in your head and push on, or do you give up and go buy some Monster Munch and a Fanta from the corner shop?
I did the latter. I spent everything on building a bloody great Mothership and pinged it straight to his base, where it was immediately shot down by a wall of anti-aircraft turrets. I knew it was a mistake. I'm not stupid. I'm just very lazy.
StarCraft II, in its current form, does not truck even the slightest laziness. You need to learn every unit, and how it counters every other unit. You need to learn exact build orders, the fastest route to get the good stuff and the good upgrades for the good stuff. You need to pore over the post-match replays and statistical comparisons with other players. Graphs! Numbers! Maths! So. Much. Maths. All the information you need is there, in a very slick, very modern and very Blizzard way. You absolutely can learn from it: this is something StarCraft II does very well.
The question is - can you be bothered to learn it? Becoming better at StarCraft II multiplayer is the only reward you're going to get for giving yourself to StarCraft II multiplayer. It does pretty much everything a veteran StarCraft fan could want - the same but different, deeply traditional but with the very internet as its spine in such a way that it's incredibly modern; breezily cartoonlike but built as hardcore from the very foundations.
In an age where every other RTS is trying to be all things to all men - compromising the multiplayer to try and let newcomers in and (arguably) comprising the single-player because there's an industry-wide trend to squeeze role-playing into strategy - StarCraft is pure. The build-and-bash model may seem overly classic, but it's also an exceptionally rare beast in these genre-bending times: a gift to those who want to treat strategy gaming as a sport rather than a pastime. No quarter is given, no sacrifice is made to allow newbies in too.
This is a good thing. Gaming needs and deserves titles as sure of themselves and their audience as this is - it's just that it means StarCraft II isn't for some PC gamers. Maybe even most PC gamers. Right now, you're somewhere near the bottom of that towering pyramid of skill. Are you man/woman/robot/alien enough to climb it?
StarCraft II is due out for PC in the first half of 2010.