Can you have a sleeper hit at a convention where there are only three games? Can you be taken unawares by a monster sequel to an RTS classic, six years in development, of which expectations are already sky-high and for which the delayed wait until next year seems unbearable? Is it possible to underestimate the importance of Blizzard's first non-World of Warcraft release since 2003? Going by last weekend's BlizzCon - yes, absolutely. We knew StarCraft II was big. We didn't know - we had no idea, actually - it was this big.
On BlizzCon's opening day, StarCraft II took its now customary place in the hype queue behind World of Warcraft and Diablo III. They got cinematic trailers and new class and expansion announcements, amid a tumult of cheering and thundering subwoofers. StarCraft II got barely a mention. Then we had to wait until after WOW and Diablo's designers had presented their visions at panels for Blizzard's design chief Rob Pardo to take to the stage and talk, not so much about StarCraft II itself, but the new Battle.net platform it goes hand-in-hand with. But that's exactly when our perceptions started to change.
Pardo's low-key presentation caused a ripple of raised eyebrows, exchanged looks and murmurs of appreciation as he talked about friends lists, cross-game communication with WOW, cloud saving, a brilliant new matchmaking and tournament system, and a move to build not just a community but a commercial marketplace around StarCraft II mods. The excitement continued to build all weekend as we tried out the single-player Wings of Liberty campaign (a considerably more radical departure from classic StarCraft than the conservative multiplayer); were graced with the presence of the statuesque Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica's Cylon Number Six) who announced that she would play Kerrigan in the game; and saw a demonstration of the amazingly flexible map editor, in which enterprising Blizzard staffers had knocked up a third-person action game and a retro 2D shoot-'em-up.
StarCraft II's presence pervaded BlizzCon gradually, like a Zerg Creep, until it had all but smothered the fires of Cataclysm. There's just so much more to it than we thought; it's an astonishingly complete package, the like of which PC gaming hasn't seen in a long time.
But let's start with the campaign, as most players will. The first in a trilogy of releases following each of the game's three races, Wings of Liberty will focus almost exclusively on Jim Raynor and his hard-bitten, ramshackle Terran forces (although you will get an opportunity to play as the Protoss aliens at one point). That focus, says producer Chris Sigaty, has allowed Blizzard to expand the overall length, depth, breadth and storytelling of the campaigns - and above all, the lavishly presented between-mission framework that Blizzard is internally calling "story mode".
Almost a miniature point-and-click, the story mode screens show Raynor roaming a few rooms of his Battlecruiser talking to comrades and making decisions. The Bridge provides story updates and branching mission selection, the Lab offers collection meta-objectives for technology research and upgrades, and the Armory more straightforward unit upgrades for cold, hard cash (earned from missions, and, according to the times-are-tough dialogue, in short supply). In the Cantina, you can hire elite mercenary units.
The presentation is obsessively, lovingly detailed. The huge characters are rendered and fully voiced to the same standard as the game-engine cut-scenes, and the locations drip with greasy atmosphere, especially the wild-west Cantina with its screen offering live news feeds, Wurlitzer jukebox strapped to the ceiling playing dirty rockabilly and country music, "Lost Viking" arcade cab and holographic go-go-dancer (doing what appears to be WOW's Blood Elf routine). Despite this, navigation is swift and efficient if you're desperate to get on with the action.
This framework will have to change radically for the next in the trilogy, says Sigaty. "When we move on to the next game, Heart of the Swarm, the things that go on within that are really going to focus on what the Zerg do. We really aren't looking at those details right now, but we know that you're not going to be on a Battlecruiser purchasing technology and hiring mercenaries. What we've been talking about internally is a talent system for Kerrigan, so that that feels different, plays differently." The release gaps between the campaigns will be "a little longer" than the year it took to follow up Warcraft III with The Frozen Throne, he says, "because we're more ambitious with story mode".
And more ambitious with the campaign maps themselves. There are two available to play at BlizzCon. Monlyth presents the Terrans with the opportunity to seize a valuable alien artefact, but the Protoss are after it too - and the Zerg are after the Protoss. The aim is to strike fast at the Protoss camp around the artefact while they're still distracted with the Zerg, and fend off small Zerg raiding parties on the way. It's an interesting twist on a standard StarCraft mission, but the other map, Agria, outshines it.
This tight little map isn't much more than a roadway between a colony and a spaceport. Raynor's been hired to protect the evacuating colonists from a Zerg invasion, sending Marines and flame-throwing Firebats alongside their transports as Zerg swarms rush the road. There are bunkers you can repair and man, but these are less and less use as the Zerg attacks escalate over the course of three tense runs, ending in splattering aerial drops right next to the crawling transport. It's exciting, varied, well-staged and beautifully-paced mission design, a cut above what you usually see from RTS, Blizzard's own games included.
"The big thing is we've tried to ensure each mission is its own sort of mini-game," says Sigaty. "Each mission has its own gimmick, its own mechanic, in addition to introducing you to each unit, a little bit more difficulty as you go on... so you had something new and fresh that you were dealing with, not just another 'go crush the AI' or 'just run these units through the maze'."
The campaign seems like a bolder step forward than StarCraft II's multiplayer, which - notwithstanding years of intricate fine-tuning of the maps and new unit line-ups - Blizzard is happy to admit doesn't rewrite the rules of this perennially popular competitive gaming heavyweight. But it became clear at BlizzCon that, although there's no major change in mechanics, there's a huge change in attitude. StarCraft, so dominated by player speed and micro-management skill, is known for being an intimidating, humbling experience online, denied to all but the gifted few. Blizzard believes it can change that, and it's got two new initiatives to back it up.
Firstly, there's a new single-player component: Challenge maps. These are a combination of multiplayer tutorial and bite-sized, two-minute, score-attack or time-attack scenarios, aimed at teaching newcomers multiplayer techniques and tactics, as well as giving veterans self-improvement workouts. "The key to it really is that we don't feel like single-player teaches you how to play multiplayer," says Sigaty. "This is a way to organically teach you these things that you should start thinking about, control grouping, the mechanics around spell-casting, how to use mana, there's a bunch of them."
He warms to his unlikely theme: making multiplayer StarCraft accessible and rewarding for everybody. "There is certainly, I think rightly so... an impression out there that RTS is very difficult. It's a hardcore genre. Well, I'm not going to get into that, but hopefully we can bridge the gap." Sigaty talks about how long it took him to feel like he could win at Warcraft III. "It took 10 games... I knew it would get to that point, but I think, 10 games, that's ridiculous. If you play three, get your ass handed to you, then you walk away, you say yeah, I think the online thing's not for me."
Pardo, and Battle.net, have the answer. Over and above improved matchmaking algorithms, searches, and the persistent player profiles that should prevent "smurfing" (experienced players creating new accounts to take noobs unawares), there's an ambitious and clever new ladder and tournament system that aims to give players of all skill levels the kind of thrill experienced at the top end of competition - "the competitive arena for everyone", Pardo calls it. "Ladder play doesn't have to be for hardcore gamers only."
There will be seven levels of competition in StarCraft II - five regular bands from Copper to Platinum, book-ended by the e-sports Pro League at the top, and the Practice League at the bottom. Practice League will feature a slowed game speed and maps custom-designed to prevent the rush tactics that can be panic-inducing and off-putting to a new player.
Within each band, you'll be randomly allocated to a "division" of 100 players, all at your rough skill level. You won't only play these players, but you'll only be ranked against them, with the aim to claw your way close to the top by the end of a season, which will last a few months. If you place high, you'll earn entry to an end-of-season tournament that will decide the winner of the league. The idea is to bring competition to all levels by keeping the scale small, and replicate the feeling of taking part in a local sports contest - like playing football with your pub team.
"I don't know that you need anything other than giving them the ability to win and compete," says Pardo on how to motivate more players to take part. "That's the biggest trick, because typically if you look at other ladders, people fall off pretty quick if they realise that they can't compete. Of 10,000 players, maybe the top 100 feel like they can really compete. So we took that concept and said, what if you're basically always competing in the top 100, right? But it's your division. I think that'll go a long way towards motivating people." Thinking of the dispiriting effect of the five-figure number next to my name on every Xbox Live Arcade scoreboard, I can't help but agree.
Blizzard's plans for building a thriving community and online scene around StarCraft II don't stop there. There's the professional e-sports dimension, likely to be kicked off in earnest in the first patch after the game ships, says Sigaty. "We have a number of things that we're working on to make sure that e-sport has the sporting needs to, as a community, be able to thrive. I know it's a scary time right now in e-sports with the economy the way it is, we're certainly aware of that, so the feature set to really help that group is coming after launch."
Then there's mod-making. Blizzard has spent the last few years reflecting on the overwhelming popularity of the Defence of the Ancients mod for Warcraft III - which ultimately surpassed that of the vanilla game - and how to encourage the same kind of diversity and more with StarCraft II. Its answer comes in two parts: that astonishing map editor, which could, Blizzard claim, be used to create an FPS or an RPG, and another post-launch feature of Battle.net: a marketplace for distributing and even selling mod content.
Both aim to attract the cream of the world's amateur designers to StarCraft II and make it feasible for them to spend money and time on more ambitious developments - as well as, not coincidentally, flooding regular players with new content between Blizzard's own updates. Could Blizzard even sell its own bite-sized games here? "There's currently not really a plan to do it and I'll tell you why - generally what happens with us is that the people who'd be able to make that content are going to be pretty busy working on the next chapter of the trilogy," says Pardo.
Nonetheless, it's an expansive and smart move from Blizzard, and just one more bullet-point in the endless, comprehensive feature list of a game and online gaming service that can't really be separated from each other. Even the smallest details have a potentially huge impact: Pardo himself singles out the Real ID system that allows you to attach a real-world identity to online IDs and game characters, Facebook-style, creating "a real friend network within your gaming community".
Every single thing is designed to make your relationship with StarCraft II a deep and long-lasting one. It is, in short, an RTS game made by a company that's just spend five years dominating MMOs, and learning everything there is to know about community and persistence in online gaming on the way. This one will run and run.
StarCraft II is due for release on PC and Mac in 2010.