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StarCraft II • Page 2

Terran up the competition: the beta, previewed

Outside of that, however, StarCraft II is a game which StarCraft players will need to re-learn - but it's a learning process that won't take any longer than the first game's did. By the end of three or four games, I've tried out all three sides and worked out the basics of each one. I've won some and lost some, but crucially, despite being a long way from hitting 150 actions per minute, I've had a lot of fun.

The learning curve itself is entertaining. For new players, the joy of discovering the three disparate races will be immense - for those of us coming from the original StarCraft, however, seeing how things have changed is even more fun.

The insect-like Zerg, for example, have developed key new ways to expand the "creep" cover - the purple goop under their bases on which Zerg units zoom around at enhanced speed. Floating Overlords can spew creep onto the map below them, both extending the Zerg's range and preventing other races from building in that area, while the Zerg Queen - a hugely changed and much more powerful unit - can drop a "creep tumor" into the ground to expand the range of the cover.

Terran buildings have always been interesting, thanks to the ability to lift off and move them around, but their architects have been hard at work on even more versatile structures for SC2. Supply depots can now sink into the ground on command, allowing units to pass overhead - effectively making them into useful barriers for cutting off choke points on the map. The Command Centre, meanwhile, has developed the ability to upgrade either to an orbital uplink which benefits sensors and resource gathering, or a Planetary Fortress, complete with a very big gun on top.

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The Protoss remain a powerful foe in the air - while Terran ground units like the building-sized Thor and the much-loved Siege Tanks are tough opponents.

Plenty has changed for the Protoss, too. Gateways, the basic unit production structures, can be upgraded into Warp Gates - which allows you to instantly warp new units into position around any Pylon you've placed on the map. Building a simple, cheap Pylon near an enemy base means you could warp in an entire attack force en masse, in theory at least. The Protoss have also acquired a new unit called a Mothership, a hugely expensive but powerful Close Encounters style ship which cloaks everything underneath it and has various support abilities including being able to "banish" a group of enemies into a black hole for a period of time.

StarCraft II is filled with a wealth of changes and occasionally startling new ideas, far too numerous to list in a preview. It's a whole new game, each similarity to the original balanced out by several changes - but the key ideas of being simple to learn and tough to master, of providing three radically different play styles which are perfectly balanced against one another, are totally intact.

What's blindingly apparent is that while this game is going to be fantastic for high level competition, exactly the same attention to detail and obsession with balance is also going to make it fantastic for us normal humans as well. Each strategy has a counter-strategy, each action has an effective response - it's just down to you to learn them and, more importantly, to recognise when to apply them. The pro players will do that at breakneck speed, but that doesn't mean it won't be fun for the rest of us to do the same things at a more sedate pace.

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StarCraft players probably recognise most of these units - but expecting them to behave the way that they used to is a quick way to a humiliating defeat.

This is the beauty of what Blizzard is doing with StarCraft II. It knows that the game doesn't need to be dumbed down for the rest of us - it just needs to avoid pandering to the ultra-hardcore mentality. Their labours over the past six years have focused on building something that's accessible and deceptively simple, yet full of hidden depth. Another comment from Pardo is revealing. "It gets to that level where, hopefully, the game is as deep and strategic as something like chess, where there isn't a dominant strategy," he told us. Like Chess, or Go, the rules of StarCraft II are simple - the games which result from those rules, however, are beautifully complex and nuanced.

With some time left to run on the development of the game, Blizzard knows that it's not perfectly balanced just yet. Changes are still being made, countless matches between players of all kinds being observed and researched to see where improvements can be made. The tweaks being made now are probably things which you or I, the average strategy game player, would never even notice as a flaw, but the pro gamer community will take advantage of them in a flash. As a result, Blizzard is aiming for a higher level of perfection - but in the end, it looks like that will result in something that all of us can enjoy.

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