"Two hikers died here yesterday."
"No fucking way."
"F'real. I'm getting more water."
It's roasting. A hundred plus in the LA canyons and California's on heat alert. We're at Blizzard's offices in Irvine and anything not black is blasted white. Death aside, however, we're less concerned with the giddy temperature than the matter in hand: StarCraft II's single-player.
In truth, none of us have any real idea of what to expect. The game's Campaign has never been detailed beyond vague Blue Poster mentions. The solo game can't just be "a story," right? You expect more from Blizzard. You expect giant leaps, real advancement. We're dumb in the heat.
The clue stands in the form of an icon.
As is well known, a large orc wolfrider statue dominates the outer space of Blizzard's offices. Euro journos swap positions for photos against it, the humanoid smartly dressed by the drill blue sky. The last time writers were invited to the complex, fences ringed the statue's base as the publisher was having a metal compass inserted into the ground around it. On it are forged Blizzard's general ethics.
The barriers are gone now. Some of the motifs are funny ("Embrace your inner geek") and some are austere ("Lead responsibly"). One is a giveaway.
The northern point, directly facing the office's blank, toothy face, is stamped with the words, "Gameplay first".
Should have known.
Gameplay. We have roughly four hours with a single-player demo I manage to get through a time and a half. No fucking about. Here's what I see.
There are four options on the splash screen: Campaign, Battle.net, Scenario and Replay. I hit Campaign. There's a choice of Easy, Normal, Hard and Insane difficulty. I pick "Normal". I am normal. It seems fitting.
It's four years after Brood War. Jim Raynor has pursued a vendetta against Arecturus Mengsk and the Dominion. The Zerg have reappeared. Raynor must choose against defeating Mengsk or safeguarding humanity against the Zerg. We find him on Mar Sara.
Note. The presentation, from the first moment, is extraordinary.
Cut-scene. Drinking. A revolver. Raynor's a Mar Sara marshal. Wild West-style opening. Mengsk on a screen in a bar branding Raynor a threat.
The first mission's called Liberation Day. It's simple. Destroy a Dominion shipment center and strike a blow for the revolution. You get the Marine unit as a reward for completion.
“Let’s destroy that outpost and steal ourselves some guns," says Raynor. And we're off.
It screams "Blizzard". It's so well done. The game's not even finished and it looks better than practically anything else you've ever seen. Marines jet onto a cracked road after a broken bridge. Destroy the outpost. Rugged, solid characters. Country music riffing in heaphones. Rays streaming down from street lights. Detail upon detail. This is the first fucking screen.
The UI's traditional and instantly familiar. Selected units are displayed in a central pane at the bottom of the screen, icon commands in the "command card" pane at the bottom right – Move, Stop, Hold Position, Patrol and Attack are all held here, complete with their one-key shortcuts.
Southern drawl's embedded in every aspect. “Looking forward to it,” say the Marines as I right-click them down along a road. “Keep your shirt on sparky,” “This better be good,” and even, “Get some.” Yeehaw.
Cranes work. Smoke drifts. Flies buzz.
In-game cut-scenes push things along. Artcurus preaching in holograms. The Marines get busy blowing stuff up, showing off some excellent pyrotechnics.
“Damn raider. We still have to live here,” moans a civilian when I blow up a virtual Arcturus. Marine reinforcements drop in and wipe out some Dominion. The general chatter seems a little cardboard, to be honest.
I have a moment of crisis and fiddle about. You can record video of play at any time. Extensive res options present themselves. "Quality," framerate and audio are all setable. F11 starts the camera.
Crisis averted, I'm back in play. Something about a "relocation mandate". “They can’t just take us away from our families, can they?” says some poor sap. He gets extremely shot by the dastardly Dominion.
This turns the tide. The civilians join in the final assault on the Dominion base, throwing petrol bombs with the rebels.
The voice acting re-niggles. You'd think they'd be a little more excited. Because they're kind of not.
I get stats: civilians liberated, holoboards silenced, largest force size, how many Dominion marines killed.
I see Achievements: not letting any civilians die, complete the level, do it in under three minutes on a certain difficulty.
The rebellion's spreading. The tutorial mission's over. I go back to Joey’s Bar.
Zerg, Zerg, Zerg
The now famous Tychus Findlay turns up. His armour’s a work of art. He’s got a painted woman on one of the shoulders, 40s style, suspenders and all.
“Nice suit,” says Raynor.
Tychus has been sent down for life. He’s “busted out” of his cryofreezer in transit. He fries a fly with his cigar.
The Dominion are “out here” digging up alien artifacts. Tychus can get “top dollar” for every artifact they “liberate” from the Dominion.
Everyone stops talking. I can click on characters for more story or just get right on going again by hitting a console.
Next mission: The Dig. I'm filled in in on any main story points I might have missed by not clicking on the cut-scene characters. It's another tutorial mission, basically. We have to snatch an artifact from the Dominion, the Medic unit being dangled as a reward. Mr Medic's a support trooper, I'm told.
The Dig shows me base-building for the first time. I'm into collecting resources, training SCVs, building units.
It's standard stuff. I build structures like Supply Depots to increase the maximum amount of allowed units, build SCVs to collect crystals and gas, and so on. There's no real departure from what's come previously, as far as I can see.
The Medics turn up when I save a rebel base. When they heal, small crosses appear on the benefited unit then drift away. It’s so chunky and solid. There's no "floatiness" to the game at all.
“Bad guys are thataway!” says a civilian. I fight them. Those explosions really are awesome. They have a shockwave, smoke, fire – the lot.
Now I have two units, the game's basic mechanics are more obvious and, thankfully, pleasing. Medics naturally group off away from the Marines after a fight, making it easier to select them separately, although each unit is so distinctively designed distinguishing between them isn't really a problem anyway.
I win easily. More Achievements: complete the level, complete all objectives, complete without losing a unit, complete on hard in under seven minutes.
The level-end stats are already more involved: units lost, units trained, structures raized, structures built, structures lost, structures total healing on Marines. Blizzard's obviously going to have fun here.
There's in instant Play Again option, too, should you feel the need to pep up your performance.
The squirly little bastards
Next one. Things are about to step up a gear.
We need to get the artifact off Mar Sara. Transport on the way. I get a bunker unit for this one.
The Zerg turn up and head towards my defensive position on a raised section of the map. We need to hold out by getting into bunkers and defending a bridge. The Zerg are squirly little bastards, more annoying than dangerous at first. Creep tumours edge forward, and their unit strength increases.
More Marines, more SCVs building and repairing bunkers, men being pushed into bunkers in an effort to stem the swarm. Every unit brings a new element of of both benefit and negativity. The bunkers are perfect for staged defence, but they take damage and burn. Sometimes only repair from multiple SCVs stops them exploding.
Suddenly I'm on a knife-edge. I write the following in my notes:
"Massive Zerg rush at the end. We die with three seconds to spare. They come from nowhere and reduce the base to rubble in seconds. Watching the clock, eyes flicking, hordes of them ripping the screen apart. This is the third fucking mission. It’s awesome."
I'm not lying. The screen is completely overrun by Zerg. It's vicious. And thrilling. And I'm extremely glad I'm playing this game.
I complete the level on my second attempt. Matt - a new character to the series - turns up with heavy ships, dropping mad firepower on the Zerg.
The stats change again: creep tumours dropped on base, peak enemies owned, workers trained, average minerals stockpiled.
More story. Go to warp. The Zerg have launched a full-scale attack. The Queen of Blades, Kerrigan, is leading the swarm.
The first three missions are over. A Blizzard staffer told us earlier that these scenarios are designed to ease us in, and they do just that. Even from the brief time we've been playing it, it's blindingly obvious that StarCraft II is polished to an OCD level, and is meticulously balanced in its core mechanics. You can play it as frantically as you like. The music is measured, and once you're familiar with the controls and the pace it appears to "just work".
The second time I play the Zerg level I hardly lose a unit, but I ignore the pleas of stranded Marines as side-objectives. Had I rescued them things might not have been so pretty.
"I'm due an upgrade"
The ship, the Hyperion, is now my base of operations, and I have access to other planets. Raynor's default location is the bridge. I bundle off to the the Armoury for some upgrades.
There are plenty of unit bonuses available from the off. Fusion welders for SCVs (-25% repair cost for buildings), a fire suppression system, strike turrets for bunkers, stim packs for Marines, nanobot injectors for Medics, and so on. The system's very simple: you pay for upgrades. You get money from doing levels. And that's it.
There's a choice of missions now, selectable through the map section of the ship's bridge. I choose The Evacuation of Agria. The planet’s been lost to the Zerg, and I need to escort the remaining civilians to the starport. For this I get Firebats, mechs with flamethrowers. They say things like, “Let’s burn,” and, “Yes” in proper robot speak.
At the day's start, lead designer Dustin Browder told us that each of the game's single-player missions was made to feel like a mini-game, and the intention starts to shine through from this point on. Each objective is different, as is the route to attaining it.
This time, civilians move at intervals from one side of the map to the other, and, obviously, are attacked along the way. The strength of the attacks increases, as does your force over time. Raynor pops up to drop not so subtle hints to man abandoned bunkers halfway along the route. I do so.
Everything's balanced. It never feels unfair. The game's laconic grace is boundlessly evident, despite the “cartoon” style. It feels effortless. Units group intelligently around the civilian convoys. I just right click them along. Nothing gets stuck on geometry or other units. When we're attacked it's a few clicks to ward the Zerg off, but it's never too easy. I write the words "labour of love". The six years dev time shows.
Then it goes bonkers again. I'm chased across the map by a crazy burrowing Zerg thing with yellow ears. God love you, Blizzard.
I'm given new upgrades as a reward for not allowing too many civilians to get eaten by the Zerg. Firebat bearclaw nozzles (attach area +40%) and Firebat viral plasma (+2 damage, four second duration) are added to my armoury.
The doctor from the last mission's with me on the bridge now. And I can buy mercenaries from the Hyperion’s cantina. The first ones up are the Kel’Morian mercs and the Devil Dogs, elite Marines and Firebats respectively.
The mercenary element is something we don't see too much of in the demo, but, again, it's as simple as going to the cantina and buying units. How this is going to affect the overall running of the Campaign, and whether or not it'll have a sway on the plot in any way, isn't shown.
Entering the Void
The mission choice splits into three. I take Tooth and Nail. The Protoss come into play.
Again, the objective's unique. Get an artifact before the Zerg beat the Protoss in another area of the map. And, again, the level's so obviously well-balanced. Marauders are the main unit for beating the Protoss Walkers with their grenades. The Zerg-Protoss battle rages at the top of the map, while I fight my way through to the artifact at the bottom.
The final sequence sees my Marines and Medics faced off against huge Protoss Walkers. It's spectacular. I don't want any of this to end.
The Raynor-Kerrigan story gets going properly after this mission. He calls her “darling”. They flirt. “Time’s running out. For all of us,” she says.
I'm just being smug about my upgrades – juggernaut plating and concussion grenades for the Marauders - when, to my horror, a screen pops up and thanks me for playing. I quit out and restart. Obviously.
Two times a charm?
I have to be honest. The second time round I'm more critical. Now I'm au fait with the controls I'm getting constant "additional supply depots required" messages in the base sections. Not enough minerals, I'm told. It feels a little old. But then these training missions are supposed to be left behind by the advancing player, not instantly replayed. Maybe I'm just pissed I can't go through the full Campaign.
I find new base-building add-ons, ones that train Medics and Marausrers, such as the Tech Lab. Another lets barracks build two units at once.
And yes, I get to play the now-fabled lava level. A timer indicates when the lava will flood low ground. The objective is to collect 8,000 mineral points whiles protecting the SCVs from both the heat and Zerg attack. Ironically, this is the mission that feels most like work, despite the fact it's visually beautiful. I don't complete it.
There are around 30 missions in the game, we're told, which has a "critical path" of roughly 19-20. I played through about five missions in four hours - and I'm not the most accomplished RTS player in the world - so that gives you a rough indication of how long it's going to last.
StarCraft II really is all about the gameplay. I was never frustrated for the wrong reason. So much about what I saw was instantly accessible and pleasing that the chances of this being a "dud" are non-existent in my eyes. Just instant, pleasurable gameplay. The cutscenes are the "right" length to deliver the story, but only those interested will go after more plot. Everyone else will just play.
I saw a technical and presentational polish in Wings of Liberty I have never seen in any other RTS. What I saw, in the main, was amazing. Maybe the core game is merely a refined version of what's come before, but everything surrounding it - from the slavish determination to make every mission different and recognisable, to those floaty crosses when a Medic heals - really is raising the bar a considerable margin. Giant leaps. Real advancement.
Gameplay first. Not a lie.