For those who don’t know, if you preorder StarCraft 2, you can get access to the beta and start playing right away (albeit, a beta version). I’ve been too busy to play much, but I have had at least one game with each race, and here are my first thoughts:
The general game: Blizzard’s last RTS, WarCraft 3, was a real revolution to the genre. Heroes, smaller armies, autocasting, smart casting, creeps/mobs, treasure, potions, shops, and mercenaries made the game a pretty wild divergence from the earlier RTS games. StarCraft 2 on the other hand, is pretty true to the original StarCraft. Autocasting and smart casting did get brought up to reduce the amount of micromanagement required, and unit group sizes are no longer limited to 12 (which, IMHO, further encourages massing units). But there are no heroes, no creeps/mobs, no shops, and the unit cap is still quite high at I think 200 (I haven’t had a chance to actually hit it yet).
The units got mixed around and changed quite a bit — the firebat is gone, for example, leaving the Terrans without any melee units. The zerg queen has gone from being a fast flying scout caster to a den mother that watches the hive. The bigger change under this is that the rock-paper-scissors aspect of the original StarCraft has been watered down to an extent. There are still units that get bonuses in their attacks to units of a certain size, and armour still plays a role, but it doesn’t appear possible to counter specific mass strategies as it was in the original StarCraft (or Brood War). Back then, someone could build a fleet of 48 mutalisks, and you could pop them all with just 4 Science Vessels and some micro, or a handful of Valkyries. Basically with some good scouting, you could counter most “mass unit X” strategies with much fewer resources than massing something of your own would take. In SC2, the damage seems to have levelled off a bit, forcing you to build up your army rather than fleshing out your niches. With just a few weeks left to go before release (eek!) there probably won’t be too many drastic changes to the game, but balance issues will be front and centre in what changes do get made.
I was reading some of the pre-beta articles about the game, and was afraid that it would be chalk-full of transforming units to keep track of. I don’t remember if the articles just seemed to focus on the Viking or if there were other transformers as well, but it sounded complicated from the previews. In practice, the transforming nature of the viking and siege tank are not overwhelming.
Macro is the new micro: One of the changes that really struck me was how your macro game — harvesting resources and building your armies — has really come to the forefront in SC2. Much of the micromanagement in a match is now dedicated to the macro part of the game, and these can be very crucial things to optimize (indeed, find yourself just a minute or two on the slow side in building your queens and your allies will jump down your throat!). The Terrans can call down advanced, time-limited workers called MULEs to harvest resources at a faster rate; the Protoss can turbocharge their buildings to pump out units faster, via a spell that must be recast quite frequently; the zerg Queens can increase the larvae spawn rate at your hives with a spell of their own. Also, there is no residual vespene extraction: once your geyser is depleted, you have to move on, which leads to a tiny bit more micro to support your macro game.
Other changes: The way the game handles having the high ground has changed. In case you didn’t notice in SC1, there was a definite advantage to be fighting from the high ground: units firing up the cliff would have a miss rate applied to them. Now, you can’t fire up a cliff at all without a spotter, but if you can see up, you do full damage. There’s also no need to scout just to see the terrain: maps start fully revealed (but covered by the fog of war). Plus, of course, the pretty, pretty graphics.
The players: It’s only the beta, I’m still in the newbie league, there’s no single-player or battle the AI option to learn how to play, and yet people are still assholes when you don’t play “perfectly”. Dudes: relax, people have to learn somehow, and even if these matches were ranked, your ranking on the beta ladder doesn’t really matter (even when compared to how little the release ladder rankings matter).
Rushing seems to be huge from my subset of games played. I’ve even seen players build barracks/gateways inside another players base to rush them, which is pretty damned audacious. Past strategies for defending against the rush don’t seem to be as effective any more — blocking the choke-point doesn’t work on many maps because many bases have a back door with destructible terrain, and I don’t know if the movement speeds are higher or what, but just having “a few” defenders doesn’t seem to be enough to hold them back any more (a rusher used to be at an inherent disadvantage because even if you were a little slower, you had some extra time to build more units while they were charging down from their side of the map, and if they tried to beeline for the workers, they’d often get chewed up by the marines). WC3 seemed to have a lot of resources to try to block rushing (and it was novel strategies like the orc tower rush that often proved to be the most annoying to counter), not the least of which was the strength of your hero, and the defense of the workers (wisps were completely enclosed, humans could turn into militia, undead acolytes were admittedly corpsicles, but you were guaranteed to have at least a few ghouls to get wood, and orc peons could jump into the burrows and shoot back), plus the strength of the early tower defenses.