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StarCraft II: The Latest on the Terran Campaign

Yeah, there's more than just the beta. Here's how Blizzard's single-player is shaping up.

 A shot from the upcoming reality series
 A shot from the upcoming reality series "Life With Jimmy."
Lately, I've been so utterly consumed by the StarCraft II multiplayer beta that I just about forgot the game is even going to have a single-player campaign. Blizzard hasn't forgotten, though; the company was eager to show off three campaign missions and the absurdly rigorous new challenge mode at its Irvine, CA headquarters this past week. I actually had to tear myself away from the beta's 1v1 ladder to fly down and see more of the game, but at least now I'm feeling reassured that I'll definitely want to plow through the campaign in the final game before I head online and start getting destroyed on Battle.net.

My memory of the campaign in the first StarCraft is mostly of ending each mission by utterly obliterating the enemy's base. In other words, "kill the other guy" was the only victory condition you'd see in pretty much every mission. Warcraft III did a lot to start varying the mission structure and types of objectives; remember racing against time to purge the city of Stratholme of its plague-infected citizens? But even those unique missions seemed to be in the minority.

Blizzard is taking that mentality a step further in StarCraft II, giving nearly every mission its own rules, win conditions, custom art assets, and other elements to make sure you're getting to do more than just building up a base and stomping the computer into the dirt. One of the three missions took place on a planet where a mining expedition had been attempting to breach a Xel'naga temple using a gigantic cutting laser, before an unknown force wiped them out. Of course, by "unknown force" I mean " Protoss." This mission centered around moving into the mining encampment, taking control of the laser, and fending off constant Protoss assault.


  

The interesting part about this mission is that you've got a meter showing the durability of the temple's outer door ticking down as the laser does its job, so you're essentially being forced to hold out against attacks on your base from multiple sides for a lengthy stretch of time. This seemed like an early mission since you're limited to lower-tier Terran technology and units, though the Protoss forces have no reservations about hitting you with their beefiest units, like the colossus and archon. You can actually take control of the mining laser and target enemies--and it will obliterate any individual unit in a couple of seconds--but every time you divert the laser to attack, you're extending the length of time you'll have to defend yourself before you breach the temple and end the mission.

Another mission felt sort of like a territory-control game type. It challenged me to send SCVs to several gas-emitting geysers spread around the map, then bring them back to my base once they'd harvested the gas. The Protoss really don't want you to have that gas, though, and they sent their own workers to lock down the geysers, preventing my SCVs from accessing them entirely. 


  

As you can see in the gameplay clip, the geysers all show up on the minimap and the game alerts you when the Protoss are about to target one of them, so this mission was a mix of cranking out units and defending my base, and escorting SCVs out to extract gas and bring it back. On the normal difficulty this wasn't terribly taxing, as I was easily able to set up enough perimeter defenses with missile turrets and bunkers to keep the occasional assault out of my base.

One thing to note is that while both of these missions essentially work on a time limit, you don't necessarily want to rush to victory as fast as you can. That's because there are extremely beneficial collectibles on most maps, in the form of Protoss artifacts and Zerg DNA samples. Collecting enough of these will let you purchase tech upgrades back on your ship that will give you specialized and incredibly useful advantages against those races. In the bottom tiers, it's minor buffs like allowing refineries to extract vespene gas without the use of workers, but at the top of the tech tree you'll get snazzy stuff like a mind-control tower that lets you take permanent control of any Zerg unit, even an ultralisk. Each tier of these two tech trees features two separate, similar upgrades, and you're forced to pick only one with no chance of ever going back and getting the other. So the game forces you to customize your upgrade path rather than letting you grind to simply get everything and become unstoppable.


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Lastly, I also got to see how the Protoss mini-campaign will work. It's based on a memory-retaining crystal that lets Jim Raynor relive the experiences of that elusive Protoss badass Zeratul. If you've forgotten who these guys are in the last 12 years (12 years!) since the first game, I've brought a clip that sets up the relationship.


 

Afterward, you can access that crystal in the lab of Raynor's ship and find out what Zeratul's been up to, and what his recent discoveries mean for the galaxy. The first and only Zeratul mission I got to play was one of those dungeon-crawling ones, with no base-building and a small, preset allotment of units. All I had to work with were Zeratul, who's a more powerful version of a dark templar with a couple of extra abilities, and a handful of stalkers. I had to make my way through a labyrinth of caves, fighting against various Zerg units with my small group, and this one felt like a primer on micromanagement since I had to liberally and rapidly use Zeratul's void prison to lock down the tougher enemies and the stalkers' blink to teleport them from place to place. Kerrigan even made an appearance at the end, accompanied by roughly a zillion Zerg, and started blitzing a Protoss defensive line as I frantically led Zeratul to a quick exit. I used to loathe this sort of mission with a restricted number of units and no base, but this one felt so tightly designed it was a lot of fun to creep my way through, trying to lose as few units as possible.
 

 Zeratul's dungeon-crawling side mission will test your micro skills.
 Zeratul's dungeon-crawling side mission will test your micro skills.

Nothing will test your micro like StarCraft II's challenge mode, though. These are a series of specific one-off missions on short timers that force you to play in very specific and incredibly demanding ways. Only two challenges were working in the build I tried. In one, I had only a small group of Protoss sentries and high templars to defend high ground against endless waves of attackers. If you've played the beta at all, you know these are both support units not intended for direct, heavy combat, so I had to get extremely creative, using the sentry's Guardian Shield to dampen enemy fire and Hallucinate to draw their attention with fake units. Meanwhile, the templar went for area-of-effect damage from the rear line with Psi Storm, and I occasionally sacrificed two of them to make an archon for heavier firepower. The challenges reward you with bronze, silver, and gold medals based on your performance, and even after a dozen tries on this incredibly tough mission, I still fell barely short of silver. Challenges, indeed.

The other challenge had a pretty hilarious restriction: no mouse buttons allowed for producing or commanding units. In other words, you'll have to accomplish all unit production and control purely with hotkeys, which is an excellent primer for jumping online. I've come to realize over the course of the beta that you will never, ever be competitive online playing purely with the mouse, so it's only sensible that Blizzard should force you to try the hotkeys to prep you for the rigors of online matchups. This mission had a large but specialized Protoss base in the center with stalkers, sentries, high templar, and carriers already produced. There were enemies of all kinds surrounding the base, and I had to send groups of my forces out in different directions to get as many kills as possible in about two minutes. So not only did this mission force precision hotkey use, but it also encouraged multitasking between several groups of units, another key skill to have online.

As a Protoss-only player so far in the beta, I realized while playing the campaign in this first StarCraft II game that the single-player mode will serve as a nice primer for the Terran faction. By the end of it, you should have a good firm grasp of the Terran resource and production model and be familiar with all the basics of the Terran units. There are a ton of cool unit types that will only be available in single-player--the predator, for instance, is a big cybernetic panther with an area-of-effect shock attack--but on the other side of the campaign (and a few challenge levels), you'll have enough Terran basics down to start thinking about entering the rough-and-tumble world of Battle.net. Speaking of which, that new beta patch just came out, so, uh, I gotta go.
 

Brad Shoemaker on Google+