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What's New With StarCraft II

New Heart of the Swarm multiplayer stuff, a KeSPA invasion at MLG, and StarCraft fandom in... the Sony booth?

If it had been any other game, I would have politely declined and gotten on an airplane to go home. But if you know me, you know that StarCraft II alone would have the power to snare me for an extra day in southern California directly after a grueling week of E3, so Drew and I made the quick jaunt over to Anaheim last Friday to check out the latest multiplayer build of Heart of the Swarm, being shown at the Major League Gaming event going on over the weekend there.

Honestly, not a lot has changed dramatically with HOTS multiplayer since Brian Leahy gave us an exhaustive look at all the new units from BlizzCon late last year. If you just want the quick info dump on where things currently stand, watch this!

If you remember the BlizzCon report, you'll notice the Terran shredder and Protoss replicant are both gone, the latter because, according to Dustin Browder, it was actually causing opposing players to avoid making units they didn't want turned against them. That's counter to the goal with HOTS of increasing the level of complexity and range of options available to all players of the game, not removing them. In lieu of the shredder, Terrans will still get some area-denial and passive defense capability with the widow mine, which itself sounds heavily subject to change. And although I don't care much about playing Terran myself, I'm happy for the inclusion of the warhound's auto-casting missiles that auto-target other mechanical units such as, oh, I don't know, siege tanks? Blizzard is confident that this one ability will help to break up a lot of the viking-tank stalemates you see in pro play, and I hope they're right; I think TvT is by far the least interesting matchup to watch at the moment.

The least-significant-sounding but probably scariest change in the current version is a late-game hydralisk upgrade to movement speed, which Browder said is actually the single tweak having the most profound effect on the metagame in Blizzard's tests. That one change seems like it might restore the ubiquity of the hydra that you saw in Brood War, though I'm not looking forward to dealing with a big mobile ball of pure DPS flying up and down the creep highway all the time. The swarm host and viper don't seem all that different from a few months ago, but since zerg is such a mechanically complex race I'm not even going to speculate about what broad effects these things will have.

Actually, as a Protoss player who's basically never touched the other races, I can only speak with any sort of authority at all about the changes on the Toss side, and I'm extremely excited about what's going on there. Right now it's very difficult not to make a robotics bay in every single matchup--just for the observer's scouting and detection, if nothing else--so Blizzard is making an obvious push to legitimize the stargate as a viable tech path in its own right, primarily with the oracle. In addition to that thing's unchanged ability to entomb an entire mineral line with a single 75-energy cast--which I can tell you from my brief experience is amazing--the oracle's preordain ability, which gives you a long period of vision on a target building, will now also add detection to that vision. Of course, that will make it about a million times safer to go stargate now, without having to worry as much about cloaked banshee or dark templar rushes. Neither of those would have a very easy time hitting the oracle.

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In exchange for the replicant we now get the mothership core, which you can build quickly and cheaply straight out of your nexus in the early game (and then upgrade into a full mothership with a fleet beacon as usual). This thing has amazing potential to change how aggressive you can be early on, since it has the same mass recall as the bigger version. So you can try an initial push and then get the hell out of there if things are going badly, or get your army back to base for defense if necessary. The core can also briefly act as an overly powerful photon cannon, which should make you feel a little more secure about taking a quick expansion. The core can warp between bases for very little energy and seems like an invaluable addition to early-game defense. I'm really bad at using group hotkeys above 5 (that's where my nexus goes) but the mothership core will most certainly occupy a current home on 6 when I play.

Lastly there's the tempest, which is a capital ship that back at BlizzCon was meant as an air-to-air AOE monster suited for dealing with tons of mutalisks. The tempest has now changed roles to some kind of bizarre long-range aerial siege weapon that by default can fire about as far as a siege tank, which has a range of 13. But with the fleet beacon range upgrade, the tempest has a whopping range of 22. Yes, TWENTY-TWO. On the downside, the DPS is pretty low, so you'll need a lot of tempests to do much actual damage, and of course you'll need a spotter for them to fire that far, since their upgraded range far exceeds their sight range. I'm not sure exactly how the tempest will fit into the final game, since it's extremely expensive for the amount of damage it can do, and Browder seemed doubtful the range upgrade will remain in there as-is. It's also worth noting that Blizzard has mostly reversed course on its plan to cut existing units from the game, with the current exception of the carrier. But Browder said the team is having fights every day about the fate of the carrier, so who knows if even that most-disused unit will ultimately exit the roster. I imagine every pro game where a carrier is used effectively moves the minute hand on the carrier doomsday clock back just a little bit.

The most natural way to get a sense of how a lot of this stuff works would be to watch this video with Day[9] and Blizzard's Rob Simpson commentating a sample HOTS match in an instructional sort of way. If you're new to watching StarCraft II, note that this is the general format of what a pro match is like, but you're going to find a lot more energetic and dynamic scenarios taking place in actual pro-level play (much of it commentated by Day[9] himself). It gets way better than this!

Well, if you made it through all of that dry, amateur analysis, odds are you care an awful lot about StarCraft and everything going on with it, so let's talk about MLG a bit. I blew out of town Friday afternoon before the tournaments got started, but spectating through the weekend from my couch, this was the best event these guys have put on so far that I've seen. Full disclosure: my employer has a business deal with MLG, but I've been fairly critical in the past about their failures, which have mostly centered on flimsy production values and basic logistical issues like making sure matches don't lag out, and keeping the video stream running. The production and scheduling this weekend was much more professional by comparison, with quality commentary throughout, multiple matches running almost all the time, and not much downtime in between. Hell, the casters even classed things up a bit by wearing coats and ties. I had some issues with the highest-quality HD feed consistently crapping out on me, but otherwise MLG is inching closer to the point where I can wholeheartedly recommend throwing down the cash for a weekend pass.

The big tentpole aspect of MLG this weekend, and the main reason I even bring the event up, was the absurdly hyped KeSPA invitational tournament that featured the all-time biggest names from current Brood War competition. KeSPA is the governing body that essentially made competitive StarCraft what it is in Korea, but it's been notoriously hard to work with and it initially shunned StarCraft II altogether, since the lack of LAN-only play meant it had to do business with Blizzard in order to run SC2 tournaments. Now that the two organizations are playing nice together, KeSPA's top players are starting to transition over, and this weekend was the first public chance for true legends of the game like Bisu, Jaedong, and Flash to show what they can do.

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Just as a lot of people predicted, they didn't exhibit a lot of especially creative play--the broad strategies were the same sort of thing you'd see in your average match between existing pro players. But the pure mechanical execution from some of these guys was very exciting to watch. Considering they've only been playing SC2 at all for a few weeks, seeing a guy like Flash keep up a staggering rate of production while also being able to split his marines and otherwise micro his units as well as pros who have been playing for two years... well, that makes me really hopeful that there are levels of skilled play in StarCraft II that we haven't even seen yet. I'm excited to see how well these guys are doing after a few more months of practice.

Around the office and in the games press at large, I feel like I've made little headway in getting other people to care about competitive SC2. And maybe I'm not one to talk, since I sort of feel the same way about competitive fighting games (appreciate them academically, glad they're there, little interest in actually watching them) and MOBAs (don't find the game flow interesting to watch at all) that most people do about StarCraft. But here and there, I keep running into likeminded individuals in unlikely places who secretly harbor the same passion. How about the Sony booth at E3? There, I got a chance to meet Shawn McGrath, the lone developer behind Dyad, an indie action game coming to PSN that seems like it is to Tempest what Geometry Wars was to Asteroids (and I mean that in the best possible way). Shawn seems like an all-around swell guy--you'll see an interview about Dyad hitting the site soon--but I also discovered we share a mutual love of two-rax pressure builds and baneling landmines over the weekend while tweeting feverishly about the competition taking place at MLG.

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The idea that pro StarCraft is leading to little stuff like this in the indie scene--the place where the most consistently invigorating game design is happening these days--makes me feel like just a little bit less of a "yeah sure professional video games whatever buddy" pariah. This stuff is great! Just give it a chance! I very earnestly believe there's no purer an expression of complex video game mechanics and the human ability to approach mastery of them than what's going on with pro-level StarCraft these days.

Anyway. It should go without saying that I'm really eager for Heart of the Swarm to come out, mainly because competitive play in Wings of Liberty has largely settled into a repetition of similar builds and strategies, and because I've also kind of hit a wall in my own game that has me sitting around mid-platinum without much hope of advancement unless I quit my job and play full-time. Heart of the Swarm should give a nice boost to both of those problems. We'll have video interviews with Dustin Browder and designer David Kim later in the week to provide some more depth on the new stuff, and reading between the lines a bit while talking to those guys, I'm hopeful that beta may not actually be all that far away.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+