Slugging It Out in the Beta
Twelve years. In the age of downloadable content, MMOs, digital distribution and all sorts of other fast-action delivery systems for games, twelve years is an era but now that wait is practically over. Starcraft 2 is almost here, the sequel to arguably the greatest real-time strategy game of all time. Currently in beta form, a worldwide play-test is the last gasp before the game rolls out to the public. The beta has focused primarily on the single biggest thing keeping Starcraft alive after all these years: multiplayer. For some people the online competition of three warring empires in space has been a religion. In South Korea itís actually a recognized sport. For others (myself included) Starcraft multiplayer represented the pinnacle of digital beat-downs, a digital coliseum only the twitchiest, most confident armchair generals would enter. But with the chance to get my hands on Starcraft 2 a few months early I dashed aside all that trepidation and manned up. So with all the publicity and excitement surrounding the title, has the multiplayer element, its flagship component, fallen to the exhaustive nature of time? Will we wind up playing a bastardized version of a once great game? Has twelve years taken its toll?
In short: hell no.
Change, the Only Constant
The original Starcraft was a beast of originality, landscaping the strategy world forever. It replaced the monotonous and stale symmetry of dueling factions with smooth asymmetry, assuring gamers that balance in RTSs need not present itself in the form of a pallet swap. That fragile yet volatile word, balance, is the key to Starcraft 2ís beta, and more importantly, the multiplayer portion of it. The gameís social scene will be the one thing keeping people hooked after all three acts of the game are released (the second act coming roughly eighteen months after the first, the third coming sometime after that).
The modifications to the game going on right now have been coming fast in that desperate search for balance. The developers at Blizzard have been sure to stress to beta testers that the game theyíre playing is not final, that itís not a demo. Anything can be buffed, debuffed, altered or blinked out of existence entirely. Itís highly unlikely the bulk of the game will change but thatís not the point. The folks at Blizzard are, if anything, the kings of the small touch. They chisel their creations to the last cut, lacing them with the tiniest yet most needed bits of gameplay that most other companies would not have time for, let alone consider. That fine-tuning comes in the form of the beta, a rapturous whirlwind of fixes and tweaks all designed to whittle Starcraft 2 down to the most driven, fast-paced and competitive RTS out there.
The Forbidden Zone
If one word can describe the multiplayer, itís competitive. When I played the original Starcraft after it launched I began hearing stories of the brutal blood-sport that was Battle.net, Blizzardís online heart for multiplayer matches. People would enter the servers only to have their squashed and seeping ego served to them on a plate, so I was content to remain an island, battling it out against the computer. You couldnít waste a second in multiplayer, I heard. You had to pay attention to absolutely everything. Your mind had to be a clean and perfect ax because only the pros went there. For me, the front page of Battle.net might as well have been pasted with an Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here sign. But how much of that brutality has surfaced into the sequel?
Every last bit, right down to the squashed and seeping ego, a dish I was served a multitude of times.
But hold on. Itís not all gray skies and ruined dreams from here. If thereís one thing I learned as I struggled through the chest-high swamp that is Battle.net, it is this: everybody, at some point, sucks. Itís that simple, and it was the only thing keeping me going as I slogged through successive defeats.