Monday, June 7

StarCraft II Beta Preview

StarCraft II is a dash for superiority. But depending on your skill level, "dash" may be better described as “scramble” or “strategic battle-plan.” Each match is a continual refinement of your game. Each mistake is an opportunity for lesson learned; likewise, each success.

Immediately when a match begins, go! No time to think, no time to blink, only do. The opening build is vital and demands exactness. Workers, more supply, a refinery: over the course of many matches, you will revise and whittle down these first dozen actions into a masterpiece of design. Even then, are you properly rallying your probes? Is your building placement ideal? There are always ways to improve. And all of it towards a specific object, each a milestone on the path to domination. That tiny edge is all you need to win. And you will need it.

Econ, macro, micro, tech, recon: each skill is essential, and your game is only as good as your lowest common denominator. All potential actions must be constantly considered and each given due attention. A finely-microed army will decimate an attack-move five days out of seven, though both this knowledge and the requisite reflexes come with practice. A floundering economy will be unable to fund an adequate army, and a poorly optimized economy will waste good resources that, contrarily, your opponent is likely applying. For recon though, there is no substitute. Scouting is unequivocally the most essential and mandatory skill in StarCraft II. Knowledge is power, as they say, a phrase which StarCraft II more than just practices, it requires.

In a recent match, I had finally decided to attack with Protoss ground-forces, and, quite easily, I demolished my opponent's base with little resistance. But something wasn't right; the base had no buildings other than a couple of pylons and refineries. Shifting my army to a fogged expansion, I realized to my horror that my Protoss opponent had not only early-expanded to a high-yield base, but that he'd also constructed his entire base there. My forces were torn apart by an abominable army, and promptly, I was destroyed. But all of this could have been prevented with a little scouting.

Awareness of your opponent's actions at all times is essential. Barring good scouting, you might win regardless, either by deductive prediction or simply black-mask-blind luck. Let your opponent get the upper hand, though, and you will certainly fail. While you may have a couple of starports reliably constructing banshees, and you're thinking your army is looking pretty good, your opponent may have three hatcheries out there, each with a queen, pumping out dozens of hydralisks every larvae cycle.
Somewhere on the spectrum between plan and reaction, there is a keen balance to be struck. Opening moves should guide you towards an initial or mid-game goal, but you must be willing to adapt to your opponent's strategies, and quickly. Fast-teching to tier three units like colossi or thors may sound like a good idea, but if you don't have the troops to defend yourself and injure your opponent's economy along the way, even a measly enemy force will topple your poor infrastructure.

StarCraft II is a glorious exercise in the learning process. At my skill-level, upper silver ladder, players are focusing on refining their macro, practicing new micro tricks, and just barely testing the waters of magic-casters. Mostly, we're simply massing two or three unit-types and, on occasion, sending forward a scout. Higher level players, meanwhile, are using magic-casters as a core function of their armies, are constantly aware of their opponent's movements and are frequently raiding mineral lines, and are employing more creative strategies, like baneling drops. These things come with experience. But Blizzard, in my opinion, has done an excellent job with their match-making system, and you'll almost always face opponents who are on the cusp of your skill level, just challenging enough without being impossible.

The races of StarCraft II bear plenty of differences, both in unit make-up and strategy. As well, each race requires a tailored counter-strategy, making for a good number of unique matches. Terran units are split into three classes: biological, mech, and air. Trying to build all three may make for a diversified, yet anemic, army. Focusing on two classes is generally advised as many units have supporting roles. The medivac can heal biological units, a popular strategy, and hellions can defend close-range assaults on siege tanks. The reaper, a fun, fast unit, can jump cliffs, perfect for raiding gatherers and sniping undefended buildings. Their use, however, is fairly limited beyond this early-game function. Terran have plenty of variety for experimenting with different army builds. And though I've played with them least, I find that they require the greatest macro of all the races, if only because they require significantly more buildings than the other races.
The Zerg are limited early game, particularly because they have no anti-air until tier 2.5, but mid-way through a match, they hit this sweet spot where they can churn out swathes of units extremely quickly. There has been a lot of discussion about the over-simplicity of the Zerg, unfortunately; and I must say that I agree. At least at my skill-level, there is little reason to produce anything but hydralisks. Or if you feel like going air, mutalisks. It is as if the Zerg's innate ability to easily mass units, either actually or perceptually, invites watered-down strategies, since massing one or two unit-types is often a clear path to an overwhelming dominance. That said, satisficing is really no fun. So if you can break the mold of the narrow-minded overmind, you'll find plenty of cool units to play with. The roach, despite its constantly in-flux usefulness, is still an awesome unit. Burrow-sneaking right into enemy bases is a ton of fun when you can pull it off, and its ability to rapidly regenerate health while burrowed is extremely useful. The brood lord is another fantastic unit. Morphed from the air-to-air corrupter, the brood lord exclusively attacks ground with tiny, clawing broodlings. Its range, means of distracting enemy fire, and sheer damage output make it an essential late-game member of any Zerg army.

The Protoss are fascinating to play. Their range of units offer excellent diversity and they have plenty of opportunity for creative strategy. Zealots are excellent throughout a game's duration. Immortals are pure beast; they perfectly counter heavy-fire enemies such as siege tanks. Void rays are unquestionably the most cited unit by the StarCraft II community as being over-powered, but they've been balanced out with a number of patches, and their unique (and effective) attack-style and aesthetics are remarkably enjoyable. The stalker, a tier two ground-to-air unit, in my opinion, is the most useful unit in the entire game. And it can blink past base defenses. The Protoss's first spell-caster is also an integral part of a good army and easily the most accessible spell-caster of any in the game.

StarCraft II is the very definition of an addictive game. Losing inspires me to improve, and winning emboldens further victory. Aside from this, the game is simply fun, lots of fun. There are still plenty of balance issues to be found, but the beta ironed out the most heinous, and Blizzard still has a month and a half before the have to pay the dues. Its sad to see the beta go, but on the bright side, I'll hopefully start being a bit more productive with its absence.

Retroactive Haitus

Hey there! Long time no see.

If you're a regular reader of Invisible Studio, you may have been wondering where I've been for so long. Well, the story goes that this winter, around early February, I decided that I didn't want to sit around my house all Spring; I needed to get out and do something different for a while So, using a heinous sum of my funds, I traveled to Peru for seven weeks, to the city of Cuzco, and volunteered. I taught English to students in a low-income elementary school, took Spanish classes for myself, and on the weekends, I went hiking. It went alright. I met some awesome people, learned some things about teaching a foreign language, and saw some of the most gorgeous scenery Gaia has to offer. But now I'm back; well, temporarily.

For the past couple of weeks and for this next week, I am interning at the University of Tennessee Press in Knoxville, learning all about the publicity side of the publishing business. More or less, I'm mailing out letters and review copies of books, writing press releases, and converting book descriptions into short copy (150 words). It's a good time. Come June 16th, however, I'll be traveling up to Ann Arbor, Michigan to act as Lead Instructor at a technology camp, third year running (though my first time at the Michigan location). At camp, I'll be working no less than sixteen hours a day, so I might disappear for more or less, precisely, seven weeks, but I'll try to drop in for a post or two when I get the chance. That said, I've yet to finish my Warcraft III mod, Manifest, and I'll likely take what free time I can garner to work on finishing up that. Pre-Peru, I was running into some pretty darn tough road-blocks that I'll have to deduce some means of overcoming sooner or later.

Tonight, though! Tonight, I have for you a brand new article, a preview of StarCraft II from my copious, over-zealous time spent with the beta. *Sniff* A beta that ends tonight. But all is well, because now I'll have more time to play Shattered Horizon and the awesome new content Futuremark has released for the title. Within a couple of days here, I'll have an updated review of Shattered Horizon. Look for it. Great to be back. Thanks for reading.

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