Blizzard has finally opened up access to the StarCraft II beta test to a select number of users, which has many old-school fans excited. It's a little surprising to think that it's been roughly 12 years since Blizzard first released its popular sci-fi real-time strategy title. We've seen it at events numerous times and Blizzard has even released Battle Report videos of entire matches, but we haven't yet been able to really check out all the new features of the online experience.
That is, at least, until now. Users who've been selected to participate in the beta can log into their account and grab the necessary files to dive in. I hopped in a few hours ago to get a look at how everything works. It's still a little early to say much about the gameplay, so in this article I'll focus mostly on the kinds of options the beta test lets you take advantage of.
When first logging in you get to create a name for your in-game profile and select from a number of StarCraft-themed profile pictures. You can then visit a number of menus to view statistics and a wealth of other information, some of which has been disabled for the beta. For instance, if you click on your profile page you can view an overall summary panel, but can't click on individual tabs for things like Achievements or player maps. You can, however, see your career wins and switch out your profile portraits.
By heading over to the replay tab, it seems the game will list the matches in which you've participated. You can jump in and view the whole thing in its entirety, or can save the replay file and make a permanent copy of it. If you choose to dive into the replay, which is probably a good idea considering how thoroughly you'll be dominated in your early matches, then there are tons of controls in place to give you an idea of how things went. At the top of the screen as the match progresses you can switch out displays for resources, production, units, and a whole bunch of other cool stuff. You can also control the speed of the playback, and as the match moves forward you can also skip to earlier in the time line to watch interesting events over again.
While in a game it's also nice to be able to look over the entire tech tree for Protoss, Zerg, and Terran factions, as well as see profiles for every single unit included in the game. Before stepping into an online match, the game does warn you about the competitive nature of the online play. This is a multiplayer beta, so if you feel like you'll be outmatched you can enter into a five match practice league for 1v1 and 2v2 play before you head into placement matches. There are also greyed out options for 3v3, 4v4, and free for all play.
For those who don't want to tangle with ranked play, you can find a custom game option to the side of the button that starts the matchmaking process. Here you can either join someone's custom game or create your own and, if you like, add in computer-controlled opponents. This is probably the best way to go if you want to take it easy and familiarize yourself with how the game works and the best build orders to follow for a shot at a win. It also seems like the AI difficulty is locked on very easy at the moment, meaning it shouldn't be too difficult to secure victory here.
When a match is over you're given a huge amount of information regarding performance. There's the standard score summary and economic breakdown panels, but you also get a build order list that can be customized to compare any one opponent against another. So you have the replay option if you want to take a close-up look at everything going on in a match, and there's the post-match build and production order readout to see everything that happened and when. That's a lot of information, and it's something hardcore real-time strategy players will surely appreciate.
From what's accessible right now, there are a number of two- and four-person maps, some of which come in novice variations. These differ from the regular versions in that your base is protected by destructible rocks that must be worn down by your opponent before they can tear into your structures. It functions as a guard against super early game rushes, which of course can be annoying if you're still trying to figure out how everything works.
As far as performance goes, the game's impressively stable. At 1440x900 resolution on Ultra graphics settings I was getting no noticeable framerate hitching in an online match using an Alienware laptop with a Core 2 Quad Q9000 2 GHz CPU, 6 GB RAM, and dual GeForce GTX 260M 2GB cards running Windows 7 64-bit. I can update once I install the game on something closer to a mid-range PC to see if everything stays smooth on something less powerful. It's also quite pretty, as you've likely seen in videos already, with a strong art style and slick animations.
Expect to see much more coverage of the gameplay pop up over the coming days and weeks. For now, like in previews, I can say the game feels very much like StarCraft. After a match begins you need to rapidly start harvesting minerals and gas, and the better players have a set build order to get production structures up and running and units on the field. So while that basic progression is the same, expect a slew of differences when it comes to specifics of unit behavior and upgrade paths.