This is terror incarnate. I am in deep, deep trouble, and national pride is at stake. It's a 2v2 match, UK versus Germany, on a lush forest map. Germany are the Zerg. The UK are the Terrans. The Zerg have spread their sinister influence over two-thirds of the map, dropping their hatcheries and hives near the majority of resource points. The Terrans are hemmed in, facing a constant barrage of Zerg ground troops: little Zerglings that form a mass of flailing grey-brown limbs. They have hordes of Roaches - weird balls on legs that spit acid and slash at their enemies with vicious claws. And they have Banelings - suicidal bugs that charge at their enemies, blowing themselves up in a gloopy green explosion.
The pressure is immense. At the entrance to my base, I've built a wall of support structures, behind which Siege Tanks plant their heavy feet into the ground and drop splash damage artillery into the melee. I click on one. The interface shows an animated portrait of the driver. He's a jumped-up trucker in a boiler suit and cap, incongruously laid-back. He turns to the camera and flashes a broad, brilliant grin. It looks like he's having a whale of a time. So am I. StarCraft II is nearly finished. And it's going to be brilliant.
This is the first game that Blizzard, the developers of World of Warcraft, have produced since that MMO took over the world. The original StarCraft was a genuine PC classic, probably the best- loved real-time strategy game of all time. It told a weird tale of space-truckers and cowboys, rebellions and aliens, and a fight between three races.
There were the Giger-esque alien consortium called the Zerg, led by a hive mind, and (OMG SPOILERZ) later by a psychic special forces marine named Kerrigan (she's the one on our cover). There were the Protoss: a species of elegant and aggressive space-elves riven by factional differences, now united to face the Zerg threat. And the Terran Confederacy: intergalactic future-humans on the fringes of space, run down by decades of rebellion and warfare. Shit blew up really, really good.
Before StarCraft, RTS was about two very similar forces fighting. StarCraft's three races were radically different in their unit makeup, abilities and playing style. StarCraft birthed asymmetry: the idea that three very different playing styles and armies could be equally matched.
But StarCraft wasn't just about how individual armies fitted together: it was about the pace at which they fought. Its super-accelerated strategy and massive scale (pro players tend to click the mouse 150 times per minute as they spread their armies and resource collections across acres of map-space) created the template for real-time strategy gaming. It was, essentially, the perfect game. Untouchable.
In the process it spawned one of the most spectacular and vibrant web communities and worldwide followings, including the legendary South Korean e-sports scene. Here StarCraft matches are still filmed and televised nationwide, at the sport's peak attracting 125,000 people to watch the live finals of the national Starleague. That's 125,000 people, on a Korean beach, watching two teenagers play a videogame.
So there's a certain amount of pressure on the StarCraft II team to deliver - not just a strategy game, but a fully fledged multiplayer and multimedia phenomenon. That's a problem for Dustin Browder, one of StarCraft II's senior designers, staring down the barrel of the game's forthcoming beta release. The game, he says, is in a good state. "All the units are in, and the singleplayer campaign is taking shape." But there are problems. The back-end, the infrastructure to support matchmaking, is causing problems.