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StarCraft II

What a rush!

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The interface is near identical, but with tweaks pioneered elsewhere: idle units can be selected by tapping the tilde key, while StarCraft's old and baffling selection limit has been removed. The gatherer units are the same: fleshy drones for the Zerg, floating eyeball probes for the Protoss, and SCVs - men in robot suits - for the Terrans.

The same basic tricks still work - Terrans can blockade the front of your base with farms and supply depots. The Zerg can expand early with a truly unholy number of Zerglings, then rush them right into the centre of an enemy base. The Protoss can still warp their armies from one base to another via their pylon networks.

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It's impossible to overstate just how powerful that rush of nostalgia is. Sitting down to play is like revisiting 1996. It's like riding a bike. Except the bike needs a constant supply of vespene, and there's another cyclist
out there looking to murder you. What has changed is the singleplayer campaign. The big news is difficult to swallow: StarCraft II will have just a single campaign, for the Terrans, subtitled Wings of Liberty. Campaigns for the Zerg and Protoss will follow in standalone expansion packs (working titles: Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void) in much the same way expansions for Dawn of War and Company of Heroes include a new singleplayer campaign for each side. But don't think that StarCraft II's singleplayer is lacking: it will come with 26-30 missions, and you might find it more branched and open than you'd expect.

As Dustin explains it, you'll be able to choose your missions and route through the story, dependent on the rewards. In the course of building StarCraft II, the team at Blizzard built dozens of units to test ideas that didn't make it into the multiplayer game: old favourites like the Firebat (a flamethrower infantry unit: the perfect counter to a Zerg rush), or Wraiths (a triple-wing air-and-space superiority fighter). Those units are in place in the singleplayer campaign.

Each mission completed will reward you with either a new unit, or an upgrade to an existing unit. The idea, Dustin explains, is that "your singleplayer army will look nothing like your multiplayer army." He gives a practical example: "It might be that you get the medic, and decide the medic is awesome, and so you buy lots of upgrades for him. Or you may find that you think 'the medic is OK, but I use my marauders a lot (jump-jet troopers that bounce along the ground and over cliffs: they're a spectacular economy raider).

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I missed out in a few upgrades in the last mission, so I'm going to spend my cash on upgrading my marauders.' Each mission unlocks a single unit, and that unit is key to that mission, even if they're useful for all the other missions. Each unit has two additional upgrades that you can choose to purchase for cash." The excuse Dustin gives for throwing fans a few favourites? "Raynor is a down-and-out freedom fighter and he's forced to use some older technology. So he uses Wraiths (an old triple-winged space-fighter)."

That isn't the only improvement to StarCraft's II's storytelling mechanics. In between missions, you'll retire to the Hyperion, a battered and bruised battlecruiser owned by the hero of the hour, Jim Raynor (see 'Who's Who'). There, you'll catch up on the latest news, talk to the crew, settle down for booze in the bar, or order the ship to warp to a new planet.

Making this campaign work is a big job for Blizzard and Dustin's team. While other RTS games have experimented with non-linear campaigns, (such as Dawn of War II's RPG-lite story or Red Alert 3's Risk-style map) rarely have they allowed for such massive differentiation in the rewards given to players. "We've never created a non-linear campaign like this before," Dustin acknowledges. "It really changes the way you play an RTS. There are a lot of balance problems we're trying to deal with. We're working on the units to make sure they're distinct from each other."

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