Starcraft 2 at Blizzcon Regional Finals in Cologne
This SC2 analysis is based on the build Blizzard presented at the WC3 Regional Finals in Cologne. According to Blizzard the build was from around mid May. There have been some minor changes since in the build shown last Monday in Irvine, but nothing ground breaking. Banelings have been buffed even more but roaches move to Lair in return. I don't think this changes much about the gameplay.
From what I can tell from talks with LastRomantic and from comparing the tech trees, everything else seems to be similar.
I had two full days to test play SC2 at the event, and thankfully there where a couple of decent players there so you could actually test builds and units in a competitive setting.
First of all, and I know this has been said before, but: This is Starcraft. You are not playing Warcraft 4, from the first second on this feels like Starcraft. Oh, and it looks gorgeous. The graphics were considerably improved from the last time I played it, especially Zerg now look and feel very zergish. Battles are fast and gory, but you can still understand what is going on. Most death animations are gone. Some minor details need work still, for example the archon attack animation, but all in all it looks good.
And it is a hell lot of fun to play. You can use your Broodwar skills right away, and just learning the game as you play worked very well. Most UI accesses are intuitive and unobtrusive. It's great to see old tactics from Broodwar in the new look, like the Zerg fast expansion, the notorious bunker rushes, or the deadly dark templar. And then there are the fun new units in action like marauders, immortals, and banelings (excellent unit for broadcasted games, in a Grubby vs Steven Chang match the whole crowd was cheering Boooom! Boooom! Booom! each time a baneling tore apart a group of marines). Also the game is very macro heavy, probably even more so than before. You see huge armies clash and arrays of barracks or gateways blinking away.
A quick word about MBS: I am really OK with it now. You will find that you want to hotkey individual hatcheries or raxxes anyway since you want to build drones at specific hatcheries and use your tech addons efficiently as Terran. Protoss actually really just needs their one hotkey to macro everything though.
Now, let's get to what is new in this build since Blizzcon, most importantly: The new macro mechanics. I was reluctant first, but they really make sense and really add to the game without making it inaccessible to casual players. I still don't like auto-mining, because just everyone has a bombing economy now with virtually zero effort, but at least you can get a little extra out of superior mechanics. You can tell Blizzard tries to balance this out, and I have to say good job with those new mechanics. Compared to the horrible gas mechanic from Blizzcon, those new ideas are a good compromise. Still, here is some criticism to that:
You 1a2a3a fans will love this: The Protoss mechanic is incredibly cheap compared to the other two races'. Protoss can build a dark pylon for 200 minerals. It works just like a pylon, but has energy that can be used to cast a spell that makes your probes gather 6 resources instead of 5 at once. Two dark pylons are enough to keep your mining at a constant 6 per probe rate, given you don't miss the spell cycle. So with a regular click-R-click you can really speed up your economy.
Now compare that to Terran. Terran can call down the mule from the command center once it has the Comsat addon. Mule calldown has a cooldown, so again, if you practise this you can call down constant mules. Mules gather alongside SCV, but can mine a patch even if another worker is still on there mining, which gives Terran an extra bonus on high yield minerals. Mules disappear after a while.
Here is the problem now: You do click-C-click to call down the mule. But then it takes about four seconds for the call down animation (drop pod) to finish. Only after that you can select the mule and tell it to start mining. In a competitive setting of course you can't wait four seconds, so you would have to do two CC cycles for each round of mules. Twice as much the effort and room for slip ups than Protoss has. This is easily fixable though *1.
Zerg has the queen. The queen can be built with pool tech (but interestingly does not require larvae to be built), costs 150 minerals and is a combined range attacker and spell caster. It can "Inject" extra larvae into a hatchery. About 30 seconds later, three extra larvae spawn at once, and you can immediately inject again, no cool down or energy required here *2. Normal larvae spawning continues even if the three additional are there.
This does not look terrific at first glance, as you still have to morph drones from the larvae, and that costs money, right? Well, actually the queen fundamentally changes the way Zerg is played in SC2 now, something I will expand on later.
The first day for me was about trying out new things like the mechanics and new units and tech trees. I quickly noticed something bad though, and I am really disappointed and worried that Blizzard did not do anything about it since Blizzcon: The units still don't react fast enough. As Chill described it last year, there is certain latency built into the unit handling, which makes proper micro impossible. This is something that really needs to be addressed by Blizzard as it severely hurts the gameplay.
Take wraiths in Brood War: They are fragile, weak units, but they are fast. And, in the hands of a good Terran player, can become a dangerous tool against Zerg. That is because they can be microed very very well. Not only because of unit stacking, but because how instantly they react to attack and turn commands, without any slowing down.
In SC2, there is a similar unit, the banshee. It's air to ground and does more damage than the wraith, so you would think this could be an incredible weapon. However, it has this acceleration and deceleration built in, that make it similar to the valkyrie in terms of responsiveness and microability. In consequence, the Banshee falls victim to its weak HPs and is quickly shot down if you try to actually deal damage with it. Their cloaking is T3 tech, so I can't really think of a viable build involving banshees in a real, even game. Which is a shame, because if you could just handle them correctly, that would change instantly and, again, it would reward the better players without making the game inaccessible.
This is only an example, many units have this problem, with little exception. The mutalisk handles differently. I think Browder really wanted mutalisk micro back in the game and made the developers build in better handling for the mutalisk. You can move and shoot with them much better than with other units, the effect is noticeable. However, if it works for the mutalisk, why not take out the clumsiness from other units as well? In my opinion this should have priority over anything else at the moment. Half of BW's Pimpest Plays are only possible because units handle so well. They freed up time and attention with MBS and automining, why not allow players to invest that in better micro? Everyone would benefit, especially Starcraft as a spectator sport. Even in a game so hugely macro heavy as Starcraft, we all love to watch the Pros perform ridiculous unit stunts.
There is another thing that hinders micro, and it also has been brought up multiple times: The melee AI or auto-surround. I don't know if this got worse or if it was just more noticeable than at Blizzcon. Let me give you an example: My very first game I played a ZvP and spotted the P doing a forge-first FE. I had overpooled and immediately tried a run-by with slow lings. I got 5 lings into his main before his gate even started. In Broodwar, this should be game. Now here is the problem: If I targeted a probe at the edge of the mineral line with my 5 lings, only 1 ling would actually attack that probe. The other lings automatically spread out to other targets. Thus not only does the targeted probe not die, but my lings run deeper into the mineral line. If P now a-moves, the auto-surround works in his favour, all his 12 probes will quickly try to surround my lings and I can't escape with the few that ran into the probe line, so I lose one. This happened every time I tried to snipe a probe. It is so incredibly frustrating when your units just do not do what you tell them to.
Another example of this is defending with lings against a 2 gate with 1 or 2 probes. If you try to target the probe, again, only 1 ling will attack it, the other spread out and each attacks one zealot, exactly what Protoss wants. Similarly you can't target damaged zealots, again the lings will be spread evenly among the zealots. Initially this made Zerg appear doomed against Protoss as you just couldn't defend against a 2 gate with lings only.
This could be easily avoided if auto-surround only activates when you a-move clicking on the map, not focussing a single unit.
Zerg vs Protoss
I mentioned how different Zerg plays now compared to Broodwar because of the Queen. Reconsider this larvae mechanic: In Starcraft, Zerg has one additional resource to manage, larvae. You want to build your hatchery first for the additional larvae. Of course more larvae comes at a price as each hatchery is 300 minerals and a drone gone.
Now, in SC2, with the Queen mechanic, you essentially get twice as many larvae per hatchery. Now the Queen costs 150 minerals, but that is a one time cost. And you can skip a lot of lings because of that, since Queen and lings effectively defend against P or T rushes. This means you save literally hundreds of minerals in the early game if you stay at 2 hatcheries and larvae macro properly. And those minerals can be reinvested in drones. The effect is dramatic, especially vs Protoss. In the build we had, forge first was not viable. Speed zerglings and roaches and/or banelings were too strong too quickly. Two gate pressure is actually easily defended after all with a Queen in the mix. This means Zerg can safely expand, Protoss can not. Zerg can skip lings and pump drones at a insane rate early in the game, and then switch to a booming zergling/roach production, which just overpowers Protoss.
Against the end of the second day Protoss tried to find a way to counter this, but there was none in this build. I watched Protoss there do some truly impressive force field micro tricks, but they were just hopelessly overwhelmed by the masses of lings and roaches. You can't stop the Zerg from expanding, and the masses of roaches and zerglings hit before the higher tech units like DT, storm or colossus are available. I mean you could probably build 10 cannons, but then Zerg just expands again. Against the end this was probably the most obvious imbalance in the build.
Now I am not saying I don't like this queen mechanic, not at all, I love it. But it shows that balancing it will be very tough. And we just timed hatches and queens however we felt like, with some proper research you could surely optimise this to get safe Zerg openings that would kick start your economy even better. The whole larvae mechanic made Zerg a whole lot more interesting.
I heard Zerg is weakest in Blizzard inhouse testing, and I am wondering whether they are really exploring the potential of the queen (they are not judging from BR#3).
Since every competitive game later that weekend ended in Protoss being overrun it's hard to judge how they do in a "fair" fight. A few key things though: Dark templar are a nightmare for Zerg. You just have to build Spores everywhere, individually upgrading your Overlords to be detectors and placing them correctly is so much effort just to not die to 1 unit. However, DT tech is way later than in Broodwar, usually Zerg can prepare.
Mutas are very strong against Protoss, archons seem to be the only direct counter. With a properly timed muta build you can keep your opponent at home for a long time. And since there are no corsairs you can probably just keep buildings mutas.
The colossus finally rapes. Like, really. It has a range upgrade which out ranges everything except the siege tank. With +1 attack it one-shots workers, marines, and zerglings. It is incredibly expensive though and takes forever to build - and it still needs a lot of support troops.
Ultralisks were very disappointing. One game I had a Broodwar game ending army of 12 ultras and 50 lings. They just disappeared charging into the Protoss army.
Protoss vs Terran
There is not much to say about TvP as not much has changed since last time. Similar to Blizzcon, this matchup seems very balanced. Basically it can be summed up with "make a lot of units". On the Terran side it's all about marauders, supported by marines and ghosts (EMP). Protoss fields zealots, stalkers and immortals (which are beastly!), supported by storm and later colossus.
Early marine/marauder (zatic build :-)) is still very strong against Protoss although zealots seem to be better against it this time. Oh, and Charge seemed even stronger this time, it's like the zealots just teleport into your infantry forces.
Mid game battles are nice to watch, Terran trying to place perfect EMPs and Protoss trying to fry masses of marines in psi storm.
Something I missed from Broodwar TvP is that BW TvP is so unforgiving to wrong unit combinations. You don't have enough vultures, your entire tank army just vanishes and the game is over. In SC2 TvP unit composition is not nearly as important.
Terran vs Zerg
Like Blizzcon: TvZ has become so weird. With medivacs, reapers, and raven (the new Science Vessel) Terran has the most mobile forces of all three races. Surprise reaper raids are devastating. They throw those mines that blow up after two seconds and are enough to kill of buildings with a couple of volleys. The mines come with a 20 second cool down. The pistols tear apart lings and drones. On LT it was pitiful to watch Zerg being demolished by reapers which would just jump on the cliff without taking hits, throw a volley of mines down on the defenders, jump back and kill drones in seconds.
With good multitasking you could harass the Zerg endlessly while you take your nat, get marine upgrades, 5 raxxes and 2 ports and start pumping medivac/marine.
Upgraded and stim'd marines just kill everything Z throws at you. All the nice baneling tricks don't matter at that stage because Terran just drops huge armies all the time. Why would they walk, their entire late game army just flies from base to base. Add the raven to the mix and Zerg is really screwed late game. Raven can drop auto-turrets with cool down, if you have your raven cloud late game and the multitasking you can cover the map in auto-turrets.
That is not to say that the matchup is really imbalanced though. Zerg just can't get lazy and can't let Terran build up this tech. Early ling / baneling pressure is a serious threat to Terran and forces them to build a lot of marines and spend a lot of attention just to defend. 2 banelings kill a depot and 1 a group of marines. You have to be very carefull early. And then there is the nydus of course. Don't pay attention for 10 seconds and your entire back base blows up in baneling acid. So threatening nydus / baneling backstabs is probably the most effective method to keep the Terran at home for a while. Still, Zerg will need something to counter those masses of flying marines even in the late game. In short, Zerg needs scourge back and everything would be fine :-).
Finally, this is a real problem still: There are units in the game that are just useless in a competitive setup, especially with Terran. Most prominent example is the hellion. It looks decent on paper - combined firebat and vulture? However, it does so little damage that you need 5+ do accomplish anything. And then it is impossible to micro, because it attacks in a continuous stream of fire, and only when standing still. There is simply no game situation where you would get to that critical mass of Hellions in time to deal significant damage.
Similarly with banshees. 6 or 7 of them 1 shot anything on the ground - but you will never be able to build that many in a typical game.
My explanation is that Terran infantry is just too good against anything. There is no metal anymore, it's either marines or marauders.
I hate to say it but even the Siege Tank felt kind of unnecessary. It was not really useless like the hellion but it was questionable if it's worth the money for Factories and addons.
Hell lot of fun to play, but serious work still needs to be done on the micro issues. Very promising beta adjustments ahead with the new Zerg larvae mechanics. Balancing and adjustments need to make useless units more viable. Terran has the most potential to be abused by good multitaskers. Protoss is still easy mode (haha) and has very good tech but suffers from strong timing attacks.
I could continue writing endlessly about everything but I only wanted to cover what changed since Blizzcon. Please ask any questions about the current gameplay in the comments though I will answer as best as I can.
Corrections to the macro description some users pointed out:
*1) You can call down mules directly on minerals, and they will start mining immediately
*2) Inject larvae is 25 energy but I guess that just recharges in time since I never ran out of queen energy