The StarCraft II beta is hopefully indicative of what the final multiplayer product will be like: fast, pick-up-and-play games where resource management down to the millisecond can spell your doom or provide you that one squad of units that brings you back from the brink of annihilation. It's an incredibly polished experience, helped along through a clean and efficient UI that doesn't clutter the screen and by a simple matchmaking system that only requires a few clicks to get into a match or join a group of players.
There are several different ways to get a match going in the beta. The first option is to take on the A.I., but, sadly, you can only set its difficulty to very easy, so it's no fun for seasoned players. The other two options include enlisting another human player as a partner for a 2-vs-2 game against two other human opponents and the more intimate 1-on-1 encounter. The problem here is that if you've never played StarCraft before -- or if you're like me and it's been so long that you might as well consider yourself a newbie -- there's almost no preparation for the merciless beatdown you're going to receive from veteran players. Seriously, most matches will probably end within the first ten minutes if any of the participants don't have a solid gameplan for those precious first few moments of the match; though the saved replays showing your enemies' steps to success do help.
So, get a friend or three and run some custom games first. You'll be able to choose from 14 different maps (some even have a novice version, so you don't have to worry about the units that can easily overcome obstacles like cliffs), and using voice chat (note: the in-game voice chat doesn't allow you to talk to the other team, so run Skype or something), you can all trade strategies and become masters in the crucial art of micro-management -- together. This kind of strategy-building provides a level of camaraderie and mutual growth most other games really can't offer.
Once you've got the basics down, it's time to pick a faction. Like in the original StarCraft, you've got access to three: Terran, Zerg and Protoss. The Terrans are the humans, which bend metal and fire to their will; while the bug-like Zerg species produces cheap troops at an alarming rate and covers the ground in a black, vile substance called Creep -- which allows them to build more structures, while simultaneously preventing you from doing the same over the covered area. Then there's the Protoss, a race of religious zealots that utilizes a combination of advanced technology and powerful psionic capabilities to essentially warp structures and the like from one place to another.
Each race has its benefits and, even though you'll discover there are a handful of new abilities and troops to use, each feels very familiar. Some of the updates include: all Zerg units now being able to burrow; Terrans replacing Firebats with Helions, fast buggies with flamethrowers; and the Protoss Zealots receiving a speed upgrade that makes them much faster than in the first game and gives them a dash to quickly attack nearby enemies.
Still, Terrans are remain the most balanced of the races and feature an assortment of inexpensive, weak units on up to the hulking metal monstrosity that is the Thor, a bi-ped mech that can lay waste to just about any ground-based troop. The Zerg again focus on larva-based construction, continuously pumping out little worm-like creatures that can progressively morph into bigger and better units (such as the new Queen, a tough defensive unit that can be upgraded twice to make her one tough customer for invading forces), provided you have the appropriate structures. As for the Protoss, they're the most difficult race to manage, but the payoff for skilled players is worth it. They now have Warp Gates which allow them to surprise the enemy by instantly dropping a plethora of troops into the given vicinity. Also, the Protoss still rule the skies, with a range of heavy airships.
Despite the changes, the gained and lost abilities, StarCraft II is very similar to the first game. The Zerg may rush you, but their Zerglings are easily crushed if you manage your resources effectively and produce the right troops early on (Helions gobble them up). And the Protoss may seem like they're only for the most skilled players, but I've seen a handful of Zealots take down an entire colony without batting an eyelash -- actually, do they even have eyelashes? Regardless, practice makes perfect, and a big part of the fun is discovering for yourself what works and what doesn't.
Honestly, I don't want to start spewing fanboy propaganda at you, but the StarCraft II beta has only served to amplify my need for the final release. It has its faults, mainly concerning the A.I. and an incredibly steep learning curve, and you can't adjust the camera (which is zoomed in too far) -- not to mention the lack of any playable single-player missions -- but the beta is strong evidence that Blizzard's painstakingly long development time has not been in vain. The graphics, clean, minimalistic UI and accessible party and matchmaking systems create one damn fine package -- and if you've got friends in the beta, the fun grows exponentially. Go get some!
Editor's note: StarCraft II beta code provided by Blizzard.