If you have ever spent any length of time with Blizzard's seminal 1998 RTS StarCraft, then the first time you sit down to a game of StarCraft II will feel like greeting an old friend all over again. Your friend may be older and wiser, he may have learned a few new tricks and may have changed over the years since you last saw him, but he's still unmistakably the same person he was an age and a half ago.
There is no mistake: This is StarCraft. I have put hours upon hours into the StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty multiplayer beta thus far, and in that time I have deployed Siege Tanks into Siege Mode, I have rushed opponents with a fleet of Zerglings, and I have constructed additional pylons. I have eked out narrow victories and seen my base consumed by the fires of defeat. And I have loved every flipping moment of it.
For the uninitiated - and as hard as it is to believe, there probably are some younger gamers out there not educated in the Gospel of Tassadar - StarCraft II is about as traditional and old-school as RTS games get. You train workers who harvest resources - in this case, special minerals and rare Vespene gas - which you then use to build a base and create an army to out-fight (and out-think) your foe. Matches in StarCraft II are usually fast and furious, though some protracted battles I've had can last upwards of half an hour (my record is almost 40 minutes for one game).
Here's how it all goes down: You log onto the shiny new Battle.net, and either browse for custom games or enter the matchmaking queue. In the final release version, you'll be able to search for 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, 4v4, and free-for-all matches; at the moment only 1v1, 2v2 and FFA are available for the testing. I almost always found a match within seconds, even when playing at the dead of early morning.
In the full release, it's easy to imagine that the single-player campaign will help act as a tutorial to teach you the basics of how StarCraft II works, but as it stands, it's rather unforgiving, especially if you're a newbie or if you haven't touched the original game in years. In your first few games, you'll likely get crushed, and there aren't any tools yet in place to show you how it's done - and the intense, frenetic pace of the game itself doesn't help any. Even if there were a tutorial, the fast-paced, twitchy action of StarCraft II still means that every thing you do counts, especially in the beginning of the game. Small mistakes early on can have large repercussions later down the line.
As with the first game, StarCraft II depends just as much on quick thinking and quick fingers as it does on your strategic planning. Preparation is certainly important, but in the words of Helmuth von Moltke, "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy." Battles can be - and are - won and lost depending on smart, accurate movement and use of abilities, which makes for some very hectic and engaging encounters as you frantically try to keep up with your foe, all the while making sure not to fall behind on your economy.
The original game was renowned for its splendid balance despite the incredible diversity between the three races, and while it still remains to be seen if StarCraft II has the former, it certainly possesses the latter in spades. Each of the three Escapist editors in the beta right now - Jordan Deam, Greg Tito, and myself - agreed to learn one of the game's three races to the best of our abilities; while I've been specializing in the Zerg, I've dabbled and played a few games as the other races. It really is striking how Blizzard has managed to keep the races so distinct from each other - not only in the raw mechanics of how they build units and structures, but in how they approach the game from a strategic point of view. (And in case you were wondering, Jordan has the Terrans and Greg the Protoss).