If not for a little game called Twilight Princess, StarCraft: Ghost would have been my pick for Best of the Show at this year's E3. What a night and day difference from last year's demo, where the controls were rather clunky, the action felt sluggish, and the stealth seemed too twitchy. One wrong turn and Nova, our intergalactic femme fatale would be up to her neck in Zerg and dead before she could get off a shot. Blizzard must have took note of the reactions, because they quickly swapped out former Ghost developer Nihilistic and handed the reins to Swingin' Ape, the team that produced cult favorite Metal Arms (also known as the Greatest Third-Person Shooter of All Time).
Right there, that had me breathing a huge sigh of relief. But if you need further reassurance that the StarCraft franchise is not going to be lead astray in this transition from real-time strategy to third-person stealth/shooter action, look no further than the new build on display this year. It's obvious that Swingin' Ape has been working hard during the ten months they've been on the project, and there was a sign right before E3 that they must've been doing something right...Blizzard was so confident in their work that they recently bought the developers and made them a permanent part of the company.
So what's new-and-improved about Ghost? For one thing, a full-fledged multiplayer mode. This was on display front and center at Blizzard's booth, with several huge screen displays mounted high above the floor. We're talking full Xbox Live support, PS2 support over Blizzard's Battlenet, and an array of gameplay modes and battle classes that you'd expect from an online FPS. There's team slayer style matches, capture the building, and a moveable base territory-capturing mode reminiscent of the original RTS. At present time, all modes were four on four for a total of eight players, though this may change. Unfortunately for GameCube owners, that version may not have a multiplayer mode at all.
As for the single player game, it's been completely overhauled. The enemies sport brand new AI, there's an all-new physics engine, a new animation system, a new particle system, and a new character engine. The game now strikes an even balance between action and stealth, with liberal opportunities to get the lead out as well as skulk through the shadows. There's a hip new RE4-style over the shoulder aiming system, or you can even play the entire game from a first-person perspective. The whole dynamic of the game has been rebalanced and its underlying mechanics overhauled. What hasn't changed? Well, Nova's character model looks largely the same and a few of the level designs are roughly intact.
That's about it.
There's an increased focus on vehicles in Swingin' Ape's reinvention, with all the fan favorites from the StarCraft universe making an appearence. The Vulture, Commander, Siege Tank and other iconic vehicles will be included, as well as new creations like the Stinger Buggy and the Grizzly aircraft.
If there was one thing people remembered about Metal Arms (the few and proud who played it), it was the wacky but brutally effective arsenal at the disposal of the hero, Glitch. "The weapons in Ghost are not as ‘out there,' " says a Swingin' Ape rep, "since most of them are based on arms from the series." So while Nova won't be flinging around ripper buzzsaws or tossing explosive coring charges like Glitch, she will get to rock a flamethrower, shotgun, assault rifle, and secondary items like the lockdown device (shuts down vehicles like an EMP) and the tagging device, which calls in an air strike (bringing to mind Pandemic's Mercenaries).
Nova carries only two weapons at a time, but she can upgrade them periodically by finding scopes and other powerups in crates. There's also a possibility a recruiter grenade type weapon will be implemented (which allowed you to convert foes into AI allies in Metal Arms).
Metal Arms was a game that had a distinct Halo influence on its control scheme, and that was a very good thing. I like that control setup so much that I'm annoyed when a console FPS doesn't control like Halo. Ghost's controls are very similar to Metal Arms', except that the left trigger activates Nova's currently equipped psionic power instead of tossing grenades or secondary weapons, and the d-pad quick selects which psi power is being used.
Ah, those Psionic Powers, crucial to both kicking butt and staying stealthy. Nova's ocular implants allow her to see in a sort of infrared vision, right through objects and walls. Enemies in her line of sight show up in blue, while those behind something show up red. This proves very useful in the dark, or when trying to sneak up behind someone who is around a corner or taking cover from your fire. The other psi power on display in the demo was a time slowdown ability that makes it much easier to maneuver around charging enemies. Psionic powers aren't unlimited, however. Nova's power gauge will slowly drain as she uses them, and she can either allow them to regenerate gradually when not in use, or recover them faster by standing still and "concentrating." Swingin' Ape promises more cool psi powers and special use abilities in the final game.