As those of you who follow my Twitter feed may already know, I somehow landed a spot in the Starcraft II beta. My best guess is that I got added to a list for leveling a Death Knight to 80 in the Wrath beta, though I suppose it could also have been random chance. I'm actually not the world's biggest Starcraft fan, in part because I'm not all that good at Starcraft, but I resolved to spend some time playing the beta anyway, just in case logging some hours helps my odds of a Cataclysm beta invite.
Revisiting Old Friends
Let's be perfectly clear - this game is basically Starcraft with better graphics, and, given how well that game is STILL selling over a decade later, that's high praise.
The three races are all back, and each has a few new tricks. Terran supply depots can now retract into the ground so that players can use them as barricades. A Protoss upgrade can teleport ground units into any location on the map that has Pylon power. The Zerg have several new ways to spread creep around quickly, without having to establish a new hatchery.
Many units are back and do the same thing that they did before. Others have been dismantled and had their abilities parceled out to other units - for instance, Terran drop ships are now Medi-vac ships, and come with the healing ability formerly found on medics. Overall, the tech trees feel streamlined but not in a simplified/dumbed down sort of way.
Accessibility and Gameplay
As an RTS, Starcraft can't really offer persistent rewards as an incentive to pad the agony of defeat in quite the same way that MMORPG battlegrounds can. Instead, they do their best to make it easier for players to learn to play and find appropriate opponents.
All of the maps come with a "novice" version, which seals off the entrance to player bases with a giant pile of rocks that someone has to blast away before ground units can pass. These things are a speed bump if you've got a decent sized army, but they do a reasonably good job at keeping other players from having half a dozen zerglings in your base inside of three minutes.
Meanwhile, the game has no more secrets. If the other guy DOES flood your base with a dozen hydralisks before the match is 10 minutes old, you get to see precisely how they pulled it off with the new post-match replay. There's a summary of what players built when, and a real-time replay that allows you to see what everyone is doing (including which units the player has selected, how he has them grouped, what their resource count is, etc).
Finally, a new matchmaking system is designed to herd players to the correct rating relative to their opponents. I'm still playing my calibration matches, so I don't know where I'm rated or how effective it will be after it's done, but the plan is clearly to try and arrange even competition. On the downside, you can't really do much of anything else while you're waiting for a match. I guess they're hoping that the sheer volume of players will keep things running at a decent clip, but having to sit and watch it search for several minutes feels painful after having the ability to go do other things in WoW while you wait for your PVP or dungeon queues to pop.
Fortunately, the "estimated time" has been relatively accurate, and never more than three minutes for me so far.
In some ways, this is a highly polished product. The graphics look great, the game runs smoothly, and I have yet to encounter any real bugs in the traditional sense of the word (e.g. crashing to desktop). The only thing that is not at all complete is single player (which will not be tested in the beta). You can set up a custom match between yourself and an AI opponent, but the only AI setting that's currently implemented is "build a few buildings, send the player something to kill every few minutes, and generally wait around for them to figure out what all the new buttons do". (The AI will actually say "gg" when you arrive in its base with a fleet of Carriers, only to discover that it decided it was going to build a dozen marines and stop at that.)
The real reason the beta exists to test balance for multi-player. I think there is some work to be done in this area - for instance, the Terrans have a new jet-pack trooper, who can jump straight up sheer cliffs, bypassing your base defenses and landing in the middle of your workers. This is a neat concept, but it seems very difficult to counter, in part because the troops can actually outrun most units in a foot race, even if they don't simply hop up some ledge where your troops can't follow them.
Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of the RTS genre. I'm not all that competitive, so I don't get that excited to know that I just beat someone. Meanwhile, the amount of multi-tasking that you get into when you're trying to manage an economy and an army gets to be more than I want to deal with many evenings. Even so, this revision of Starcraft was good enough to occupy several hours of my time to date, though I have no shortage of other games I could be playing.
In the end, Blizzard has a plan - near instant access to a match against someone who will be a relatively even foe for you. If they can pull it off, as it looks like they will, this game may exceed even its own hype.