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Written by  :  Maw (884)
Written on  :  Oct 01, 2007
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Good but annoyingly overrated

The Good

Starcraft is the most popular of Blizzard's strategy games, and is one of a handful of games that has gone beyond being merely popular and become a legitimate pop culture phenomenon, from the professional gaming scene in Korea (where Starcraft matches are broadcast on national television) to the much-publicized death of a 28 year old man after a day-long stint spend playing Starcraft.

Despite being a cultural zeitgeist, Starcraft is a fairly modest game. Prior to the game's release some critics called the game "orcs in space" (jeez, I wouldn't want to be those guys now) and while most Starcraft fans would disagree they did have a point in that the game is mostly an updated version of Warcraft 2 with new graphics and revised gameplay. A Warcraft 2 fan could jump in and play without even reading the manual. The resource-collecting system is the same, and so is the way the player "techs up" in the game (basically, some buildings require a certain technology to be researched and some units require a building, in this way the player advances through the game, unlocking all the cool stuff as he goes). Starcraft is a very conservative game.

What makes Starcraft so great? Simply put, it is the first strategy game to successfully integrate a story into the gameplay. As I'll explain, this is no mean feat, and I don't think any other strategy game has managed it as well as Starcraft has.

A short word on storytelling in RTS games. This has traditionally been the genre's most lacking attribute. Many games (like Total Annihilation and Age of Empires) have dispensed with stories altogether, and the games that have tried to include them (Warcraft 2 and Command & Conquer) frankly have the emotional impact of a get-well card The genre just isn't designed with storytelling in mind. In -- say -- an FPS game it is no issue, as you are seeing the action through the eyes of a character and creating dramatic tension from that perspective is the easiest thing in the world. In an RPG or adventure game you become that character, so you might as well be watching an interactive movie or reading an interactive book. But how do you put a story in a strategy or simulation game? Or develop believable characters? Sanitarium copped flak because its isometric perspective distances you from the character you are playing as, and the problem is about ten times worse in the average strategy game, where the guts of the game are designed to allow you to command soldiers and build bases with ease rather than allow you to emotionally identify with anything on the screen. Trying to put a story into a strategy game is like trying to put a story into Monopoly or Risk; the framework for constructing a narrative just isn't there.

The two seminal RTS games, Command & Conquer and Warcraft 2, took a "hands off" approach to storytelling. You'd play a set-piece mission, then have the story progressed to via text messages or FMV cut scenes. It was like playing a game of chess and then watching a dramatic re-enactment of the game afterwards on the screen. This worked well for games at the time, but had its limitations. For one thing, the game was divided into two aspects (gameplay and story) that often clashed and never felt like a seamless, organic whole. For another, the player never felt like he was a full participant in an interactive, on-going story. He felt like an onlooker who was playing completely unrelated missions and then having a story spoon-fed to him.

Blizzard, with the release of Starcraft, realised that if you wanted to suck the player in to a believable, realistic word and make him care about characters, a text message or film clip every now and then would not suffice. In what may be compared to Half Life, they took the step of merging story and gameplay together as one. Plot developments happen as you are playing the game, and important characters are represented as "heroes" who can directly affect the outcome of the story. Starcraft, in one 30-hour game, introduces a sprawling tapestry of plot lines, characters, and worlds worthy of Star Wars. It isn't quite as efficient or engaging as an adventure or RPG (it is still foremost a strategy game), but it is a success -- a thousand fan fictions can attest to that. This idea for a plot-driven RTS was new at the time, and like all good ideas it seemed self-evident as soon as it was done.

Moving on to gameplay, Starcraft is a streamlined, fast-paced RTS. It's about speed and click-reflexes rather than complex strategies and planning. On a 1vs1 map between two equally skilled players, there's every possibility the game will be over by the five-minute mark (compared with, say, Age of Empires 2, where you will seldom be fighting before the 10 minute mark). Like Warcraft 2, this gave Starcraft a powerful selling point in its multiplayer, and not long after the game's release the overwhelming majority of people on were playing Starcraft.

But unlike many multiplayer-oriented games (i.e. Quake 3) Starcraft did not neglect single player fans. The campaigns that come with the game are masterpieces, even better than the Warcraft 2 ones. There are the usual "build up from scratch" missions, other missions where you have a base already built up and must go hell for leather against a huge enemy army, and even some pseudo-RPG missions (which smack of Diablo) where you control a fixed group of soldiers and must infiltrate an enemy base. And since it is being driven along by the best story yet seen in a strategy, you'll come back to the campaigns again and again. There's also a solid skirmish mode where you spar against a computer-controlled opponent. Yes, the AI is much improved from Blizzard's Warcraft 2 days and this mode is actually worth playing.

Starcraft is not nearly as innovative as Warcraft 2 or Total Annihilation but still contains some worthwhile gameplay concepts. The most notable of these is the way the races in the game are balanced. There are three playable races, all of whom are different. By different I don't mean they get different soldiers and buildings or whatever, I mean they are completely different to the extent that playing as Protoss compared to playing as Zerg is like a whole new game. Terran are the most versatile of the three races, they can build anywhere, cloak or stimpack their units, and relocate their own buildings if necessary. The Protoss are powerful and possess near-godlike technology, but are few in number and are not very adaptive. The Zerg have large numbers of cheap, weak units and rely on sheer force of numbers to overwhelm their enemies. All three races are perfectly balanced and have a wide variety of options on different maps.

Like all Blizzard games, Starcraft gives you a very intuitive way of controlling your units. You can order them to move somewhere (meaning they walk straight to their destination) or attack-move (which is the same, except they attack everything in their path). You can also put them on automatic patrol, if there is a large area of land that needs guarding. Many tasks are completely automatic (you can right-click an area and a unit will perform the task that seems most appropriate, whether it is harvest resources, repair something, or whatever). Unit AI is spot-on and you'll rarely have to waste time redirecting lost units.

Another valued innovation was the ability to record games as "replays" that can be viewed and shared with other players. This fostered the pro-gaming scene as games between skilled players could be recorded for posterity and new players can upload their own replays for critiquing and comments. This feature was quickly adopted by other games and has become commonplace since.

And in what has become a Blizzard hallmark, there's lots of pathos and humor. When you click your units they'll respond with hilariously generic action movie one-liners and pop culture references. When you click the "Help button" you'll get tips and advice mixed in with numerous stupid suggestions.

The Bad

Like Half-Life, Starcraft's hype has eclipsed the game itself. I really liked Starcraft, but I just don't get how people act like this game is curing disease. There's a lot of room for improvement in Starcraft, the game is hardly the perfection or pinnacle of the RTS genre. Starcraft does almost nothing new, and some things it actually does worse than other games of the time.

Firstly the user interface sucks big rusty nails. In contrast to the clean, minimalist control panels of Dark Reign and Total Annihilation, Starcraft has a huge, awkward dashboard thing that swallows up about a third of the screen and is probably twice the size it needs to be. Look at the screenshots. And since the game is stuck at an unalterable 640x480, the result is a tiny, cramped play area. It's the kind of design that would make a modern UI designer cringe, wondering how Blizzard got away with such a horrible and inefficient design. It feels like playing a game through a freaking telescope.

The game's graphics are nothing to rave about, being merely average for the time period. The game's terrain is bland as hell (although the indoor levels are cool) mostly consisting of generic sand, rock etc textures, and there are no hills in Starcraft's landscape. Everything is flat. The sprites have a cartoony, hand-drawn look that is very out-of-place considering the game's setting, and the coarse resolution doesn't help things.

The game only lets you select and move 12 units at a time, and this gets very, very irritating. Come on guys, this isn't 1995. Age of Empires II lets you move 40 units at a time and Total Annihilation has no limit at all. I seem to recall Blizzard's rationale for this pointless limitation being something along the lines of "we don't want this to become a 'select a bunch of units and over-run the enemy' kind of game". how does only letting the player move 12 units at a time help things? At best it's a distracting nuisance that serves no purpose and screams "artificial limitation" even worse than Age of Empire's 50 unit population cap did.

But these are small nitpicks compared to the game's biggest issue: gameplay is horribly one-dimensional. In contrast to the near-infinite number of strategies or tactics that could be employed in Total Annihilation, Starcraft is a one-trick pony. This game is about rushes and more rushes. There's no point in planning ahead or experimenting: unless you can get 10 zerglings in your opponent's face by X minutes you will lose the game. It is true there are advanced strategies that can be employed at high levels of play (such as early probe attacks) but by and large the game's outcome is determined by rushing. Far from revolutionising the genre (or even evolving it) Starcraft's gameplay was a polished reversion to the dumber days of the strategy genre where victory was determined by who could click the mouse the fastest. Heck, the game gave a name to the practice of rushing, "zerging", which I suppose should say something about the predominance of the tactic.

Starcraft supported multiplayer exclusively through, which all things considered was little more than Mplayer with a GUI back in the day. It would have been nice if Blizzard had supported multiplayer through other, better platforms such as the MSN Gaming Zone, but that's just idle speculation.

The Bottom Line

Although its influence on the genre is undeniable, my take on Starcraft is that is a good but not great game that could be termed a victim of its own success. The only area it truly excels in is story, where it stands head and shoulders above the rest of its genre. If I had to rate the major 1997-2000 strategy games I'd put Age of Empires II first, Total Annihilation second, and Starcraft third. At the risk of angering Starcraft Luddites better games came out both before and since, and as far as I know the game does not cure cancer.