Game Review: StarCraft (PC, 1998)

StarCraft is a genre-defining game, it’s effectively the national sport of South Korea, and it was the beginning of a phenomenon unlike any other. Although it was released nearly 15 years ago, the upcoming expansion to its sequel prompted me to revisit its roots. What followed was a 14-hour journey through one of my childhood favorites.

For the record, I don’t think it’s worth reviewing games given their contemporary world, instead opting to review a game based on my thoughts as I play it – in the case of this StarCraft review, that means I’ll be looking at it through the eyes of a gamer in 2013 instead of 1998. Sure, this approach means that my reviews will lose something over time, as “timeless” features may become obsolete and nostalgia fluctuations may give classics different spins, but I think it’s a more honest approach. I can’t accurately convey the excitement of engaging the Zerg swarms for the first time in the late nineties, and no gamer will be able to experience that rush again given the evolution of the industry in the last decade-and-a-half.

So, for better or worse, fair or not, here are my thoughts on the original StarCraft on the eve of the release of Heart of the Swarm:

First the basics: StarCraft puts you in control of a military outpost and tasks you with harvesting raw materials, developing technology, and raising an army to crush your foes. It’s a real-time strategy (RTS) game, meaning quick decisions and quicker reflexes are necessary to outsmart and outmaneuver the opposition.

Through the campaign, you’ll control one of three species – the cunning humans (the Terrans), the viscous swarms of the Zerg, or the technologically superior Protoss. Each race has its own strengths and weaknesses, giving different experiences and requiring different strategies.

The single-player mode is divided into three parts, with one 10-mission campaign for each of the races. Starting with the Terrans, you’ll learn the basics of each race and get a chance to deal with each possible matchup. Although the story of three campaigns are chronologically ordered, you do have the option of jumping to the race you want to play and skipping the other campaigns, if you want, which is definitely a nice feature.

These days, the StarCraft mythos is pretty complex, but only a portion of that complexity is available in the original game. We see examples of political intrigue and bitter enemies, but the majority of the game’s exposition happens in the first act (the Terran campaign). There are details about harsh political struggles within the Terran Dominion and how the Terran leaders are dealing with the sudden arrival of two sentient (and hostile) alien species, and we learn a lot about the StarCraft universe in those first 10 missions.

In the other two campaigns, there’s a lot less detail and a lot more repetition. We don’t learn as much about the internal workings of the Protoss civilization or the Zerg hierarchy, and what little we do hear happens several times. To make matters worse, there are hints at some awesome backstory that is never explored. The lack of detail in what are arguably the more interesting campaigns is disappointing.

On the other hand, each of the campaigns has a self-contained story arc. The later campaigns build on the earlier ones, using the other campaigns’ events as a backdrop for a new conflict, but each campaign focuses on a particular struggle and follows it to its conclusion. It’s great to be able to see the StarCraft universe from three different perspectives, each with its own biases and goals, and the end result is some knowledge of the inner workings of each of the races.

While the voice acting is pretty darned good (the script isn’t always stellar, but it’s never really cringe-worthy, either), and some of the sound effects are iconic, the graphical style hasn’t aged very well. Pre-rendered cutscenes are obviously very dated, and although they’re not terrible, they’re not quite as good at conveying the tone as they could be. In-game graphics are similarly old-school, using blocky sprites and jagged animations, but the graphical quality never affects the gameplay itself, so it’s not a serious problem.

While the old graphical presentation may be the most obvious flaw in the modern market, the most disappointing part of replaying a classic like StarCraft is the dated gameplay. While the basic mechanics are the same as any good RTS game these days (even better than some), there are small features that really stick out as frustrating in the modern gaming world.

First is the fact that you can only select 12 units at a time. In many cases, you’ll need to control 20 units or more simultaneously, which means that you’ll need to issue many commands, quickly switching between small groups of units, as opposed to a single command to one group as in modern RTS games. This system presents an awfully high mechanical barrier for new players to overcome, encouraging strong defensive tactics until you can build an army of your race’s most powerful unit instead of making full use of the technology tree. It’s frustrating to feel like the game’s control scheme is getting in the way, and that definitely happens in StarCraft on occasion.

Second, the unit AI is downright silly at times. Pathing is generally terrible, such that units will follow long, winding paths to reach their destinations instead of the most direct route, and they will interact with each other in complicated (and almost always sub-optimal) ways, like pacing back and forth behind other units instead of moving around them to go forward. It can be a huge pain to deal with these weird dances, particularly when one well-placed unit could mean the difference between a successful battle and a humiliating defeat.

Interestingly, these control flaws have proven useful for StarCraft as a really competitive game. Truly skilled players can separate themselves from the rest by expertly overcoming these control hurdles, making for an exciting spectator sport, but it’s never good to alienate new players with clunky control schemes.

StarCraft also features an expansive custom game system, allowing you to play deathmatches against computer-controlled opponents, to challenge your friends online, or to play some silly user-made maps with custom triggers. The map editor comes with the game, giving creative gamers a chance to develop something fun for others to enjoy. It’s a really cool system, and the multiplayer gives the game a huge number of additional options, but the online community is ever-dwindling as StarCraft loyalists move into StarCraft II. Even so, the custom map features are exceptional even by today’s standards.

StarCraft is one of the respectable elders of the gaming world. The ideas contained within it have spawned numerous imitators, so much so that its name is almost synonymous with “real-time strategy game.” Even though it’s growing ever closer to the age of consent, it’s still a fun, challenging game with lots of options. Its flaws may deter new players, though, so if you’re not already a fan of the RTS genre or the StarCraft series specifically, you probably want to start with a different title.

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