StarCraft Reader Review
There are many places in life which are unwelcoming. Gymnasiums are one example, filled with skinny protein munchers who scoff at your flabby cheeks and curry flecked T-shirt as you mount your preferred device of torture. Local pubs are another, often unfriendly places to anyone who was born with the correct number of facial features. So too is the world of Starcraft; the dominion of caffeine-injected Korean teenagers, furious competition, and a history steeped in gaming lore where rank amateurs are chewed up and spat out.
But at the same time, we always find ourselves flocking back, don't we? Christmas comes around, and the bulging waistline sends us digging behind the sofa for our discarded gym membership. February arrives, and a “2-for-1 Cocktails” poster outside “The Goose and Waistcoat” sees you and your mates crammed in alongside Billy “Bone Crusher” Henderson, knocking back cheap vodka cut with lethal quantities of Robinson's Fruit and Barley. And of course there are those glorious days in July, when a sequel is released which steals the focus away from the original game. The hardcore masses flock to pastures new. The gates to the forbidden palace swing open once more.
For those of you like me, who have given Starcraft a wide berth over the years, let me quickly bring you up to speed. You choose from one of 3 playable races, loosely based on the iconic stars of the “Aliens vs. Predator” franchise, and then follow the typical harvest-build-destroy mechanic in your fascist quest for racial supremacy. So far, so RTS; where's the twist? But of course there is none. Back when Dana International was rocking Eurovision you didn't need a fancy gimmick to distinguish yourself from the chasing pack, you just needed strong unit composition, careful balancing, and some semblance of a narrative. In this respect, Starcraft hits the mark perfectly on all 3 counts.
To begin with, the three sides snugly fit their archetypes and genuinely require the player to adopt a style which maximises their strengths and minimises their weaknesses. The Terran (read “Colonial Marines”) are slow, ponderous, but powerful in attack and rock solid in defence. Meanwhile the Zerg (Aliens) rely on massive numbers and kamikaze-style rushing, whilst the Protoss (the other ones, begins with a “P”, come on you know it really!) set themselves apart with tricks and subterfuge, incapacitating their enemies before pummelling them into oblivion. The design is faultless, but that is largely due to the underlying game mechanics which owe a debt of gratitude to Blizzard's earlier Warcraft series.
Like it's brethren, Starcraft lifts several established concepts from the RPG universe – levelling, spell casting, recharging Mana – and transplants them perfectly into the genre. The levelling system keeps the basic units relevant even after the late-game behemoths arrive on the field, and the spells open up a vast array of tactical possibilities that were revolutionary at the time and have become the de facto ever since. In a tongue wagging gesture to their rivals, Blizzard demonstrates a strong commitment to their own RTS heritage, opting for diversity and variety over the tightly reigned “rock-paper-scissors” approach.
This fact is most evident in the units themselves, and a vertical slice from the Protoss armoury reveals the lowly space samurai at one end of the spectrum, progressing upwards through artillery caterpillars until you hit pay dirt; a humongous Zeppelin, capable of spewing endless waves of small attack fighters onto the battlefield. As with the Zerg and Terran, many of these units serve multiple functions, and the complex interactions between them offer up a degree of creativity that lends itself perfectly to the multiplayer arena.
Unfortunately this is the point where Starcraft's dark reputation rears it's unforgiving head, and little has changed here despite the arrival of the sequel. Your brief forays into the exemplary BattleNet service will often leave you battered, beaten, confused, and somewhat embarrassed. The cries of Noob! often erupt before your finger has properly come to rest on the left mouse button and, as you are duly steam rolled within the first 4 minutes, their taunts are cruelly vindicated. Thankfully though, there's enough packed into the off-line experience to more than justify the £10 online-purchase from the Blizzard Store, which includes the Brood Wars expansion pack.
Two single player campaigns are on offer and despite a few rough edges, the overall package is much better than you would expect from a game of this vintage. Blizzard knits together a yarn filled with memorable characters and a somewhat convoluted - but passable - narrative. Each race has 10 missions per campaign while an overarching story binds the three disparate threads together into one glorious space opera. There is a recommended sequence to the proceedings but if you are completely stuck then it's possible to ditch the plot altogether and hop between the three races at your leisure.
Generally the missions are bread and butter fare, but Blizzard spice things up in the expansion pack, producing several gems that will tax your puzzle solving abilities as well as your tactical aptitude. The difficulty curve is pretty good and on “Normal” you will rarely find your base in peril as you go about unpicking the knotted enemy defences. In fact the biggest test to your mettle will take place against the woeful path finding routines, an unwelcome nod to Starcraft's veritable old age.
The passing of time is seldom kind to a game, and although the graphics and audio successfully maintain a degree of retro charm, the same cannot be said of Starcraft's interface. A downright bizarre design decision (in a game which features artillery caterpillars) limits the player to selecting a maximum of 12 units at once, forcing the use of hot-keys and grouping to manoeuvre your wayward troops around the battlefield. Throw in a handful of micro-management intensive spell casters and all this adds up to a crippling headache. On many occasions you will watch in damned resignation as a mix-up between hot-keys leaves your charging hordes frozen in their tracks whilst your shamans splurge their stored Mana on the wartime equivalent of yanking a plastic bouquet from a rabbit's backside. The enemy army marches on obliviously, and your mouse pointer slowly descends to the menu button. Quit to desktop. Take a deep breath.
In these darker moments you will understand why only a pre-pubescent with cat-like reflexes has any hope of taming such a fickle mistress, but you also discover what it is about the game that has kept it relevant over all these years. Like Chess or Scrabble, Starcraft takes a simple concept then expands it out into a series of complex game mechanics, allowing you to invest as much time and effort as you see fit, whether that be tinkering with the single player campaign or juicing up on Smarties to raise your average APM (if you are not familiar with this term then count yourself lucky). Blizzard have built upon their own Warcraft philosophy to create a genuine masterpiece which is no less enjoyable today than it was 13 years ago. If you have never tried this crowning slice of gaming history for fear of rebuke then I implore you to give it a go. After all, it's easier than going back to the gym.