Yeah, okay, so it's Warcraft in space. So what? The hype from Blizzard is that this is the best real-time strategy game ever created. And as a complete package, you'd have to make a pretty good argument to punch holes in the veracity of that statement. StarCraft is a beautifully constructed, well-written and engaging romp through the galaxy. But somehow, I expected something different. With all the numerous delays, we were led to believe that StarCraft was going to be a generational leap in innovation for the genre. Far from it in fact, but once you get playing, you won't care it hasn't redefined the genre like Cavedog's Total Annihilation. Other than the hardened pundits, such as myself, everyone will be having way too much fun to notice. The game is just so well done.
StarCraft deftly follows an interwoven plot between the three dominant races in the Galaxy, which is represented by three separate episodes in the single player game. There is an extensive backstory for each race in the manual, but the real story takes place within the confines of the game. You can play any of the three episodes in any order but you are well advised to follow the story sequentially. If you don't, you'll be cheating yourself of the fun involved.
Big Story, Big Fun
To make a long story short, Episode 1 deals with the Terran plight when the insect-like Zerg, are drawn to the Terran homelands by the long latent but progressing psionic abilities of some humans. The Zerg are a race that assimilates genetic code and then mutates and evolves the strongest strains at an alarming rate. The humans are their latest targets and their timing couldn't be any better. The various worlds of the Terran sector are in internal turmoil. The main governmental body, The Terran Confederacy, is oppressive and brutal. The various outworlds and dissident factions, including the Sons of Korhal, are on the brink of civil war. When the Zerg overruns the colony of Chau Sara, and the Confederates do nothing to save the planet, the seeds of war flower.
Players will mostly center themselves on the actions of Jim Raynor, a former Confederate Marshall who becomes one the major leaders for the Sons of Korhal. As the story progresses, Jim and his forces will need to fend off the Zerg troops and still break down the military might of the Confederacy.
Off in the background are the Protoss, who have been watching humanity with silent eyes for generations.
Episode 2 is the story of the Zerg. So as not to reveal the tasty elements of the story all you need to know is this. The Zerg hopes to assimilate all. They are the Borg of this universe. Humans are their first target, but the final glory lies in defeating the Protoss. It happens that the Zerg and the Protoss were fathered by the same race.
Long ago a mysterious race called the Xel'Naga started a series of genetic experiments to create the perfect species. First of these were the Protoss, advanced in telepathic abilities, and very adaptable to their surroundings. However, the Protoss became proud and individualistic, eventually descending into a prolonged era of strife. The Xel'Naga abandoned the Protoss as failures and left them to their own devices.
Next, they developed the Zerg. So as not to run into the same problems of individualism and pride, the Xel'Naga engineered the Zerg to answer only to the collective whole. A hive structure was created and the entire race was governed by the Overmind. But, once again, the Xel'Naga's children progressed and grew beyond their control. The Overmind, once instinctual and semi-sentient, became master of its own thoughts and eventually turned on its masters. The Xel'Naga disappeared from history when the Zerg assimilated them and all of their ancient knowledge. Since then they have spread across the Galaxy swallowing all in their path.
Episode 3 is that of the Protoss. The Protoss have become an enlightened and deeply spiritual people. They have designated themselves as the careful guardians of the galaxy, silently watching over the younger races. When the humans arrived in their sector, they were intrigued. But slowly they were horrified by the Terrans' blatant disregard for the balance of nature. Abhorrent as the humans were, the Protoss were not allowed to interfere and stood back as the Terrans raped their worlds. Then the Zerg arrived. Knowing the inherent threat posed by the Zerg, the Protoss Templar Tassadar was ordered to incinerate the Zerg infestation on Chau Sara, sparing neither Zerg nor Terran. When Tassadar was ordered to incinerate a second planet, he began to question the morality of the action. The third episode deals with the fallout of Tassadar's refusal and the final confrontation between the two siblings.
In many ways the story is best part of the game. Although it's a bit derivative (the writers have watched too much Babylon 5, I think) the progression throughout the game is really quite excellent. To help with the story telling is top-notch voice acting and some truly spectacular, darkly humorous, CG clips. The artists at Blizzard have a great eye for framing and some of the CG images will stay with you for quite some time.
It is in the gameplay that we thought we'd see a big difference between this and WarCraft, or any other real-time strategy game for that matter. Well it isn't there, and it's not such a bad thing. The interface and the way the dependencies work will be familiar enough to those that have played the Human League or the Orcish Hordes. But StarCraft has done much more to make the gameplay sing, and it ultimately provides some mighty huge depth. To start with, the very fact that there are three sides to the game, instead of the generally accepted number of two, provides a huge boon to the depth of the game. Better yet, each of the three races are considerably different in the way that their dependencies, units, energy consumption, and strategies work. It's the best that gaming has seen yet and to top it all off there is great balance between all three.
As I progressed through the game I found my favorite race, although only by degrees. I grooved on the absolutely ruthless nature in which the Zerg work. What I liked was that the nature of the hive allows players to spread their base across the map. And when I say spread, I do mean spread. The Zerg consume the planet's surface with an ooze called "the creep". Other than the hatchery, all structures in the Zerg hierarchy have to be built on the creep. The creep won't go everywhere but if you're smart you can dominate the map with purple ooze and dot the area with defensive structures such as sunken or spore colonies to help cut through any attacking forces. While the creep keeps the enemy at bay, or at least busy, you can punch out huge hordes of cheap Zerglings, and a support network of the some of the meaner mutations produced in the hive.
There is a dizzying array of things to do to meet your objectives. All of the races have ways to airlift troops anywhere on the map making flanking maneuvers a breeze. All have some manner of cloaking abilities or they can tag units with beacons. This way you can do some nasty espionage (Human Ghosts), find out about main troop movements (Zerg Queens can lay a parasite on units and see through their eyes), or stage and hide a massive force close to the enemy (by way of Protoss Arbiters). And, of course, all sides have lumbering heavy assault units and weapons of mass destruction readily available for a frontal assault.
The key to each race's power is in constantly upgrading and adding-on to the abilities of each structure and unit. Each successive upgrade adds more armor, more firepower, and more secondary abilities. You'll want them all, because the magic in the game lies in its diversity.
I could go on and on about the various ways to take out an enemy. Suffice it to say that when I first started the game I was interminably bored. The basic powers of the humans and the way the game played felt a lot like Westwood's Command and Conquer. I loved that game but I've played it to death. Give me something new. New I got. StarCraft may not be innovative, but it is very cool. By the time I was using Siege Tanks and Science Vessels (is that Mr. Burns in there?) I was in love with the game. And I can't tell you how the Zerg enhanced that love even further.
The crux of the game, however, lies in the way that the game is played on-line, or over a network with a bunch of friends / enemies. Blizzard is a savvy veteran in this field and they have certainly delivered the goods. The game is uniformly excellent anyway you play it. It plays smoothly, you can expect to find a matchup anywhere, and, already at the outset, Blizzard has offered up a dizzying array of maps and gameplay options. Free for alls, great team play, capture the flag, multiplayer campaigns, ladders� name your poison. If you're not happy with the defaults, you can tweak the rules of war to fit kills, technology levels and the amount of time in which you play. All that has been learned about the way that we play with other people has been cunningly added to StarCraft and we salute you Blizzard.
Another glowing aspect of StarCraft is its absolutely brilliant Campaign Editor. This is the very best make-your-own game interface ever made. It's extremely easy to use and very deep. Not only can you build your own maps for multiplayer games but you can also construct a complete campaign using the tools at hand. The replay value that this generates goes way beyond any of the editors we've seen in the past. The coolest aspect of this is the ability to map events to certain places, units, structures or objectives. You can then import any sound that you want to the event, customizing not only the map and way that you play it but also the speech, and sound effects that pepper the gameplay. I don't doubt that the first thing most people are going to do is to create uncensored, bluer-than-a-sailor's-mouth sound sets but as the months progress, I think we're going to see some highly sophisticated creations. More than one person is going to find a job in the industry thanks to this editor.
Yep, She's a Classic
StarCraft has lived up to much of its promise in that it fits very nicely in the must-have category of games. Over the course of this year you are going to see 1001 different real-time strategy games vying for your dollar. Each of them will say that they are "the best" and "the next level of real-time combat". Most of them just won't have experience on their side to back up the hype. Blizzard does, and once again developers will be looking to StarCraft and Cavedog's Total Annihilation as the models by which all other games in the genre should be built. StarCraft may not be the next generation of the genre but it is easily the current pinnacle of how good it can be.