Starcraft

How to take the familiar and still make it good

What makes a good game good? I suppose, in a way, this is what the reviews section is all about (along with what makes an awful game awful). But in the case of Blizzard's Starcraft-a very good, if outwardly rather conventional game-the question seems particularly apt. Why has a game that doesn't feature any significant advances or innovations kept me fastened to the computer for hours on end?

I suspect it's partly the very lack of those "advances." By virtue of simple, solid gameplay, Starcraft has managed to rise above a predictable approach and been-there-done-that mechanics, and the final product (much like Warcraft II in 1995) seems fresh and new. This feel is one of the things worth waiting for.

It doesn't look all that new. Starcraft is still essentially in ye olde 2D. It's Warcraft II in space (and on planets and occasionally inside large, confusing buildings). The controls could be right out of that celebrated fantasy strategy game-or out of any of the clones that have sprouted like weeds in this overgrown genre. Point, drag, click, and enjoy yourself.

You control Terran, Zerg, or Protoss forces in a series of progressively more difficult campaigns doing?well, pretty much the standard real-time strategy sort of stuff. That is, you collect minerals (blue crystals that amount to Starcraft's version of Warcraft's forests) and capture vented gases. These are the raw materials that enable you to build and upgrade a series of structures which, in turn, you use to feed the dogs of war. And, at length, you send the boys out to beat upon the heads of your less-than-charitable neighbors (if they don't come a-knockin' first). Not exactly a novel concept in April 1998.

So why aren't the scores up there in the corener higher?

Well, Starcraft manages to have a good deal of fun with its 1995 trappings. Partly, it's because playing those three sides isn't like playing different-colored versions of a single side thrice. While its structure remains similar from campaign to campaign, the game's principals are very different creatures. The Terrans, who've lost none of their native planet's ravenous hunger for resources, have the ability to uproot their buildings and transplant them. The Zerg, an insectoid bioweapon run amok, can burrow beneath the surface?and woe betide the Terran units that wander into their vicinity. And the old-timers in the neighborhood, the psychic Protoss, can perform what amounts to magic.

Another part of its success is pure pacing. The designers let you into the game in a careful, gradual manner, in which business feels like fun and vice versa. By the time I'd reached the fifth or sixth Terran mission-the recommended starting campaign-and started to struggle a bit, there was no turning back. I had been hooked by experts.

It also helps that they've built the story-a battle over Terran colonies with not a few twists and turns-tightly into the game. Yeah, yeah, every real-time strategy game tells a story, I suppose. But while Starcraft is at its chattiest during the intros to the 30 missions, the game proper isn't just build, battle, build, battle, build. You'll find characters taking a break at key junctures to reveal some new entanglement, and I felt as though they were talking to me. That's always a pleasant feeling. I'm even getting to like the key Terran character (one of the central players in the storyline). When was the last time you could say that about a character in a strategy game?

Warcraft II made good use of sound-remember the jolly, dumb replies from the peasants?-and it's a plus here too, even if some of the Terran factions don't seem to like the sound of your voice. Even when there's nothing much happening, you'll hear the agreeable sizzle of your SCV (the key Terran construction tool) at work in the crystal beds. The patter from your transport pilots (and, occasionally, the music) owes something to Alien, and I'm told other sci-fi homages turn up elsewhere.

The graphics are fine. They've got a bit of Diablo's shadowy isometric thing going for them. The 3D models used for the buildings are the best-looking I've seen since Dark Colony, and the multiple stages they progress through while under construction are realistic. The fuzzy fires from engines (which always ignite when they get underway) are just the right touch, and the glorious explosions don't look animated; they look like real-life miniatures.

The designers haven't made the mistakes their competitors did, either: they haven't loaded the game down with little micromanagement features, for example. Not to say Starcraft doesn't have neat little touches, but they haven't taken over the game or been inserted at the expense of its essential accessibility. The number of units-11 per side-isn't staggering compared to the prolific Total Annihilation; but they're easy to master, and you'll use all of them.

Finally, Blizzard has applied all the strengths of its earlier games to this new one: free access to its dedicated Battle.net multiplayer system (where I always found a fast game waiting); a bountiful campaign editor that should give Starcraft the same long life that Warcraft has enjoyed; and a thorough manual that's not required to get started, but which answered the few questions I had. And I didn't find anything that looked remotely like a bug.

So all's well and good? Mostly. I don't know quite what to say about the AI. I like it, but I don't respect it. While I've seen it perform some perfectly timed counterthrusts that took the steam right out of my assaults, I've also found the enemy squandering its resources on small-scale frontal assaults and, on occasion, ignoring targets in plain sight.

And then there's the 12-unit limit for group commands. I imagine this was done to prevent players from falling back on the tank rush. If so, it's merely an inconvenience. (You can get around the limit by assigning separate groups to keystrokes.) AI and unit design would be better answers to the tank rush.

Finally, there's the look. Now, conventionality isn't necessarily a strength, and if Starcraft's designers erred, they erred on the side of the familiar. But in the process, they've taught me patience with a genre I'd left for dead. A good game isn't a cool new view or a list of slick features. It's a whole that-whatever form it takes-somehow surpasses the sum of its parts.

In that respect, Starcraft is, unequivocally, a very good game.

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