It doesn’t stray far from the blueprint created by its predecessors, but it is, without a doubt, the best game to ever adhere to that formula.
Passing judgment on the most eagerly anticipated game of the last few years is no easy task; it’s difficult to set aside prejudices that would sway one’s opinion either way. Let’s face it: Starcraft comes with a great deal of anticipatory baggage, and it would be easy to say that it’s either a huge disappointment or the greatest thing since real-time strategy became a household phrase. Truth is, it’s neither. Weighed on its own merits, Starcraft is an extremely well-crafted game, albeit one with a few notable problems. It doesn’t stray far from the blueprint created by its predecessors (namely the Warcrafts and Command & Conquers), but it is, without a doubt, the best game to ever adhere to that formula.
Starcraft offers a lengthy single-player campaign featuring ten missions for its three diverse races, totaling 30 single-player missions in all (there’s also an unsupported veteran campaign included as part of the campaign editor). The story is compelling enough to make playing through all three worthwhile, and the campaign difficulty is tiered so that each is more challenging than the last. While this may seem like an uninteresting point, it helps Starcraft to avoid the problem that has plagued every other game in the genre: Each side is not the same. You don’t have to go through a set of training missions once you’ve already mastered one side. The missions themselves mainly stick to the “gather, build, and conquer” philosophy, but there are a few innovative missions thrown in, and Blizzard has added some narrative elements to the missions themselves that help to keep things interesting. With the exception of the installation missions (in which you are given a handful of units to raid an enemy base, an attempt to break from the mold that is only occasionally successful), the missions are well designed. The solo player also has the option of skirmish missions, though the computer opponents have the annoying ability to see everything you are doing and defend accordingly, making the dreaded “rush” tactic one of the only viable means of emerging victorious.
Starcraft offers an equally nice suite of options on the multiplayer side: There’s head-to-head and up to eight-player battles over LAN or Internet (though Internet play is only available over Blizzard’s Battle.net server, which includes a ranking list and seems to be as lag-free as it gets nowadays). There is a good variety of multiplayer game types, and you can easily download new maps. Multiplayer has its own set of negatives, the major one being the predominance of rushing. Like it or not, creating a horde of the most basic units and attacking the enemy immediately is an effective tactic. Only a heavily defended base will survive an early rush of Terran Marines or Protoss Zealots. Starcraft has a built-in safeguard to discourage rushing, but it’s one of the game’s most problematic areas.
This safeguard is in the interface, which only allows you to select 12 units at a time. This isn’t especially effective, considering six Zealots will smoke a base early in the game. The selectable unit cap does make rushing more difficult, but it also becomes frustrating at times, especially for those used to the ability to select unlimited units at once. Often, selecting the chosen units from a large group becomes a time-consuming effort. During battle, it can be an exercise in frustration. You can assign groups to hotkeys quite easily, however, lessening the frustration of the selectable unit cap – but this system isn’t nearly as good as in Total Annihilation or Dark Reign, and units aren’t marked by their group number like in said games. Multiplayer battles can often be decided by who has the best manual dexterity and can overcome the built-in limitations of the interface the most quickly.
Recent real-time innovations regarding unit control are included, with mixed results. Each production facility can have up to five units queued at once. There’s a waypoint system, patrolling, and the like – but many of these options aren’t particularly well implemented, and some of the options seem tacked on. On the other hand, pathing is great, with only occasional glitches (where a unit will run around in cute little circles). Starcraft most notably lacks the ability to define unit behavior (as in Dark Reign or Total Annihilation), leading to much micromanagement.
What Starcraft does have, though, is personality. Playing any of the three races is a notably different experience. You have the Terrans, “space trailer trash” with moving buildings; the frightening, insect-like Zerg who can burrow underground; and the hi-tech Protoss who can easily construct many buildings at a time. Each race features totally different units, often with no equivalents on the other side, differing construction and repair principles, and even different (though equally effective) interface art. Blizzard has managed to keep it well balanced despite the great diversity. One of the greatest things about Starcraft is that no unit is ever rendered obsolete during the course of a game. Each unit is key in certain situations, and you’ll still be relying on your most basic ground units in the endgame.
Aesthetically, Starcraft is impressive. Graphically, it stands alongside Age of Empires as the best-looking 2D strategy game around. What it lacks in visual innovation it makes up for in style; the unit and building animations are highly detailed and imaginative. There are some nice translucency effects, such as the flickering shields on Protoss units. The tilesets and maps are varied and interesting, and the unit portraits are expressive and realistic. And the cinematics, of which there are many, are outstanding. The only real complaints about the visuals are that the viewing area is a little small (the bottom quarter of the screen is occupied by the interface), and the minimap presents only rudimentary information. The music, apart from some new-agey Terran tunes, is appropriately melodic and dark, the sound effects are believable and distinct, and the voice acting is great, bringing the characters to life.
Starcraft’s personality goes a long way towards rendering its minor shortcomings obsolete. The game has so much life in it – whether in the great, narrative-driven single-player campaign or the multitude of multiplayer options – you won’t grow tired of it anytime soon. And even if you blow through it all, there’s an incredibly versatile editor that allows you to create your own full-featured campaigns, right down to spoken introductions and triggered events within missions. It all comes down to this: Starcraft may not do anything particularly new, but it does the real-time thing as well or better than any game before it. If you’re willing to give the formula another go, Starcraft is highly recommended.