StarCraft (and Brood War)

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Battle across multiple civilizations to save the galaxy they all inhabit.

PC Release: March 31, 1998

By Ian Coppock

As fun as this jaunt into the Myst universe has been, I feel that it’s time to take a small break before our review of Myst IV drops next Wednesday. Branson is a great writer, but he lacks the thirst for blood that drives like 90% of my daily functions. As such, we’re going to deviate away from peaceful point-and-click puzzle games and spend some time with StarCraft, arguably the most beloved real-time strategy game of all time.

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StarCraft is a sci-fi strategy game originally released by World of Warcraft creators Blizzard Entertainment, in 1998. Like most RTS games, StarCraft is played from an isometric viewpoint and requires players to train soldiers and build up bases. You can gather resources, construct buildings and create an army, or do none of those things and watch everything you love get burned down by an enemy player.

StarCraft takes place on the opposite side of the galaxy from us and features three playable races. The Terrans, human colonists descended from exiles from earth; the Protoss, a hyper-advanced alien race with robots and psychic powers; and the Zerg, a terrifying hive of mutated bugs and reptiles whose ferocity knows no equal. All three races vie for control of the Koprulu Sector.

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An early-game human base in StarCraft.

Any RTS worth half a damn will feature an intricate balance between its core civilizations, and StarCraft is an exemplar of this. Each race has its strengths and weaknesses that serve to balance out the others. Terrans are great at producing versatile units, the Protoss are all about quality over quantity, and the Zerg can train up massive numbers of units in a pinch. Becoming good with one or the other is a matter of practice rather than luck.

Of course, being good at an RTS also means being good at multitasking, which is why I’m terrible at them. StarCraft, more than any other game, counts on a combination of advancing your civilization and keeping the enemy on their toes. Generally, you either want to train up a small number of units to attack the enemy before they’ve gotten off the ground, or hunker down for a drawn-out, full-scale war. My opponents, more often than not, have had more creative ideas.

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The infamous “Zerg rush” technique is the most diabolical of RTS strategies, made possible by the Zerg’s ability to breed like rabbits on cocaine.

A lot of people know StarCraft today because of its multiplayer community, which remains strong even after two decades and the recent release of StarCraft II. More importantly to me, though, it comprises one of gaming’s most memorable sci-fi narratives, split up into three chapters that each follow one of the three races.

As StarCraft‘s story begins, humanity has built a fledgling interstellar empire in the form of the Terran Confederacy. Jim Raynor, marshal of a remote human colony, is called in to help fight the hitherto unknown Zerg, who have begun encroaching on human settlements throughout the sector. After getting arrested for burning down a Zerg-infested command center, Raynor signs on with a rebel group whose goal is to overthrow the confederacy and prove that it’s working in league with the aliens. Raynor has his doubts that these allegations are true, but the Confederacy uses the Confederate battle flag as its emblem, so that’s reason enough to take it down.

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The Terran campaign follows Raynor’s fight against a mix of human and zerg enemies.

The next chapter in the story follows the Zerg, led by a terrifying alien intelligence called the Overmind. The Overmind seeks to assimilate all life in the galaxy (hmm, I wonder if Blizzard has many Trekkies among its writers), and sees players lay waste to human and Protoss enemies. The main goal of the campaign is to find and destroy the Protoss homeworld, all while controlling the terrifying arsenal of creatures that is the Zerg. Kerrigan, a mutated Zerg-human hybrid, is the anti-heroine of the story and is featured in many missions.

The third and last chapter focuses on the Protoss and their fight to save both their homeworld and the galaxy. Tassadar, a psionic warrior, embarks on a new journey to understand the origins of the Zerg and unite the disparate tribes of his people. Completing this quest comprises the game’s most challenging maps, and perhaps even the unthinkable… an alliance with those filthy humans.

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Zerg buildings are powered by mucus and the sounds they make are even worse. They probably smell, too.

The story of the first StarCraft is pretty much a cut-and-dry, three-way battle, but the story of the Brood War expansion pack contains many more shades of grey. Set a few days after the climactic end to StarCraft, the Protoss have lived to fight another day at the cost of their homeworld, and the zerg and humans are in disarray. A massive fleet arrives from Earth to conquer the sector in the name of humanity, and the story gets appropriately complicated. Brood War is Game of Thrones-ian in the scope of its power plays and shifting alliances, but there’s little doubt that Kerrigan and her rise to power is the main focus of the narrative.

That is the longest overview I’ve ever written.

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Hehehe. Protoss rule.

It’s difficult to confine a game as large as StarCraft to one review, but I have neither the time nor the lack of backlog to do anything else. Each campaign within the game features a large cast of ensemble characters, mostly restricted to that campaign’s focused race. Without going into in-depth descriptions of two dozen characters, the biggest thing to take away from StarCraft is how well-written its narrative is.

Narrative or not, the game is also very fun on a technical level. It wouldn’t have taken over the RTS world otherwise. StarCraft is a great game because its outwardly simple mechanics can give rise to thousands of complicated strategies. You start off from humble beginnings, gathering space crystals and magic gasoline to build a few houses and a barracks, but will quickly construct a sprawling complex of warp gates and nuclear missile silos. Your initial army will go from a scattering of tollbooth guards to armadas of battleships, and Zerg monsters whose very roar will have your enemies shitting their pants. A mere two-resource flow quickly transforms into a very complicated game, replete with many units and technologies you can research.

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StarCraft’s technical complexity is intimidating, but becomes more intuitive with practice.

Getting ahold of StarCraft‘s gameplay is easy. Gathering resources and building houses is child’s play. But getting accustomed to each race’s spin on warfare is quite difficult. Generally speaking, humans excel at building versatile, medium-weight units, and the fact that many of their buildings can fly makes setting up and taking down bases a cinch. Early-game strategy revolves around training marines and light vehicles, but the civ’s more sophisticated late-game fare of nuclear missiles and invisible assassins are where things get really fun.

The Zerg are designed to burn everything down as quickly as possible. Though their buildings are immobile and can only be spawned in certain places, you can evolve huge batches of their monsters in very little time and immediately unleash them on an enemy. You can recombine your Zerg on the genetic level by researching powerful upgrades, and evolving smaller Zerg into bigger, deadlier ones. It’s basically Pokemon by Stephen King.

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Crazy giant man-eating thing in an egg, I CHOOSE YOU!!

The Protoss, my favorite civilization, specialize in training a small amount of units that kick a lot of ass. Like the Zerg, their buildings can’t be plonked down just anywhere, but the sheer firepower of their early and late-game units makes them a force to be reckoned with. Just make sure you can pay for all of it.

If you’re getting the sense that each race’s strengths and weaknesses fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, that is perhaps StarCraft‘s greatest accomplishment. Though each race has its overpowered flaws, like the Zerg’s ability to detect any invisible unit, the game does a fantastic job of balancing out its races against each other. This makes both the campaign and multiplayer fun, even when you’re up against another faction of your own race.

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StarCraft’s checks and balances between its three races makes for a lot of versatile fun.

Not even this classic giant, though, is immune from a few major problems I noticed with its gameplay. The AI of many units is usually pretty dodgy, like when a group of marines will just sit there smoking cigarettes while the Zerg are busy smoking one of their buildings two feet away. It’s annoying that, so often, units that are right next to a raging battle battle will just sit on their heels and do nothing when things are clearly going to shit.

Hand-in-hand with the unit AI’s poor ability to notice nearby battles are some hilarious pathing errors. If you tell a unit to go somewhere, the odds are good that they’ll take the longest, most inconvenient way to the waypoint you’ve set for them. I have a red mark on my forehead from how many times I facepalmed at the sight of a human worker getting stuck in a housing complex ten miles from where I asked them to go.

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StarCraft’s mediocre unit AI requires lots of intense micromanaging.

The other major issue with StarCraft on the gameplay side is that its learning curve is very unforgiving. The campaign will start you off winning missions just by building houses, right into battles against sociopath computer opponents. I won’t deny that a lot of the difficulty and frustration I had with StarCraft stemmed from my aforementioned ineptitude with RTS games, but when a nuclear missile is inbound before you’ve even started gathering space crystals, it’s enough to turn off a lot of players.

It’s because of StarCraft‘s high difficulty that a number of cheat codes are available. Yeah yeah, you won’t get the “pure” experience and all that, but of the dozens of gamers I know who have played StarCraft, only one has beaten it without cheats, and the ordeal took him weeks. StarCraft is a product of an age where you were expected to grind against harsh foes and campaign matches could take days. Ain’t nobody got time for that shit.

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“You know what I did during the Great War, son? The Protoss had built a swarm of Carriers before I’d even finished my morning dump and the game was over not long after that. It was a great time to be a man, goddammit.”

“So Ian,” I hear you thinking, “If you’re speaking so glowingly of a game that I might have to use cheats just to be able to access, why should I spend any of my time playing it at all?”

Well, dear reader, StarCraft is not a game for the faint of heart, but the story is something that any sci-fi fan would appreciate. The campaign missions may be repetitive and the AI programmed with Richard Nixon levels of ruthlessness, but the game’s narrative is surprisingly poignant. Its combination of magic-wielding aliens, mutated bugs and space rednecks created enduring novelty that lasts to this day. Each character in StarCraft has multiple dimensions, even those with only a line of dialogue. We see all of StarCraft‘s human and alien characters experience their own arcs and character developments through the three original campaigns, then three more in Brood War.

It’s an impressive feat of narrative structure, especially for an RTS game, and one that I recommend everyone at least try. The graphics haven’t aged well and the difficulty might not suit all tastes, but StarCraft‘s success at delivering an exciting sci-fi narrative made it worth it to me. Its ability to tell a story all will enjoy is at the heart of why I review video games, and why I decided to bring this beloved classic to your attention.

Give this game a shot and see if you agree.

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You can buy StarCraft and StarCraft: Brood War here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

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