Starcraft is the RTS game by which all others must be judged. Forget Command & Conquer, forget Warcraft II and forget the rest. Starcraft is the RTS game by which all others must be judged. That's a pretty strong opening statement, I realize, but it's the simple truth. With Starcraft (SC), Blizzard has surpassed every prior offering in the genre and set the standard for a long time to come, I suspect. If you're an RTS gamer, then stop reading and go buy it right now; otherwise, keep reading.
Before SC was released, Blizzard was the target of quite predictable bashing for sticking with 2D graphics. Once RTS game x had gone with fully 3D graphics, every RTS game that didn't would be a failure, right? Wrong. Blizzard chose wisely on this point, and the end result was far better than what the gaming community would have received had Blizzard listened to the naysayers. The visuals in SC are very good, and are better, in fact, than any of its truly 3D contemporaries.
This does incur a couple of disadvantages, which I shall mention below, but the game looks as good as it plays. By avoiding the overhead necessary with rendering polygonal models, the Blizzard artists were able to create much better looking individual units and animations than they otherwise would have been able to provide. Better still, SC remains playable without sending the system requirements through the roof.
The only two complaints I have with the visuals in SC involve the display resolution and the fixed camera. Regarding the first complaint, the game stubbornly refuses to play at any resolution other than 640 x 480. Blizzard claims that it would be unfair for them to allow users to choose higher resolutions because it would let those players see more of the playing field than others.
To be clear: this is a non-response on their part for two reasons. First, it's irrelevant to the single-player game. And second, that is a setting easily enforced by the server; i.e., the easy fix is to force all clients to run at the same resolution when in a multi-player game. At the time of this writing, I think it safe to say that most gamers run at 1024 x 768 while those with aging hardware struggle along at 800 x 600. It would have been much nicer to be able to up the resolution as virtually every other contemporary RTS game allows.
Regarding the second complaint, the choice of 2D sprite-based graphics deprives the user of the ability to move the camera around the action. This is a minor annoyance, but it is an annoyance nevertheless.
In addition to its visual quality, SC does great things in the audio department as well. The music, in particular, is well themed and very engaging. I've long since copied the music to my hard drive and converted it into MP3 format. I listen to it frequently, as I'm particularly fond of the music used for the Protoss—especially that included with the new Brood War (BW) expansion. In addition to the music, the voice acting is truly first rate, the sound effects are very good (the "throom" of a siege-tank firing its big gun is simply wonderful) and the overall quality and presentation is first rate. As in so many other aspects, SC truly sets the standard for the RTS genre.
The interface is quite straightforward for those familiar with RTS games while being quite simple to "pick up" for those who aren't. The look and feel are changed wonderfully for the three different races, and Blizzard deserves credit for such nice touches as they bring a lot to the game. There are a couple of negatives that require mention, however, at least one of which is pretty significant.
First, the controls cannot be customized. That's a serious omission in this day and age. When will developers learn that not every gamer is going to like their keyboard choices? Perhaps Blizzard would again make some claim about fairness; i.e., that those more familiar with customizing their keyboard layouts might then have an "unfair" advantage over those who don't.
To do so, however, would be the very purest form of stupidity. Some folk, after all, are just smarter than others or faster than others. Other folk can use software to provide macro capabilities or even voice recognition capability for the game. To drop such a fundamental feature in the interests of fairness is to hide behind a non-issue.
Second, and far more significant, I think, are the unit selection and grouping limitations. SC encourages the building of huge armies of units. But SC limits the user to adding a maximum of 12 units to each of a maximum of 10 groupings. Admittedly, that allows one to control up to 120 units easily, but that's only part of the problem.
In the heat of battle, making good use of the special abilities of various units (e.g., Templar) practically requires that one give them their own groupings, and therein lies the dilemma. The special units are practically required to play well, but using them well greatly restricts one's ability to control groups of ordinary units. I don't think this would have been a problem if the 12-unit-per-group limitation had not been imposed.
This is a classic case of power through simplicity. The game mechanics of SC do not deviate from the tried and true RTS formula; i.e., harvesting resources, researching technologies, building stuff and doing stuff with the stuff you've built. It's simple and straightforward, yet it allows incredible depth and flexibility. I don't have any complaint with the game mechanics. In fact, I think SC is arguably the best-balanced and most perfectly implemented RTS game to date.
The story is yet another aspect in which SC dominates the competition. Not only did Blizzard manage to create a compelling and interesting back-story for the game, they also managed to bring it to life through the amazing video cut-scenes, the missions and so forth. The result is actually three different plot-lines, intersecting and woven together through the device of competition for resources and... well... survival itself.
Each of the three races has its own goals, structures and so forth, and they all make sense. There is no gaping hole in the plot of SC. There is no ridiculous concession to fit the mechanics of the game. Rather, the story motivates the game and brings it to life in a very powerful way unlike any other RTS game I've played. Frankly, they could write books about this stuff, and it would come off rather nicely.
The content provided with SC also sets a new standard for the RTS genre. Never before has an RTS game provided three separate and very distinct races to play, each of which truly involves a different approach and a different feel. Tactics that work so well as a Terran fail utterly as the Protoss or the Zerg and vice versa. The number of different units, their strengths and weaknesses and so forth is simply wonderful.
There are arguably some omissions here and there (e.g., long-ranged hard-hitting units for the Protoss), but these omissions can be overlooked because there is always some way to make what is provided work. It is no mean feat that SC is the first RTS game that approaches genuine balance without slavishly giving each side the very same units. It seems for every offensive tactic, there is a defensive counter and vice versa.
The missions are highly compelling and lose their luster only after repeated play. At the time of this writing, I've played through the entire single-player original game no less than five times and through the entire BW expansion twice. The campaigns mesh so wonderfully, thanks to the story, and are so well designed that it's just good enough to play through again and again. The variations on tactics seem near endless, and I've only recently started to run out of new and interesting things to try. In short, SC provides a huge amount of content for the player in its single-player aspect.
My one, enduring complaint against the game is its AI. And to be more specific, there are four tremendous problems with it. First, The fight or flight "survival reflex" programmed for the various units is problematic at best. The smallest amount of splash damage from siege tank fire, a reaver's scarab, etc. is enough to cause one's combat units to march stupidly off to their doom while, for example, SCVs will flee willy-nilly from the very structures they were just ordered to repair! A single mutalisk will stupidly face any number of Terran missile turrets rather than run away, while his comrades will frequently do nothing to help.
The AI is so bad in this respect that it often seems as if one's combat units will jump at any chance to die. In short, prospects for survival seem not to figure into the equation when units "decide" to attack or move out of range, and support from nearby units is practically nonexistent.
Second, units attack everything in exactly the same way. A squad of marines, for example, could easily kill a siege tank in siege mode if only they move close enough so that it cannot shoot them. But instead they will stop at their maximum range of fire and die stupidly. Hydralisks, dragoons, etc. are no better.
Third, the incredibly bad path finding AI complicates both of the previous problems. For example, goliaths and dragoons are both highly useful units, but they are very difficult to use properly anywhere other than in the middle of very open terrain. If a unit is blocking a goliath or dragoon from getting where it is headed, it will literally walk all the way around the map rather than "ask" the opposing unit to move or simply wait to see if the situation clears.
This problem can completely paralyze reaver scarabs, and it exacerbates certain already-difficult tactical situations like attacking higher ground. For example, when a squad of marines is commanded to attack higher ground, the first three or four will stop stupidly at the top of the ramp and begin firing. This will, of course, block access for the remainder of the squad, who will then stupidly march all the way around the map, leaving their comrades to die. This problem is bad enough with smaller units, but it is even more obvious with larger units, most notably the aforementioned goliaths and dragoons.
Fourth, the target selection algorithm is roughly half-baked. It seems to work pretty well for siege tanks insofar as they target active structures (e.g., missile turrets, photon cannons, and sunken colonies) before targeting passive structures (e.g., command centers, barracks, etc.), but it is completely hopeless where other units are concerned.
On more than one occasion, for example, I have managed to drop reavers in the middle of an enemy's harvesting line only to have the reavers fire stupidly on the command center, nexus, hatchery—pretty much anything but the harvester units I want to destroy! Similarly, reavers will fire frequently on missile turrets rather than at the very bunkers killing them-even when no air forces are presently in danger! It seems at times as if reavers would prefer to kill anything other than what they are told to attack.
As if the single-player game weren't enough, SC goes above and beyond the call of duty in providing what is arguably the best multi-player RTS game to date. Because of the great balance of the different races, the possibilities for replaying various scenarios are just endless. I can't begin to enumerate all of the hundreds of on-line games I've played, as hinted at in my in-depth analysis of SC.
The ability to play by modem, across a LAN, or even over the Internet thanks to Battle.net, gives SC incredible longevity. I paid something like $35 for the original SC, and I'll bet that, in the final analysis, I ended up paying less than $0.15 for every hour of entertainment it provided me. In terms of pure bang for the buck, SC delivers in spades in both its single and multi-player aspects.
As if it needed to be stated, I think SC is a must-buy game for all but those who despise RTS games. In fact, I have to confess that I wasn't much of a fan of the genre until a good friend convinced me to try it. I had played and enjoyed plenty of turn-based strategy games (e.g., X-COM: UFO Defense, Civilization, etc.) as well as lots of first-person shooters (e.g., Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, etc.), but I had not found any of the other RTS games to be all that interesting. SC changed all that and made a believer out of me as regards the RTS genre, and I can thus recommend it highly.
Reviewed by Phileosophos