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Starcraft (Mac) artwork

Starcraft (Mac) review

"This is Starcraft. This is a game that can still inspire excitement and interest more than a decade after its initial release. It does this despite having outdated graphics, without including branching paths or moral choices, and with nary a trophy achievement in sight. Starcraft can raise a lot of questions about what’s really important in a game."

The other day my sister came into my room while I was gaming. She had been drawn in by a bevy of odd sounds emanating from my darkened chamber. A series of growls, hisses, and cries of “En Taro Adun!” had peeked her curiosity. She stood silently for a while behind me, watching as the screen filled with sickly green creatures, grossly insectoid in appearance. The creatures hissed madly as they raced single-mindedly towards towering buildings pulsing with crystalized energy. They were met by an opposing alien force which, though smaller in number, ripped into them with psionic blades in a dazzling display of courage and ferocity. For a while, the battle seemed uncertain, but then a fleet of ships came in from the north and unleashed a barrage of high-velocity gun fire upon the overgrown insects. As my Protoss army decimated the last remains of the failed Zergling invasion, my sister finally spoke.

“That was really cool,” she said. “What is this?”

This is Starcraft. This is a game that can still inspire excitement and interest more than a decade after its initial release. It does this despite having outdated graphics, without including branching paths or moral choices, and with nary a trophy achievement in sight. Starcraft can raise a lot of questions about what’s really important in a game.

Good writing, for example. You know a game has good writing when you can let a non-gamer watch it without them making lame jokes every five lines. I wasn’t afraid to show my sister some of the mission briefings. She fell in love, like I did, with the cruel purity of the Overmind and its dark mission to consolidate all of life into an ultimate being. She equally enjoyed the presentation of the two opposition races, whether it was the back-water honor of the humans or the aggressive zealousness of the Protoss. She was also greatly intrigued by the individual players in the story, especially Kerrigan.

Kerrigan deserves a moment. She is, to date, one of the most interesting and complex female characters to grace a video game. Kerrigan is a strong warrior who seems set, when the game begins, to play the usual female role of a love interest with a spunky personality. Then she abruptly falls in battle to rise as a twisted Valkyrie, an angel not of mercy but of death. Her descent into the bloody role of the Queen of Blades is a chilling one. As she gains the knowledge and power of the Zerg, her character undergoes a twisted transformation. Her playful spunkiness translates into a savage bloodlust. Her casual wit turns to scathing sarcasm. Once just the foil for Arcutus Mengsk and Jim Raynor, Kerrigan suddenly becomes the dark center of the Starcraft universe.

Kerrigan’s transformation is made all the more memorable by the incredible art direction that permeates throughout the Starcraft universe. The design of the game is all about simplicity and getting across the feel of a character. Though we never see more of Kerrigan’s human features than her face inside a tiny communication’s box, her nature is instantly implied by her downward-tilted head and highlighted by her smirking lips and eyes that never look directly at the player. There is a suggestion here of a suppressed insecurity that is eradicated when Kerrigan turns into a Zerg. Her Queen of Blades portrait replaces the closed-lip smirk with bared teeth and eyes that now seem to bore unblinking into the player’s soul. The tilt of the head suggests the same withdrawn personality, but now one feels that personality to be simmering with concealed power. Combined with her mocking taunts and enraged responses to orders, even a player controlling the Zerg feels they cannot quite trust Kerrigan.

“Wait a minute,” some people are surely saying. “Kerrigan’s cool and all, but... good writing? Interesting art direction? Doesn’t this schmuck know that what’s really kept Starcraft alive all these years is the ridiculously popular multi-player?”

It’s true. One certainly can’t deny that Starcraft’s multi-player far overshadows its campaign mode, at least so far that the game is considered a sport in Korea. But even if overshadowed, the joys of the single-player mode shouldn’t be forgotten. Ah, but again I sense the raised eyebrow and hear the whisperings of a cynical voice. “What joys would those be? The joys of turtling?”

At first glance the campaign mode certainly does seem to favor a more passive style of play, where you stack defences around a single growing base and suck as much as you can out of the resources until you’ve out-developed your computer opponent. Since in most missions the computer’s AI seems to be centered around bouts of standing around interspersed with the occasional small wave of enemies, this is definitely a viable strategy.

But have you tried building an army of high-speed Vultures and micro-manaaging them well into the enemy base? Get those Vultures behind the enemy lines and you can decimate the resource-gatherers. While the enemy is dealing with this, build up some marines and send them in the front gates. Suddenly you’ve turned what was once an hour long turtling mission into a fifteen-minute win through a daring blitz attack. Terran Mission 3, Desperate Alliance, has the player waiting for rescue against what is supposed to be insurmountable odds and constant enemy attack. But use this Vulture strategy and micro-manage your forces well enough and you can wipe out the enemy long before the drop-ships arrive.

Blitz strategies are by no means confined to the Terrans, either. Zerg, as any online player will know, excel at them. The computer rarely has a response to attacks from 84 Zergling (easily and quickly produced by the resources provided) and many of the Zerg maps can be won with just these basic units, if deployed often and ferociously enough. As for the Protoss... a friend and I once had a contest to see how fast we could beat the final mission of the game. With control of both Terrans and Protoss in the mission and four unguarded massive mineral deposits within easy reach of the starting positions, online players who are used to rapid base expansion can have a field day. I think my record was 34 minutes, by which point I had built 6 Protoss Space Stations and was rapidly teleporting in Scouts.

It was a dangerous game I was playing and time was of the essence. Even as the Zerg finally launched a massive ground attack against my bases, I was flying past them with 6 hot-keyed fleets of Scouts. I directed those brave pilots towards the center of the map, completely ignoring the numerous Spore Launchers along the way, and launched an attack on the Overmind. It was a desperate gamble. With the Zerg destroying my buildings, there would be no reinforcements should the attack fail. With every second that passed, more of my Scouts were torn to shreds by the decimating attacks of Mutalisks, Scourge, and the ever-present Spore Launchers. Yet, with only a few buildings left and but a single fleet of Scouts remaining, the Overmind exploded in a glorious spray of blood. I couldn’t help but think that this was the way that Blizzard had always meant its opus to play.

Note that none of these strategies are particularly easy to pull off, but they are immensely satisfying. They require the same quick fingers and micro-managing skills that the best online matches demand of a player. The difference is that you will never have the chance, online, to go up against such well-established bases. To win against the computer opponent is truly to win against superior numbers through superior strategy. There is an undeniable thrill that comes with having tactically out-maneuvered your opponent to pull a speedy victory from thin air.

This thrill does admittedly exist in the best online matches, the ones where you aren’t immediately crushed by people taunting you in a foreign language. But never online will that thrill be followed with the intense story of struggle that is attached to the campaign mode. Though everyone else may be running to the store later this year to pick up Starcraft 2 and jump online, I’ll be playing to see what becomes of three of science fiction’s greatest races and the conflict that continues to enthrall newcomers even today.


zippdementia's avatar
Freelance review by Jonathan Stark (June 27, 2010)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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