Nearly every seven-year-old computer game is considered a fossil. Some manage to keep a few loyal fans but most simply sink to the bottom of the bargain bin. Unlike any other game its age, Starcraft still has deservedly enormous popularity.
Its premise is a pretty familiar one: Terran (human confederation), Zerg (bloodthirsty aliens with organic buildings) and Protoss (aliens with psionic abilities) battle each other for resources and galactic domination. But underneath that familiar scenario is an engaging and complex plot, told through three intertwining campaigns, one for each race.
No two races are even somewhat similar; going from Zerg to Terran or Terran to Protoss takes not only relearning units and structures — the player needs to learn entirely different strategies. For example, early attacks by even a couple Protoss Zealots, a basic foot unit, can cripple or even destroy and enemy base, while “Zergling rushes” are a standby for Zerg players. Terran Marines are not half as deadly as Zealots or Zerglings, even in equal or greater numbers, but can be housed in bunkers that give them a better chance for survival.
Much like other RTS titles, Starcraft starts the player with a base and some harvesting units. Players must gather minerals and Vespene gas to build structures, and from the structures, various combat and support units are produced. All development progresses in a flowchart; after building a Terran barracks, factories can be created. Once the factory is built, star ports become available, etc.
The two-dimensional graphics are effective and fast, especially compared to games like Warcraft. Sprites are highly detailed and clean-looking, clearly superior to the 3D models of Starcraft’s time. Naturally, deaths of organic units are very bloody; slain Terran Marines explode into a pool of blood. Mechanical units’ demises, by contrast, are simple explosions. Destroyed buildings leave rubble which slowly disappears. For the quality of the graphics and all that can occur in a game of Starcraft, the FPS rate stays surprisingly consistent.
The only real complaint about graphics is the fixed camera, but there aren’t many ways units can be hidden, so it’s not an abusable flaw.
Sound is especially well-executed. The score is a strange mix of rock and orchestral sounds. Voices are convincing; Terran units tend to have either American Southern or Russian accents, while Protoss forces are appropriately ethereal in their speech. Zerg units sound deservedly menacing, and when killed, emit chilling screams. Battles sound absolutely furious, with machine guns rattling, unnerving Zergling battle cries and anti-air missiles screaming through the air toward their targets.
What distinguishes Starcraft from similar games, like Warcraft or Command and Conquer, is that the different races aren’t simply graphic variations of one basic building/unit tree; how each race constructs buildings or wages war is different from the other two. Humans can build anywhere and are balanced warriors; Zergs must transform the ground and use larvae to create structures and soldiers, who specialize in frenzied ground combat. Protoss build pylons to power their structures, while their forces are equally deadly in land or air.
Starcraft’s combat is complex and strategic. That’s hardly the case in other games with two groups that are only different in appearance and sound. Starcraft forces the player to weigh many options and strategies, as some plans will work well against one race, but not another. In the middle of a firefight, quick thinking and acting are needed to get the most use out of one’s forces; if Terran siege tanks come under attack by flying units, the tanks cannot defend themselves; Marines or Goliaths must be moved in to take out the aerial threat.
Add to that a large number of unique unit types, building abilities, and strategies and it’s easy to see why Starcraft is played by gamers in the thousands on any given day.
After playing a couple custom games against the AI, most players will probably crave real opponents. Computer-controlled units will often kill themselves faster than their opponents; slinging a small number of Marines against a horde of Zealots, for instance, and in the process using up precious resources.
Indeed, Starcraft’s multiplayer mode is almost a second highlight of the game, following the single-player campaigns. Friends and strangers can compete on pre-built or custom maps, in team or free-for-all battles with up to seven other human or computer players. Gamers hook up directly or meet through Battle.net, a free online server.
Despite its age, Starcraft remains one of the greatest, most popular real-time strategy games ever created.