So! Having rebuilt my old XP machine to improve its compatibility, I am now able to play the original Starcraft without fatal Blue Screens every one to five minutes.
Which means I can start writing about the game, which I had previously played through only once, based on its revered status in the WC3 modding community… And which I found sorely disappointing. How does it hold up to these eyes that have seen so much more?
The first thing that struck me on restarting Starcraft is actually how small it is. For all the vast swarms of Zerglings touted by the lore, the maps are mostly quite claustrophobic; you never have to send your troops very far to stumble on your enemies. The first few missions of the Terran campaign were over in five minutes or less, and even the later missions that start to drag on don’t do so because of any geographical spread.
Yes, I soon rediscovered why I had to sink into the cheats the first time around. For all the talk of the legendary Zerg Rush, I have found Starcraft to be… rather slow.
The early Terran missions are very easy. Small maps, fairly limited unit rosters, not much room for error. I don’t really understand what changes, but I just found the later Terran missions such a slog. I would spend a good amount of time building up my forces (very slowly), researching some handy technologies (very slowly), get all fired up to attack and… they’d simply melt against the entrenched enemy forces. Somehow, despite being better armed and armoured from superior from all the upgrades I’d bought, my units would disintegrate. I’d have to retreat (or lose the lot) and build up (very slowly) for another push.
The ultimate supply cap is actually a very generous 200, so even with many units costing more than 1 supply each, it’s really a test of patience. How long can you hold your nerve before throwing your masses against the enemy? I only started to find reliable success when I went in with 4 command groups of troops, fully upgraded.
Having said that, I’ve never had much cause to complain about pathfinding in a game before, but in Starcraft you really can feel how gritty it is. Cliff-ramps look wide and spacious, but even a small group told to move down one is very likely to split in half, as the back half decides it’s blocked by the front half and seeks an alternative path. I can suddenly feel how the game demands micromanagement, demands those intense actions-per-minute scores — but it’s not interesting micromanagement, it’s just having to compensate for an engine that’s, if not actively hostile, at least too scatterbrained for what it’s trying to achieve.
Okay, yes, there are other actions to shepherd that are theoretically more interesting; but to me, the number of units that only have special abilities and cannot attack is utterly infuriating. Terrans need to keep a Science Vessel around to detect cloaked enemies, and it has some useful abilities, but as soon as you attack-move a group it’ll fly out in front of your army and instantly attract all the damage. You effectively have to pilot it manually, which means you can’t unfuck your confused main forces as they get stuck behind decorations, and and and…
Warcraft III at least has units move in formation, so that specialists never accidentally end up out in front; and auto-casting of at least a few abilities means that forgetting about somebody doesn’t make them entirely useless. But, oh, don’t we all remember how controversial it was that Starcraft II allowed you to select more than one building at a time? Yeesh. It’s hard to tell if some conveniences didn’t exist back in the day or were deliberately eschewed in the name of “balance” even then.
The story is also somewhat more barebones that legend would have had me believe. The talking-head briefings are perfectly full of character — the voice acting and the animations are excellent — but the amount of actual dialogue is so little. The campaign is peppered with cute incidental cinematics that advance nothing, but then has a load of title cards that quietly hide momentous events, like “oh and by the way, the Protoss also incinerated six planets”.
Well, look at it this way: Raynor spends most of Wings of Liberty pining for Kerrigan, so you’d assume there was some kind of obvious, mutual attraction in the original campaign, right? If there was, I blinked and missed it. Raynor calls her “darlin'”, sure, but he’s got a Southern Drawl so it’s very likely he calls everyone “darlin'”. They’ve barely met for three missions (scant weeks in campaign time?) before she’s parcelled off to Tarsonis and left to die for… for no particular reason?
But okay, yes, fine, I can’t berate a game for the actions of a sequel made more than ten years later, probably written by entirely different people. The story of Starcraft is solid within itself, even if Mengsk’s sacrifice of Kerrigan comes off as completely unnecessary (and, indeed, in pissing off Raynor and letting the Overmind build the Queen of Blades from her, as an act of spectacular self-sabotage).
The verdict? Yeah, I still don’t think it’s very good. If I wasn’t interested in the story I think I’d have bugged out long ago, and I haven’t even managed to finish it yet. Maybe I won’t need the cheats this time, but only because I’m more patient than I used to be.
But my heart still belongs to Tiberian Sun and Age of Empires II; even gangly clone Atrox sends more sparks up my spine, despite slavishly copying many of Starcraft‘s flaws. Of course I have to acknowledge its cultural significance, and it does have an unexpectedly banging soundtrack, but even with older and wiser eyes, the original Starcraft still doesn’t do it for me. Will expansion pack Brood War be any better? Bah, I don’t know if I can be bothered.
ADDENDUM: And as if that wasn’t enough, that Radeon 9600 XT graphics card I got to enable this entire Starcraft gambit died after about 3 days of gentle play. Clearly a sign! Luckily it still played fine on the motherboard’s onboard VGA adapter, so I could keep going until a replacement 9800 SE arrived. Which I think might also actually be on its last legs. Oops.