Saturday 14 October 2017

StarCraft Remastered

2499, in the remote Koprulu Sector. Two centuries ago, a group of penal ships with tens of thousands of prisoners were lost in hyperspace, emerging in a distant system on the far side of the galactic core. They established an interstellar civilisation, the Terran Confederacy, which now rules the human worlds with an iron fist. A hostile alien race, the Zerg, have arrived in human space. Hot on their heels are the technologically advanced Protoss, whose main goal is to destroy the Zerg no matter the cost in human lives. A three-sided war has begun, a war which will determine the fate of three races and hundreds of worlds.

StarCraft was originally released in May 1998, rapidly becoming the biggest-selling strategy video game of all time. It became an international phenomenon, noted for its fiendishly addictive multiplayer mode, and became an unlikely cultural craze in South Korea. It took Blizzard Entertainment from a small, modestly successful studio to one of the biggest companies in the entire field, giving them the resources needed to make later games such as World of WarCraft and Overwatch.

Almost twenty years on from release (and a startling nine and a half years since I reviewed the original game), Blizzard have released a new revamp of the game. These kind of "remasters" have become extremely popular in recent years, taking old games and sprucing them up so new players who might be put off by their old graphics can see what the fuss is about and old players can enjoy their favourite games with a fresh lick of paint. How companies handle these remasters is critically important: change too much (especially making old games easier or removing key features) and old players will hate it and denounce the game. Change too little and people will, justifiably, ask what is the point?

StarCraft Remastered, which updates both the original game and its expansion, Brood War, definitely falls on the conservative change of things. This is exactly the game originally released in 1998, with the exact same user interface. The graphics have been sharpened up substantially, of course, and the sound has been pleasingly remixed, but the remaster, crucially, also carries forward all the problems, clumsy UI issues and baffling design choices that Blizzard was criticised for twenty years ago and have been annoying players ever since.

Rewinding a little for newcomers, StarCraft is a real-time strategy game. You play one of three races and have to build up a base to produce different types of military units. You then take these forces into battle and attempt to defeat the enemy. There is a lengthy single-player story campaign consisting of 56 missions, separated by mission briefings and occasional animated cut-scenes which tell a story. This story is cheesy but great fun, and is surprisingly rooted in characters on each of the three sides (divided between several sub-factions). Some of StarCraft's characters are the most iconic in all gaming, such as the divisive Sara Kerrigan (a villain to some, a tragic fallen heroine to others), the grizzled marshal Jim Raynor and the noble but constantly-misunderstood Zeratul of the Dark Templar. The story is pure pulp space opera, but is told economically and energetically (unlike the story in StarCraft II, which could often be stodgy, badly-paced and tedious), with a lot of humour.

StarCraft's ace in the hole has always been its terrific sense of asymmetric balance between the three sides. The Zerg are genetically-engineered creatures, animals from hundreds of worlds turned into biological weapons. Strongly influenced (cough) by the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000 (and the xenomorphs from the Aliens franchise), the Zerg are fast and cheap, but also extremely fragile. The key to using them is both deploying them in enormous numbers, using suicide tactics and also intelligently using support units who can scout out the enemy, entangle or poison upon their troops. The Protoss - strongly influenced (cough cough) by the Eldar from Warhammer 40,000 - are much more advanced and powerful, equipped with energy shields and using plasma weapons and telekinetic powers. The Protoss are tough but slow to move and slower to build; mastering them requires working out how to defend against early Zerg rushes to deliver an unstoppable knockout blow later on. The Terrans are jacks of all trades, falling between the two sides with a more traditional arsenal of aircraft, tanks, marines, nukes and powerful battlecruisers.

It's this balance between the three sides which was Blizzard's masterstroke, something they never quite achieved with the same degree of precision in either StarCraft II (witness the constant balance changes they are still doing seven years after that came out) or WarCraft III. The relatively small unit roster for each side also allows players to master each unit, try out difference combinations of forces and tactics. StarCraft is essentially an ultra-fast, real-time version of chess, with a fascinating array of tactics to try out. It's impossible to say which of the three sides is the best or which is the optimal strategy for winning. There's reasons why this game is still lionised twenty years after release and is widely considered superior to its own sequel, and, impressively, the game still lives up to those reasons.

The remastered version of the game maintains all of these strengths. Units now look much sharper, the up-resolved CGI cut scenes are hugely improved (although not re-rendered from scratch with Blizzard's modern level of graphical fidelity, to the surprise of many) and the sound is punchier and more evocative.

Unfortunately, it also maintains a lot of the game's problems. On release, StarCraft was widely criticised for a sometimes-stodgy control scheme, some really weird limitations - you can only select up to 12 units at one time - and a decidedly primitive control system which forced the player to micro-manage a lot of tasks that should have been automated (Total Annihilation, released a year before StarCraft, spoiled a lot of players with a far superior control scheme and better 3D graphics). StarCraft II fixed a lot of these problems and players were expecting some of these to be retrofitted to StarCraft Remastered. Bafflingly, especially as far as the single-player experience goes, these quality of life improvements have not been carried over. You can't send newly-built resource gatherers straight to a mineral patch, you can't send marines straight to bunkers and so on. This adds a lot of tedious busywork to the game that felt antiquated and tiresome in 1998, let alone in 2017.

There still isn't a difficulty slider for the single-player campaigns, which isn't a problem for the 30-mission base game, which scales very nicely in difficulty, but definitely is for the 26-mission Brood War, one of the most punishing games ever released. The Protoss and Terran campaigns are - more or less - okay but the final few Zerg missions are among the hardest single-player strategy challenges ever put in front of players and there are zero concessions for people who don't have dozens of hours into trying different strategies and approaches before finally beating them.

There's also a nice 4-mission mini-campaign meant to show off the powerful level editor, "Enslavers", but the game doesn't tell you this exists: you have to go through the custom skirmish menus before you stumble across it.

A further issue a bit of technical revisionism. Hit F5 at any time and the game will switch back to the way it looked in 1998. However, it doesn't, because makes the original version of the game look substantially worse than it did originally (confirmed by a quick re-install of my 1998 CD-ROMs). Don't get me wrong, the remaster still looks a lot sharper and nicer than the original, but the difference is not quite as great as Blizzard is trying to sell us.

The issues with StarCraft which could be - reluctantly - dismissed as niggles back in 1998 feel like bigger problems in 2017, simply because they could be fixed so incredibly easy. Even if you accept Blizzard's questionable claim they couldn't change these without offending the harshly old-skool multiplayer scene which doesn't want a single change at all, there's zero reason the sequel's better UI and control scheme couldn't be implemented for the single-player campaign alone.

This leaves StarCraft Remastered feeling underwhelming, especially in the light of the monumentally superior Homeworld Remastered, which also took a nearly-20-year-old strategy game and really did make it look like a contemporary title with a better UI and an absolutely fantastic improvement in graphical and cut scene fidelity. StarCraft Remastered feels lacklustre by comparison.

The original StarCraft (*****) and Brood War (****) are two of the finest strategy games ever released when viewed and placed in their original historical context. However, this re-release (***½) fails to update and revamp the games in a way that makes them more approachable and playable for newcomers, whilst people who still enjoy playing the original games will find this remaster only a minor improvement. Any excuse to go back and replay StarCraft is welcome, but this remaster exposes the truth that maybe this game isn't ageing quite as well as it could have done with a more thorough remaster more prepared to kill a few sacred cows in the service of greater playability.

The game is available now via Blizzard.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Starcraft sucks. For RTS games, Age Of Empires is where it is at.