Mandarth’s Cavern
Danger – reading this blog can be fatally addictive.

Retrospective- “Starcraft: Brood War” Part 2

Before I begin, we better get some small scruples out of the way. Yes, I know that I have not exactly kept to my promise of posting once a week. This is mainly due to Work, University Study and something that I like to call The ‘Mass Effect,’ whereby improbable amounts of detail suck you into a game for a period deemed longer than logically survivable. However, as University has now broken for the year, Work is not as frequent and I have finally killed every Geth in the known universe it is probably time to jump back on the proverbial horse and start riding down Procrastination Lane once more.

In Part One of the Starcraft Retrospective, we discussed the more functional aspects of a game; that being Units, Construction and Movement. This final part, however, will focus more on the Aesthetics of the game: The Story, The Sound and The Visuals. So lets take this final look into that game the set the benchmark for Frantic RTS gaming: Starcraft.

Depending on the overall genre of a game (RTS, FPS, RPG and so on) the story plays a variety of different roles, and in each it is given a different level of importance. In a FPS game for example, the story does not have to be as strong, as it usually takes a back seat to the ability to use a Rocket Launcher as an Anal Probe. You don’t Need character development in an FPS, so the story does not provide any (Just look at Unreal Tournament Series, Doom 3 and Painkiller). This is obviously not the case in the magical world of RPG’s, where, by its very essence of being a Role Playing Game, a strong plot is needed to support the character being played and to help the player into feeling like they are part of the games universe, and not just destroying it.

When considering the importance and type of story in an RTS game however, a few problems crop up. In most traditional RTS games there is one feature that is absent from the genre that is seen in most others: The presence of a Main character. I know that in cut-scenes the NPCs will refer to you personally, but it is in no specific way. You are never acknowledged by a name, simply as Commander, or General or My Lord and this is only in cut scenes. As for the actual game play sections of an RTS, you control a number of faceless expendable units and lets face it, do you really care if one of your units dies, and Not because he or she is powerful?

This, however, doesn’t mean an RTS game can get away with having no story at all. Perhaps in times gone past it could be done, when all the story that was required from a game was ‘Jump on Things, Defeat Turtle Dragon, Save Princess’, but nowadays gamers are increasingly asking the question that has been asked so many times by Up-themselves Actors to their directors- “Its all very well for me to kill Caesar, but whats my motivation?” No longer can the answer simply be ‘Because they are Evil;’ a grounds for conflict must be set for a player to feel a real desire to help their army to victory, barring the reward of finishing a level. So, in the RTS genre, the story must provide motivation and detail, without using personal motives. What they must create is what can be called a Universal Narrative- the story of the games universe. This includes political motivation, back story for each of the races, not the characters, and detail regarding interactions between races. What this does is that it shows the player why one race hates (Or Allies) with another, why the others should (or should not) be destroyed and just why there may be a gigantic double barrelled tank covered in spikes in your army. Another trick that an RTS story must perform is one that is rather similar to the term ‘Double-Think’ from George Orwell’s book 1984, that being The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in ones mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them….To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed.”While the player is playing as one race they are ‘conditioned’ to accept the values of that race, and hate all others. However, when the player changes race they have to acknowledge the values of the race they were just playing and at the same time disavow them for the values of the race they are now fighting as, one that they previously thought was bad. Admittedly, this is not exactly the same but you see where i’m coming from.

I am happy to say that Starcraft performs all of these tasks. A large expansive universe has been created, with a great mythos surrounding each of the races. For those not familiar with the plot of the two Starcraft games, I will not try and summarise it. Its much to long and big, and in many ways unique to the developers, Blizzard. That’s what makes the Starcraft universe so immersing, the story is expansive and continues on between races. Unlike the Command and Conquer series, where each campaign plays through the same events as the others, just from a different viewpoint, the plot of Starcraft is Progressive. For example, the second campaign of Starcraft: Brood war is performed from the perspective of the Terran. At the end of this campaign, you successfully take control of a new Zerg Overmind and break the control of Kerrigan, the Queen of the Zerg, over all the Zerg in the universe. The third campaign, played as the Zerg, you are attempting to get the Zerg back under the control of Kerrigan. This flow of plot makes the game great to follow and forms the game into an actual story, rather than a number of identical missions. This has the effect of making you want to keep playing, not only to aid the cause of your race, but to hear the next part of the story.

A Protoss Briefing Room

A Protoss Briefing Room

This story is delivered in a number of ways. The first is through mission briefings. At the beginning of each mission you enter something of a virtual Communication room, with screens showing video feeds of each of the main characters. The briefing takes the form of conversation and orders given by these characters, and attempts to serve the purpose of making the player feel as if they are actually there in the council, and that they are an integral part of the decision to either attack or aid a faction. However, it ends up becoming slightly cheesy. Often when some of the characters curse Kerrigan after she destroys another colony or planet they usually come off sounding like they are channeling William Shatner yelling “KHAAAAAAANNNNN!” To add to the cheesiness, all the characters, in traditional RTS style, refer to you either as Commander, Executor or Cerebrate, depending on the race you are playing as. Despite these minor scruples, the over all form of the mission briefings work rather well.

The Second way that they story is conveyed is through the use of Animated Cut Scenes. In true Blizzard style, these are all of the highest order, an in some cases you could actually imagine these scenes cropping up in an animated film. In other words, they are extremely detailed and intricate, and an obvious amount of time has gone into making them. The only unfortunate thing about all of this is that they don’t appear more often, the cut scenes all ways being reserved for the most highly charged moments of the game, such as the fire cleansing of AN ENTIRE PLANET.

The Third is in the gameplay itself. Here, when the story needs to be told or advanced, the game takes control of everything. All production and battle stops and the camera is re-directed to the area where an in game sequence is played out. They don’t often play much of a role in proceedings, and usually only involve one character talking to another character, and then one of those characters double crossing the other, dying or running away. Some of these sequences try to add plot twists, where another character shows up and double crosses the others, dies or then runs away again, but it ends up playing out like an intergalactic version of “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” Some missions also have points where if you take one action over another, the next level that you play will be altered to match your decision. This is to give the impression of free choice and a realistic world where your actions have consequences, but it fails as  the level after the ‘altered’ level is back to the same as it would have been before. Luckily, these free choice options only appear between 3-5 times in both the games.

Starcraft Set The Standard For In Game Cut Scenes

Starcraft Set The Standard For In Game Cut Scenes

I know that it seems that this entire time I have spent my words simply bagging out the plot of Starcraft like a gaming equivalent of a thin person paying out a fat person with a cupcake, but the truth is that even if the person is fat, his cupcake is awesome. In other words, though the delivery of the story is flawed, corney and puffed up, the story itself is a beautiful mix of sprinkles, chocolate and cream. It is massive, continuous and has some genuine twists in it. Each of the characters, despite some shocking dialogue, seems real, and you really do hate it when they die. And in a massive kudos to Blizzard (Spoiler Alert) at the end of Brood War, HUMANS DON’T WIN, forcing the player to question the belief that maybe we aren’t as crash hot as we thought we were in the first place.

And now onto sound. Its good.

Ok, I should probably elaborate. The Starcraft series seemed to be the one of the first RTS games of its time to acknowledge just how much a good sound track can do for a game. So instead of the soundtrack simply being a world of horrific techno anthems, designed to ‘Pump you Up’, the score of the game, though electronic, is on par with music you would find in a Film or on Television. And there isn’t just two or three songs that are on a loop but dozens, as each race has its own set of music that fits in with its playing and aesthetic style. Sure, the music has not risen to such iconic status such as ‘Hell March’ from the Red Alert Series, but each track is easily recognisable and goes beyond simply being a gimmicky song- they become part of the landscapes itself.

The Sound Effects of the game are also top notch, and once again it is in the detail that this game shines. Starcraft could have got away with the generic noises, such as a Loud Bang when the tanks fire, or the sound of a machine gun when any bullets are let loose. However, the noises are different for each character. The sound of the Machine gun firing on the Goliath Mech is very different to the machine gun the Marines use. The talons of a Zergling swish differently to the talons of an Ultralisk. And every thing in the game makes sounds. There are different sounds for producing different units, for the spawning of units, to get them to stop, attack, move, fire on their own troops. Its a veritable sound designers wet dream. Ok, maybe not that good, but its still fair to say that a lot of thought went into the sound design. Blizzard also employs their other trade mark, unit phrases. Each unit in the game has a number of different sayings or phrases, and if you click on them enough, they begin to spout a number of new comedic phrases, many of them either political or pop culture references. Many would say that these serve no point, but I like to think that it shows that Blizzard Cares about its players. You know, until they invented World of Warcraft that is.

I have one minor annoyance, one that links into the visual design of the game as well, and it is an annoyance that is not just in Starcraft, but is a staple of any RTS game. It seems that the factions of Starcraft,  like any of the races in an RTS game, live in this hyper streamlined dystopian universe, not unlike Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,where it appears that only a specific kind of person can perform a certain job, and was brought up to perform it from birth. In Starcraft, this is not as much of an issue with the Zerg (As they are Animals) or with the Protoss (Because they may actually be like that) but in the world of the Terran it appears that only Hot Russian Women can fly Valkyries, only Fat German Men can pilot Battle Cruisers and only Men who’s parents are also cousins can become Marines. Its almost entertaining watching a squad of same looking Marines run towards the enemy, all yelling the same warcrys and then dying in exactly the same way. It could only be better if the Dueling Banjos from Deliverance were playing in the back ground.

When I say visuals I do not mean Graphics. It would be stupid for me to Critique graphics in this day and age, as it has now been around a Decade since the game hit stores. When I say Visuals I mean the style of the game. Do things look the same? Are they Appropriate for the genre? What detail is there? Starcraft is a game that receives a nice big tick of approval in almost all of these areas. An A -, not an A +. The units are varied, look fantastic (Even after the best part of a Decade) and most importantly all look different. You don’t ever enter into a situation where you find yourself looking at the Terran Marine and the Terran Fire Bat, and having trouble distinguishing which one is which, despite the fact that they are both similar units of size and shape. Each race, not only plays different, but looks different as well, each with little visual effects for their race, such as the muzzle flare of a machine gun, the plasma discharge of an energy weapon or the toxic spit of a Zerg Hydralisk.

Muzzle Flashes, Blood Splatters and Gas Plumes- The Detail In Starcraft Was Extensive For Its Time

Muzzle Flashes, Blood Splatters and Gas Plumes- The Detail In Starcraft Was Extensive For Its Time

Where the visual design of this game falls from being an A + to an A- is in the maps themselves. It is often the case that you will find every map taking place on one of 4 main terrains- Lush Green Jungle Map, Dark Alien World Map, Deserted Wasteland Map and Volcanic Hell Hole Map, with an occasional look in by Silver Metal Facility Map and Space Platform Map (Essentially Silver Metal Facility Map without walls or some floor). Seeing as, in the campaign, multiple maps can take place on the same planet, one after another, playing on the same deserted volcanic tile set can get a tad boring, leaving it up to the design of the map itself to make the world seem interesting.

It is nigh on impossible to rate or give a definitive score to Starcraft, something I never like to do in the first place. It has many different features and areas that some may love and others may hate. What can be said of it is this- its a decent game. It has superb units, both in function and design, and construction is fun and varied between each of the race, allowing a player to develop a specific playing style, or have their playing style catered to. It has a great story, one that is occasionally let down by poor delivery. The sound design for this game is Nigh on perfect, with sounds and music not only being plentiful but meaningful, rather than just a side note. However, Unit Movement is, at its worst, fundamentally flawed, to the point of being Game Breaking, and the maps sufferer from a big case of the Sameys. That being said, many new game designers should take a leaf out of Starcraft’s book about what it takes to make a well made, entertaining and engaging RTS experience. Hell, 43 Million Koreans cant be wrong!

Can they?

Mandarth Out!

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