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Retrospective: Starcraft Series

Starcraft 2 has been many, many years in the pipe. We've been waiting a massive twelve years, and in only a few days, it will drop into our laps, resplendent in all its alien-destroying glory. Still, one should never forget to look at the original Starcraft series. In some way, Starcraft has aged gracefully when many of its peers did not, making it one of the best real-time strategy games ever made. It's obvious that the legacy of Starcraft plays a major part in Starcraft 2, as the original game and its sequel share a lot more in common than, say, Warcraft 2 and 3.

Note: This retrospective has mild spoilers about the original Starcraft's story.

Starcraft was released on March 31st, 1998. Originally it was being made out to be similar to Warcraft 2, but in space. This was later discarded due to negative feedback on the concept, as the concept of two identical races was beginning to tire with strategy gamers. Thus, Starcraft as we know it - chock full of unique units, complex strategies, and transcendent isometric art - came to be.

Starcraft follows three races: the Terran, Protoss, and Zerg. The general gist of the story is that the Terrans have stumbled into a conflict between two Xel'Naga-engineered races, and are being manipulated in order to bolster each side. Throughout the course of the game, rebellions occur, alliances are made and broken, and several worlds are devastated by the Protoss and Zerg. The story is suitably epic (and we mean that in the normal sense) in its scope and progression, and is one of the most affecting and interesting stories in gaming. There's a reason why several characters, such as Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan, are considered some of the best characters in gaming. They leap out of the game, larger than life, but are still believable and interesting.

It's not the campaign that really drew people in, however. It's the races. Each race in Starcraft - Zerg, Terran, Protoss - fits a specific niche that the others don't. The Zerg rely on fast production, hit-and-run tactics, and swarms of units. The Terrans are a balanced race, and can find success in virtually any tactic, although they excel at none. The Protoss think big and powerful, but they take longer to build and require more resources to fuel this perfection. The fact that each race is so much different from the others, and yet they are all balanced, really speaks to the strength of Starcraft's core gameplay.

Funnily enough, Starcraft's legacy as a paragon of balance didn't come about until later. The core game was heavily unbalanced, with certain units being much more versatile than others, and some strategies being perpetually dominant. A good example of this is the "4pool." As a spawning pool, which allows you to make zerglings, only cost 150 minerals in the original game, you could churn it out relatively quickly and get 6 zerglings before the enemy player even got his first combat units. It was the scariest strategy around, and it worked a ridiculous amount of the time. Thankfully, though, Blizzard was working on an expansion soon after the game released.
Starcraft: Brood War came out roughly half a year later, and with it pulled Starcraft from being a relatively normal game into superstardom. While few games really require expansion packs in order to play well, Starcraft is one of those games, and Brood War shows it. It was an improvement of virtually every front, and Blizzard's continued support for the game only drove Brood War to further and further success. If it were not for Brood War, in fact, Starcraft might not be the international phenomenon that it is today.

Brood War follows the three races, once again, as they deal with the aftermath of the Overmind's death on Aiur and the invasion of the UED. Throughout all this, the characters of Kerrigan, Raynor, and Zeratul play a heavy role in defining the conflict, with others such as Samir Duran further muddying the moral waters. The general story is that Kerrigan, now an individual after the death of the Overmind, seeks to take control of the Zerg swarm and crush her enemies. She is naturally keeping the former secret, as she is manipulating events so that she will come out on top in the conflict with the UED, Protoss remnants, and Terran Dominion.

The biggest boost that Brood War gave to Starcraft was the inclusion of several units. These units would shore up the deficiencies in the various races and enable them to establish more complex strategies. New units included the Lurker, a devastating burrowed unit that tore apart ground-based foes; the Valkyrie, a dedicated anti-air ship that ruins capital ships; and the Dark Templar, a perpetually-cloaked melee unit that deals massive damage. These are just a sample of the new units, but for the most part, there wasn't a whole lot of unit additions that had to be made. What Brood War did was balance the game so that rushing tactics were less prominent and units were more universally useful. This balance is the reason why Starcraft is as prominent as it is in places such as South Korea.

Brood War is also the start of the continual patches that have shaped Starcraft into what it is today. These patches have done a lot, such as reducing the cost of Scouts, increasing the cost of Spawning Pools, increasing the viability of Vultures, and various other tweaks. A full list of the patch notes is a good read, as it shows just how much Starcraft has progressed from its original debut. It really has become the gamer's game. A game filled to the brim with both strategic and tactical depth.
Starcraft has had a number of spin-offs since its release, but none captured the attention that the original did. Some never even saw the light of day, and have seen very little in terms of promotion on Blizzard's end. Regardless, they play a role in the continuing evolution of the series, and despite not being part of true canon, they are still a must play for any Starcraft fan.

The first selection of spin-offs are three third-party add-ons. These add-ons include Insurrection, Retribution, and Stellar Forces. All of the add-ons have never been promoted by Blizzard, are not available through Blizzard's store, and in the case of Stellar Forces, were forced off the market by legal action. Each add-on was developed by a different company, and one was even developed by a company that has grown more prominent in recent memory: Stardock, developers of Galactic Civilizations and publishers of indie strategy titles such as Demigod. They don't add anything worth noting, but if you want access to some finely-tuned campaigns and multiplayer maps, it's worth checking them out. Naturally, Stellar Forces will be insanely difficult to get a hold of, but it can still be found.

The only official Starcraft spin-off so far has been Starcraft Ghost. It was an action spin-off, announced in 2001 and going through a rather protracted development cycle. Despite being in production for a long time, however, it was eventually "indefinitely postponed" (arguably canceled) and the main character's backstory was written into the Starcraft novels. We are a bit disappointed, because there was a lot of potential for an excellent, action-driven game starring a Ghost operative. Still, Nova may make an appearance in Starcraft 2, so we are excited.

Starcraft has had a long history, but the two core games have stayed virtually unchanged over the years in terms of content. That's perfectly fine with us! As we go into Starcraft 2 with quivering excitement, we look back on all the older media and realize just how far Starcraft has come and how much further it has to go. After all, Wings of Liberty is hardly the end of the Starcraft story. There's still two expansions after it, and potentially more sequels and books. It's all looking up for fans of the universe!


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