Retro Review: StarCraft (PC)

I’ve pretty much avoided the RTS genre completely for my entire gaming life. The closest I’ve come to playing anything remotely like an RTS is Plants Vs Zombies, the hour or so I spent playing Valkyria Chronicles, and a single – but very enjoyable – evening I recently spent playing Swords and Soldiers with my girlfriend on Wii U. Not only have most of the best RTSes been on PC (or clunky, poorly done console ports), but I never really had much confidence in my ability to actually learn and play an RTS successfully. I didn’t think I’d be any good at nor enjoy all of the micromanagement, the multitasking, the steep learning curve, or just the overall strategic thinking and planning required. I was also skeptical as to what seemed like the huge time investment an RTS asked of you, and having to play matches that could last upwards of an hour or more only to lose and have to start all over again. So I was armed with a pretty large dose of pessimism as I embarked on my journey into StarCraft.

I was immediately put at ease by how gradually the game introduces you to its play mechanics and the different types of units and structures. I never felt overwhelmed or like I was forced to do something beyond my comfort level – everything was rolled out at a perfect pace. Playing an early RTS was definitely the right move as it didn’t assume anything about my experience with the genre and treated me as if it is the very first RTS I’ve ever played. As I watched my drones mine material and bring it back to my base, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, I thought, this should be so boring…yet, somehow, it wasn’t. It was actually pretty satisfying to watch my little worker bees dutifully perform their assigned task for me, and also see the material numbers steadily climb. I only grew more delighted as I built more – and more advanced – structures, and I really couldn’t believe how much fun I was having basically just watching little digital characters “work.” I guess that’s why kids love ant farms so much.

Then stuff got real – it was time to fight. In the first stage I was provided with soldiers at the beginning of the round, so I didn’t have to do anything to spawn them myself. Again, while I used to scoff at the notion of just watching a battle unfold that I have almost no direct control of, it was pretty fulfilling to watch my little soldiers shoot down alien hordes. This fulfillment was increased tenfold in the next round when I learned the ability to actually create soldiers and build up my army as I saw fit, then marching my mighty troops into enemy territory and watching them mow down enemies and their strongholds. Regular foot soldiers gave way to guys with flamethrowers, which gave way to heavily armed ships and vehicles, and it was all very cool. I was officially having a great time with not only a very PC gaming experience, but an RTS to boot.

Although the game recommends finishing the Terran (human) campaign before moving on to controlling the Zerg, I wanted to sample a little bit of the other side of this war, so I skipped ahead to the Zerg campaign. I admit, I was expecting the Zerg to play pretty much identically to the Terran except that things would look different and have different names, but I was pleased to find out that there is actually a significant difference between the two. I won’t go into all of the specifics but it was a lot of fun learning the different nuances of the way the Zerg play in comparison to the Terran, how they are better in some ways and worse in others, and so on. However, I was very quickly overwhelmed once I began to battle the very powerful Protoss (the third prong of the war in the StarCraft universe). I probably skipped ahead to a level I wasn’t prepared for yet, but all of the issues I worried that I would have with an RTS began to present themselves. I couldn’t build units fast enough, I wasn’t managing my resources as well as I could have, I was paying too much attention to one area of the map while my forces got wiped out in another, and just the overall problems I was having playing the game really became tough to manage now that everything was happening so quickly and all over the place.

That’s right…I was pretty bad at the actual functional playing of the game. PC gamers take for granted how intimidating the keyboard can be and how tough the hyper-precise mouse controls are if you aren’t used to dealing with those things. I have no idea what the “right” way to play the game is, but after much trial and error the only system I could come up with that worked even remotely well for me was to use the mouse to click on units and command icons, and use the keyboard’s arrow keys to actually move around the map. I got too confused trying to use the keyboard to issue commands like “M” to move so I abandoned that pretty quickly. I just never really got very good at issuing commands quickly, moving units effectively, selecting large groups without unselecting half of them because they were already selected, and so on. All of which was fine when the game was in snail pace tutorial mode, but came to a head when it was time to actually play a heated match. So after two failed attempts – 30 minutes on the first try, 45 on the second – at a specific mission, I had to call this assignment completed. My frustration level had overpowered the fun I was previously having.

I fully acknowledge that I should’ve kept playing the game the way it was intended and not tried to jump ahead. I probably would’ve been better-equipped to handle those tougher levels, and maybe, just maybe, I’d have learned to actually play the game in a way that doesn’t feel like I have two left hands and that those hands are comprised entirely of pinkie toes. Truth be told, I was genuinely enjoying StarCraft, and honestly I may actually continue to play it beyond this homework assignment. It’s not hard to see why it’s such a beloved game and why people get so deeply immersed in RTSes. My biggest stumbling blocks to my continued enjoyment of the game are my sad PC gaming skills of course, but also just the time investment. Not to sound like a broken record, although I’m about to to anyone who reads this blog with any sort of frequency, but with the limited amount of time I have to game it’s hard for me to choose to play a game that requires so much time to play, such long play sessions, and especially long play sessions that can easily end with a loss and, therefore, no actual progress to show for the two hours of time I just spent playing the game.

But I don’t want to end on a negative note. I want to end by saying that I really like StarCraft, I don’t actually hate RTSes like I thought I would, and I’m very happy that I was able to both expand my gaming horizons and play a game that is considered by so many to be one of the best and most revolutionary video games ever made. That always feels pretty good to check something like that off of your video game bucket list. I still haven’t necessarily ruled out playing more of this game. Just not multiplayer…never multiplayer. I’ll stick with Swords and Soldiers for that.