Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Reviewed, Revisited, Reworked – Starcraft: Remastered is Here

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Blizzard released Starcraft: Remastered on Monday, with improved HD graphics, improved audio, a few new menu options, and most importantly, lots of pretty faces. Just look at the featured image up top if you don’t believe me.

One of my earliest memories of gaming was looking over my brother’s shoulder while he played Warcraft 2. He was fighting off some horde of enemies, the lone human player against six or seven orc factions. I’m sure it was going great, but I was more fascinated by the colors. The impossible odds he was facing meant every color faction was present in the game. I wanted him to click on this unit or that unit, to bring up the unit’s portrait and see what they look like in the different color palettes. As his virtual town burned around him, he said, “I don’t really have time to look at the pretty faces.”

I just wanted to see what this guy looked like in purple.

Now of course Starcraft is primarily about the strategy. But let’s not forget the pretty faces. When Starcraft came out, it was radically different from Warcraft 2, and not just because of the story. The differences between the fantasy world of Warcraft and the technological world of Starcraft were immediately apparent. The story was told through the graphics. You could skip the story, but you couldn’t skip the environment.

The mission briefing would tell you that you have to command some ramshackle units and construct a base, but then you’d actually get to see it happen. Every bit of the game reminded you of the gritty, technological space drama you were playing through.

Themes! Motifs! Symbols!

When you played Terran, you saw drilling, tanks, marines, and good old human ingenuity. When you played Zerg, you saw freaky metamorphoses, organic behemoths, and alien mutations unfold before your eyes. When you played Protoss, you saw high-tech robotics, mystical warriors, and sometimes inexplicable phenomena unfold at your command. The graphics expressed all of this, the underlying themes of the game, and showed you how it was all your world to play in. Starcraft: Remastered is only a graphics update, but those graphics are very important.

I hear graphics capabilities have advanced since the release of Starcraft in 1998. The graphics were great then, but still restricted by the technology of the day. With their blocky nature or hazy portraits, it left a certain amount open to your own interpretation. I was reminded of that when I finally got started in Starcraft: Remastered, because a lot of my time playing it has been just clicking on units and realizing what they were meant to look like.

Hydras have arms?

Anyone getting Starcraft: Remastered will see the updated unit portraits and newer, more accurate art of these space warriors. That means more moments of disgust as you look at the Zerg with fresh eyes, new moments of immersive gameplay as you command terran units, new moments of wondering if the Protoss are wearing anything under that armor…

Remastered has left gameplay entirely untouched. The menus are updated, with a few new options, such as game subtitles, custom keybindings and other display options are included. The campaigns have a few updated introductions before they drop you into the mission briefings—same script, new graphics and audio. The HD graphics can actually be turned on and off right there with a single click in-game, so that’s nice for when a nostalgic gamer can’t make up their mind. It’s all we could hope for from a graphics update.

Old, standard definition gameplay.

It certainly felt eerie playing a few matches of this updated game, like an artificial, conscious sense of deja-vu. I knew all the units and they all behaved the same as they always had, but everything had a new coat of paint over it. Recognizable, familiar, but new. A particular favorite of mine is the Dragoon.

Dragoons were always supposed to be recovered protoss warriors, kept alive in some freaky life-support pod/tank. In the old portrait, you could see it…. if you’re ok with a hazy interpretation of those pixels. The updated one makes it very clear that there’s the head of a ruined Protoss warrior floating in there.

New and old portrait, side by side.

A lot of these updated graphics enhance the feel of the Starcraft universe in that way, and I think a lot of players will feel very immersed in these new graphics. An equal amount of people may lose their feelings of immersion, as the graphics fail to jive with how dark or how bright they wanted Starcraft.

Maybe you were perfectly happy thinking that Raynor had hair and the Protoss didn’t have giant ponytails. Some players might find the updated graphics to be too similar to Starcraft 2, or not similar enough. It will be a mixed bag for everyone; as much as I liked the dragoons, I disliked the photon cannons for looking unpowered in-game. Mixed reactions are unavoidable anytime a game updates, and especially a popular one such as Starcraft.

Experienced players may be thrown off their game a little bit, too. I never stopped playing Starcraft. The aforementioned brothers of mine may not all be under the same roof anymore, but we still find time for multiplayer matches, and we ran a few this week. There were some complaints of being distracted by the graphics, and our depth perception being disrupted. This includes instances of gauging unit ranges incorrectly or misjudging a building’s size. Minor issues, but it’s sort of like coming home to find someone has moved half your furniture a half-inch to the left. It produces a moment of hesitation. The updated graphics can make a returning player feel a little unbalanced and uncompetitive, despite the game only looking different.

A major selling point of Remastered was that while the graphics would be updated, Blizzard wouldn’t touch the gameplay. This is both smart and lazy, which is the best kind of smart. Like I said, the graphics will prompt a variety of reactions from each individual player—but that’s nothing compared to tweaking the statistics of a game system that has gone so long without an update. Whatever possible balanced changes Blizzard could have come up with would have been put under a microscope of scrutiny and examined from every angle by every fan of the game.

This was very important to me as well, because I don’t think the newer iterations of real-time strategy games have ever approached Starcraft’s level of balance. So rather than slog through with balanced changes, and any fan backlash, Blizzard just said, “The strategy gameplay that StarCraft perfected years ago [will] remain unchanged.”

Also you guys freaked when we changed this one dude’s eye color, so give us a break.

Instead, Blizzard focused on overlaying the newer, updated graphics, and ensuring players could use Starcraft with the same game client that runs their more modern games, such as Overwatch and World of Warcraft. Surprisingly, their changes to the interface were so few that I actually find myself wishing for more. The chat function, for example, has a sharper font and appearance in-game, but is still very limited in recording what players say to each other. Maybe it’s hidden in a menu somewhere, or will come with a future patch. Who knows.

Also, while Blizzard has made sure Starcraft will play nice with our newer computers, they haven’t much changed the multiplayer system. It’s all interface changes—the underlying system of browsing and joining games is fundamentally the same, and the games themselves offer nothing new to anyone uninterested in PvP. Changes are only skin-deep; game modes are untouched and the AI is the same, so don’t look for any new tricks out of your single-player games.

So overall, I’m very excited to keep playing Starcraft with these newer graphics. I actually find myself wishing they had changed more, and made the interface more accessible.

I would consider the game to be worth the price (currently $15) but that depends on what you’re looking for Starcraft: Remastered to be. Anyone worried about how the game might run on their computer, or continue to run in the coming years of updates, will be satisfied with the latest patch, and probably not need to buy the HD graphics update. If you’re a casual player, uninterested in measuring your APM or climbing the ladder, this update probably isn’t for you either.

On the other hand, if you can’t get enough of space combat, or you want to stretch the legs of your gaming computer, or you just need to revisit the RTS game the started it all, then Starcraft: Remastered is the game for you.

Live for the swarm, etc. etc.

Images courtesy of Blizzard.

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