If Christmas is the epitome of computer gaming nirvana with hundreds of CD-ROM releases, spring is a barren wasteland. Blizzard Entertainment bucked the trend with StarCraft ($50; PC), the highly anticipated real-time game that delivers an engaging experience that's as addictive as it is complex.
The "God game" genre was pioneered by games like Populous, Civilization and Dune II and made popular by WarCraft II (also by Blizzard) and Command & Conquer. The games let you lord over the battlefield, building up bases and sending troops and artillery to battle. Last year's Total Annihilation took the genre by storm with 3-D units and new game pieces you could download from the Web for free.
So how could StarCraft innovate in a now-crowded field of strategy games? Well, it's not 3-D--which is a bit of a letdown--but it makes 2-D look incredibly artistic. Even when you're simply choosing a mission and your cursor goes over a choice, the screen comes to life with flickering alien text and eye-popping graphics.
But it's not just a visual feast. StarCraft offers you three sides to play in the game: the humanoid Terran, the slimy alien Zerg or the sleek, intelligent Protoss. Taking place centuries into the future (what self-respecting game wouldn't?), the back story is interesting, complicated and more relevant to game play than ever. Basically, the Terran were jettisoned into space from Earth and are a roguish, scurrilous bunch, prone to using a Southern accent. (We can travel at warp speed and hibernate cryogenically, but we still have that doggoned accent. . . . )
Playing as the Terran, you have to take on various pirate and rebel groups, plus you have to battle the other species. Though the game can be daunting for first-time strategy players, the introductory tutorial will ease you into the action, with on-screen tips and helpful voice-overs. As you play, various characters pop up with scripted dialogue, and the cut scenes are well-acted and less distracting than usual.
The missions also go beyond the normal "kill everything" objective, having you team up with neutral forces or hold on to your base for a set time period.
The level of plot detail in the manual is astounding, but you can still play the game without much study. Just try to learn the basics of each race, build your army and complete your objectives efficiently. You can play multi-player over the Net for free (at http://www.battle.net) or play head to head via modem. One annoying feature, likely designed to speed Net play, is that you can only select 12 units at a time. This can make large-scale battles frustrating.
Still, StarCraft will gobble up your free time with its engaging look and style, and veteran gamers can even create their own missions with the included Campaign Editor. With only the overly complicated Star Wars: Rebellion strategy title as its current competition (and the incredibly difficult Total Annihilation add-on, Core Contingency), StarCraft will prove to be the light that shines through an otherwise tepid springtime.
Mark Glaser is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and critic. You can reach him at email@example.com