StarCraft II Beta: Game Performance Analyzed

Same Interface, Different Strategies

StarCraft was released for the PC more than 10 years ago, at the end of March 1998. One of the Terran tutorial levels involved a simple survival objective of staying alive for several minutes against endless swarms of Zergling attackers. The first time I played the game, it drew inevitable comparisons to Starship Troopers, a movie that had been released a few months earlier. It sounds ridiculous today, but watching all of those Zerglings onscreen in the mandatory 640x480 glory looked fantastic. Despite its graphical limitations, StarCraft has endured as a staple of the real-time strategy (RTS), genre and is arguably the most important RTS of all time. The game has sold about 10 million copies and has been outsold only by World of Warcraft and The Sims.

Can you even imagine spending serious time with any other game made over 10 years ago? Indeed, StarCraft endures. The title spits in the face of the normal PC game life-cycle. It has become a professional spectator sport in South Korea, with top players pulling in well over six figure annual earnings.

Somehow, this classic has transcended what a game is expected to be, and its developer (Blizzard Entertainment) has paid homage to the title with many updates over the years. What makes StarCraft so popular? Is it the perfect balance of three incredibly different factions? Is the game some freak of nature, just complex enough to engage your interest, but not so involved that it turns off the masses? Can the game's success even be duplicated in a sequel? There are too many variables for us to guess at this point, but there's no doubt that StarCraft II has some very big shoes to fill.

Frankly, I'd be happy with a graphical update of the old game and maybe some new single-player missions. I'm not even sure I'd add new units, at the risk of messing with the magic. But I'm not Blizzard Entertainment, and Blizzard Entertainment is not content to merely duplicate the original. StarCraft II is a very different game from its progenitor, and despite the similarities in the basics, you better scrap your old strategies because they're probably not going to work. For example, Terran Wraiths are gone and there are no more Terran air-to-air units that can cloak. Protoss Dragoons are gone as well, and Zerg creep no longer grows out of most buildings and must be constantly replenished by overlords. Also, an overlord is no longer able to see cloaked units. There are a ton of new units with unique strengths and weaknesses. Strategically, there are probably more differences compared to the original than there are similarities, and play styles will be affected to the core.

Nevertheless, the interface is the same and the title is unmistakably StarCraft. If you walk into a room and glance at someone playing StarCraft II at the lowest resolution, you will probably assume they are playing the original and won't look twice. However, as different as it is, StarCraft II feels so very comfortable.

The basics remain the same. Terran players need supply depots and barracks, Zerg live in creep and spawn their units, and Protoss warp in their structures with drones. Yes, there are some updates to the interface, but they serve only to make life easier and do not change the game. StarCraft II shows you idle workers so you can direct them, and hallelujah, you can select much larger groups of units than the original game allowed you to select.

What about the graphics? Well, the game can handle 4:3 to 16:9 monitor aspect ratios. Playing it at 2560x1600 is surreal if you have spent countless hours with the original at 640x480. Heck, the minimum available resolution is 1024x768 now. Just don't plan on zooming out to see massive sections of the map, because that's not allowed.

The resolution has increased, but the size of the player's view has not. One window fits all, but players with a wide-screen monitor will see a little bit more of the periphery than someone playing on an older 4:3 screen. You can zoom in to see the new units closer in glorious 3D, but you can't zoom out to have a look at the map as a whole. The fidelity is beautiful and there are a lot of attractive effects. Like the interface, though, the art direction was preserved intact. Anyone who's played the original is going to immediately know what a Terran, Zerg, or Protoss unit looks like, even if they've never seen that unit before.

To summarize, you can expect StarCraft II to deliver a near-identical interface and art style compared to the original, with updated graphics. On the other hand, the strategy has changed far more than I ever assumed it would. Instead of adding a couple of new units to each faction, the developers have really changed the way StarCraft II is played compared to its predecessor. Is that good or is that bad? As a player who relied on the simplicity of the original, I admit I'm a little frightened of change. But the game is undeniably fun, even in its beta form, and Blizzard Entertainment is treating the game with the respect and reverence it deserves.

What about performance--that's what you're here for, isn't it? Blizzard Entertainment's games are famous for their ability to work on older hardware. Let's see if StarCraft II fits in the same category. I think you might find the results surprising.

  • bmadd
    no GTX480/470??
  • LLJones
    Nice review, never played the original, will have to give this a try. I'm tired of run and gun.

    A small request. Would you be so kind as to include a 4 series Radeon in your next review? Maybe a 4870 or 90. I know that my CF/OC 4770's give me 4890ish performance, but have no idea where this is in 5 series.

    As you used older Nv cards, I will guess that the game is DX11 but DX10(.1) playable.

    With a little luck, a few months from now, I will only need to look at the 5 series charts.
  • Gin Fushicho
    unnn. I wanna play this game, now I feel like your teasing me Tom's.
  • IzzyCraft
    "For example, Terran Wraiths are gone and there are no more Terran air units that can cloak"
    banshees yo...
  • patdohere
    Cool, so one question. When does starcraft 2 come out?
  • Ragnar-Kon
    lljonesWould you be so kind as to include a 4 series Radeon in your next review? Maybe a 4870 or 90.
    I have a Radeon HD 4870, and my performance on the Starcraft 2 beta is about the same (usually better) as my roommate, who has 5770. When I'm looking at the FPS it usually sits around the 78fps mark. I couldn't tell you during an intense battle because... well... I'm not looking at the FPS meter. In general, our cards performs about the same in most games we play. The rest of our systems are also comparable, with the exception that he has a significantly faster hard drive than me, which usually only comes into effect on load times (he can load a Bad Company 2 map about 15 seconds before I can load mine).

    Of course our little benchmarking isn't as precise and Tom's is, but maybe that'll give you a starting point.
  • Ragnar-Kon
    ragnar-konWhen I'm looking at the FPS it usually sits around the 78fps mark..
    This should be 48 fps, not 78. Damn lack of edit.
  • drutort
    i would have hopped to see more scaling and not so much cpu dependent oh well... also the multi core code hope that will improve cause everyone will soon have 3-6 cores... and if only 2 cores are giving you any advantage i hope they optimize it at least down the road
  • Lessqqmorepewpew
    why does fps cap seem so low?
  • deividast
    I was dissapointed that there were no GTX470/480, since i'm planning on buying them :)
    Other thing that bothers me is a CPU :( i have Phenom x4 at 2,3ghz and as i see this game runs better on faster CPU's :(
    and man, i can't wait to get my hands on this game :D