It's easy to forget in light of how it defined the first wave of eSports, but StarCraft's campaign was pretty good for its day. In fact, when StarCraft II came around in 2010, I was more excited about picking up the story of Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan than playing online.
Sadly, StarCraft's campaign has been largely lost to history amid the rise of stars like Lee "Flash" Young-ho and Lim "BoxeR" Yo-hwan, better-known as the "Terran Emperor." But now that StarCraft is officially free, now is as good a time as any to go back to what was Blizzard's most ambitious campaign to date.
When StarCraft first launched in 1998, it immediately impressed with missions that were far more complex than what had been offered in WarCraft II just a couple years before. Where Blizzard's landmark fantasy RTS mostly told its story through a Star Wars-style text crawl, StarCraft's briefings featured fully-voiced dialogue, which carried into the missions themselves. It also had more complex objectives, including a much-celebrated mission that required Raynor's forces to hold out against a Zerg onslaught until time ran out (later a Blizzard staple).
With more interesting objectives and fully-voiced dialogue came better storytelling. Unlike WarCraft II, which featured two discrete campaigns, StarCraft told its story across three successive chapters, each one starring a different race. This allowed Blizzard to tell a more cohesive story while giving each race an equal share of the spotlight. It also leant the story a greater sense of mystery, as the Protoss—the stars of the final chapter—were mostly kept in the shadows until the final arc.
Over the course of its 30 mission campaign, StarCraft deftly builds an intriguing universe filled with interesting characters, none better than Kerrigan—the Ghost operative who is betrayed by the Terrans and ultimately assimilated by the Zerg. From the moment she emerges from her cocoon, she becomes StarCraft's number one villain, a ball of righteous vengeance that makes her immediately sympathetic, but also pure evil.
Her conflict with the Protoss is at the core of the second of the game, the tension steadily ratcheting up as she leads the invasion force against the Protoss homeworld of Aiur. The missions here are massive, the grand finale pitting a combined Protoss and Terran armada against the Zerg Overmind itself. It's classic sci-fi in the mold of Warhammer 40K and Starship Troopers, a sweeping tale that nevertheless manages to feel more grounded than WarCraft. WarCraft III would end up borrowing more than a little from StarCraft, including the arc of Arthas, who bears more than a little resemblance to Kerrigan.
In the meantime, Brood War—the expansion that followed a little less than a year after StarCraft—upped the ante considerably with its mission design. It made liberal use of map triggers, in-game conditions that would trigger specific events, as well as even more complex victory conditions. In just the first stage, you battle through the desolation of Aiur, Zerg Scourge flying above as a fight rages all around you. It's immediately grander in scale than anything in Vanilla StarCraft, foreshadowing the still more ambitious WarCraft III campaign to follow.
StarCraft and its expansion both did their share to advance the single-player RTS formula, ultimately winning over a legion of fans who cared as much about the fate of Kerrigan as the proper order for a Zergling rush. They still hold up, too. With its 2D graphics, StarCraft is one of those timeless games that still looks really good now, which is likely one reason Blizzard isn't going out of their way to upgrade the visuals for the upcoming HD version.
The campaign manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of the multiplayer game. You don't have to have lightning fast APM, and you don't have to put up with trollish opponents. Some of the later missions in Brood War will tax your micromanagement skills, but in true Blizzard tradition, the classic campaign is accessible to all skill levels. I was able to beat it pretty easily even when I was 15 and utterly terrible at real-time strategy game.
The world has moved on over the years, and StarCraft in particular has seen its star fade in the wake of the protracted sequel, but the campaign is still worth another look. After all, it's free.