Thursday, February 2, 2017

StarCraft: Evolution Review

Hello everyone!

Over the last month, I read a brand new book that came out in the fall titled StarCraft: Evolution by Timothy Zahn so I figured I'd post a quick review and some of my thoughts on it.

First of all, you may have heard of Timothy Zahn if you are a big science fiction reader, or if you are a huge Star Wars fan like I am. He has authored numerous Star Wars titles that were a huge part of the extended universe after Return of the Jedi. Namely, he was the author of the hugely popular Grand Admiral Thrawn trilogy, of which I'm a huge fan of that character.

He now turns his attention to tackle another one of the huge staples in my life, StarCraft. I've wrote about my love a little bit about StarCraft before when I posted my review of the WarCraft movie, but it is certainly no joke. I've played countless hours of StarCraft since it came out in 1998 and I still play it to this day. In fact, I fired up the old StarCraft just the other day to play a couple hours. The language and imagery from this game is so ingrained into my head that I can spout out most of all the lines of the characters just like movie quotes (which is funny because a lot of them are actual movie quotes, especially the Terran dropship's 'Alien' quotes like, "Hold on, we're in for some chop" or "In the pipe, five by five"). So much so that when playing Cards Against Humanity, someone always knows to throw out the "You Must Build Additional Pylons" card out there at some point when I'm the judge.

So, naturally, when this book came out, I was really interested in reading it to see how a critically-acclaimed author would handle something so dear to me. I was curious to see how he would continue the storyline from the end of StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void, which is the third and final chapter of StarCraft 2. So far, to this point, the continuity of the game's storyline progresses through the initial StarCraft, then StarCraft: Brood War (its expansion pack), then StarCraft 2 which composed of the trilogy of Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm, and Legacy of the Void.

In my opinion, the one of the best stories ever told in video games is the one that exists in StarCraft and Brood War. I was okay with the story that continued in StarCraft 2, but it felt a lot like many things in fiction right now, a being that seems hell bent on destroying the universe. StarCraft 2, however, did tie up a bunch of loose ends from the original two games, which were somewhat satisfying. I won't delve into the stories of the games too much here because there is a lot there if you haven't played any of the games, but you can look up the plots online.

That being said, there is so much in this book that relies on having somewhat of a knowledge of the games. I think that when Zahn wrote this novel that he figured that the audience would pretty much be anyone who played the games and not a general audience. Understandably so, but at the same time, I feel that StarCraft is a niche here in the States. I don't feel that it has as big of an influence on the larger population as say, Korea where it seems almost everyone plays it. I know many of my friends played it growing up, but it doesn't seem as large in the pop culture sense as some other Blizzard properties. Obviously World of WarCraft is their largest, but I think in quality of game, StarCraft far exceeds WarCraft.

Many of the characters that survived StarCraft 2 make an appearance in this novel and once again are major players in pushing the plot forward. Zahn does a great job though creating his own new characters that we get to learn about and care for throughout the book. As in any StarCraft game, the three main races here in the Koprulu Sector are the Terrans (humans), the Protoss (psionic ancient aliens), and the Zerg (bug-like killing machines). Each of these factions have their leaders that all appeared in the StarCraft games like Emperor Valerian Mengsk of the Terrans, Hierarch Artanis of the Protoss, and Queen Zagara of the Zerg. All of these characters became leaders of their groups by means of different avenues that can be learned from the games that came before them. Some of this is touched on in this novel.

The plot of this book is as follows (SPOILERS): After the end of the Second War (StarCraft 2), all three groups are in a period of peace. The Terrans and Protoss basically formed an Alliance at the end of StarCraft and were in a tepid Alliance throughout StarCraft 2. These tensions between some Terrans and the Protoss is elaborated in this book, but for all intents and purposes, they are allies. Emperor Valerian gets a distress call from Queen Zagara saying that Artanis is threatening to destroy her planet of Gystt that the Zerg were allowed to rebuild on. Artanis claims that she is building another army to start another war.

Zagara claims there is no ill-intent, they are simply minding their own business and have no intention of attacking anyone. Valerian arrives to the planet and both him and Artanis plan a meeting on the surface of the Zerg planet to see that they aren't up to making trouble. Artanis and the Protoss have never trusted the Zerg and is extremely skeptical of their intentions the entire time.

While the leaders meet to discuss how the Zerg have turned a barren landscape into a veritable jungle in such a short time, Valerian sent a team to investigate and research other areas of the planet to look behind the curtains, so to speak. This team is comprised of entirely new characters to the StarCraft lore created by Zahn. It consist of Lieutenant Halkman (a.k.a. Dizz), a Reaper class, Sergeant Whist who is a Marine, Tanya Caulfield who is a Ghost operative, a xenobiologist named Erin Wyland, and a Protoss "researcher" named Ulavu.

This team goes to investigate the source of some odd shaped geological features and find odd patterns of sounds and vegetation growth. The sounds are primarily psionic as both Tanya and Ulavu are extremely sensitive to being telekinetics due to being a Ghost and a Protoss. They end up finding out that this new class of Zerg they've never seen before is extremely powerful psionically and are capable of causing enemies to basically have a brain overload and pass out making it easier to kill them. They call this new class Psyolisks to go along with the basic naming convention of the Zerg up to this point. They are basically mini versions of the classic Hydralisks which you can see below.

These psyolisks attack the group with other classes of Zerg aiding in the attacks and Valerian and Artanis demand what Zagara is up to. She claims that she is not ordering the attacks as all the Zerg are under her control (just like an army of ants who work under the Queen). The Zerg Evolution Master Abathur claims he doesn't know what the Terrans are talking about. Zagara says that her newly created species, what she calls the Adostra, only create life, not attempt to kill anything.

This creates a mystery for the Terrans and Protoss to figure out what is going on with this information as the psyolisks attacking them speaks directly against what Zagara had been saying. It eventually gets to the point where Valerian and Artanis are about to incinerate the planet but the team finds out that there are two new species, the psyolisks and the adostra. Zagara had no idea the psyolisks were created by Abathur and he created them to be freed of the Queen's control and neutralize any unit with psionic capabilities. The psyolisks were actually going to destroy the adostra because Abathur didn't agree with the Queen's plan for the Zerg.

I won't get too much into what happens after the big discovery that I briefly wrote about, you'll have to read on your own to find out that information.

Overall, I thought it was a fun read as a StarCraft fan. Knowing the majority of the characters and history up to that point made it extremely easy to follow. Also knowing all the classes of units was very beneficial. However, if you aren't as familiar with the games, I can see this as being problematic. There isn't a whole lot of descriptions of the units that are mentioned, so having a base knowledge is almost a must. Granted, many images of the units can be found online, so if you are that desperate to know, you can find them.

I really enjoyed the new characters and I feel that is when the book is at its best. Delving into new characters really expanded the StarCraft universe because it looked into more of the foot-soldier mentality of the overall whole. In the games, you were always in the point of view of one of the leaders of the groups and never really got to see or hear the thoughts or opinions of the guys doing all the dirty work. It was very interesting to read how individuals felt about all the conflict that had taken place. You get a sense of how many Terrans still don't like the Protoss, despite being in an alliance with them, due to the fact that the Protoss early on incinerated entire planets of Terran cities because the Zerg had overrun them.

On the other hand, despite the advancement of events after StarCraft 2, I feel like this didn't really introduce anything new to the overall nature of the story. And maybe that can't be avoided. This is always going to be three warring factions, with the Protoss and Terrans mainly working in tandem against the Zerg. Yes, there are a couple new things like psyolisks and what not, but eventually you pretty much end up at the same thing that always happens. The Zerg go all Starship Troopers and try to kill everyone.

I'm interested though to see where this leads. Blizzard has said they don't anticipate working on StarCraft 3 for a while, but that doesn't mean that novels like this won't or can't continue. The story ends without completely tying up the loose ends, so there is still more of this story to tell.

Overall, I'm glad to have read this book to deepen the StarCraft universe that I love. Zahn did a great job expanding the feelings of individuals that were the grunts throughout the games, and it was much needed. Anyone who enjoys StarCraft will probably like this novel. For those who have never played the games, I'd be interested to hear your opinions if you read this book. To me, it could come across as a fun sci-fi adventure/mystery, but it could also come across as confusing and too broad of scale in some instances.

So if any of you read it, drop me a line and let me know you thoughts and see how they compare to mine or if you want a StarCraft nerd to get into extreme detail!

Thanks for reading,

Mike G.

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