Blizzard Entertainment’s 1997 follow-up to their smash-hit real-time strategy game Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness was not a sequel but an expansive re-imagining of the entire video game genre. With its three sides with different play styles and different strengths and weaknesses, it offered a compelling and deep level of strategy that had been aped by most RTS games since. Its online popularity, especially in South Korea, means that tournament style online play continues to this day, over a decade after the initial release.
For the game’s music, Blizzard turned to its in-house composers Glenn Stafford, Derek Duke, and Jason Hayes, who over the years had worked on everything from Warcraft to Diablo, generally composing music that was functional but with few outstanding tracks that were listenable on their own. Starcraft, with its expansive canvas and distinct music requirements for each of the three playable races, inspired them to some of the finest music to grace a Blizzard product or an RTS in general.
The Terrans and their music feature a surprising and brilliant innovation—the insubordinate space rednecks on screen are supported by tunes which pull significant inspiration from country western music. Steel guitars, electric guitars, and all manner of hillbilly instruments, suitably modernized, lend each of the Terran songs a distinct Mason-Dixon flair. The fact that Starcraft is science fiction isn’t forgotten; generous amounts of spacey brass and electronic embellishments—even a choir!—are added to the mix, often splitting the melody with the guitars while the country aspects play backup and bass.
“Terran One” is the best mixture of these elements, a note-prefect and creative five minutes. “Terran Two” emphasizes the sci-fi aspects of the game much more in its first half, with a more electronic approach overall and most of the country aspects shifted to the latter half. “Terran Three” is more strident, with a greater country influence and less sci-fi. All three are excellent throughout. The “Terran Victory” on the official disc is an alternate, only used in a cinematic, and that’s unfortunate; the ingame version is a heroic anthem, the most straitlaced human song. “Terran Ready Room” is the sole weakness of the humans; it’s industrial ambiance that’s unsettling but little else—perhaps better suited to the Zerg.
In stark contrast (and out of order, since they are the final campaign in the game) come the Protoss. As one might imagine, their music is more subtle and electronic with a definite new age vibe running through it. With a light choir, soaring harps and electronics, and distorted electronics (often sounding like they were recorded through a pool of water) the Protoss music is soothing and ambient without being dull. The music is both melodic and new-age, highlighted by the best briefing music in the game, though the victory theme is strangely missing.
The Zerg are the album’s weak spot. While one wouldn’t expect alien bugs to merit a symphonic approach, their music unfortunately consists of a mélange of grinding electronic and industrial noise, with little continuity and even less musicality. It’s certainly unsettling—even alien—but listening to the dreary Zerg music is about as fun as listening to the Zerg themselves (who are even deprived of the funny quotes Blizzard traditionally gives their RTS units in the game). Listening to “Zerg1,” “Zerg 2,” and “Zerg 3,” one is tempted to skip right over all fifteen minutes of their dreary tuneless music.
There are a few bright spots to be found in the Zerg broods, however. “Zerg Ready Room” offers a menacing and spooky sound through its use of a descending series of notes and an eerie theremin. This approach, which hearkens back to space monsters from 1950’s B-flicks without sacrificing mood or intensity, would have been intriguing if it had been extended to the whole species. Likewise, “Zerg Victory” twists the aliens’ chosen soundscape into something fierce and melodic. That balls-to-the-wall approach could have worked very well if it had been extended, but it remains a lone highlight. “Zerg 1” also features a section, starting about a minute in, that hints at what could have been if the hive had embraced a more melodic sound; it’s unfortunately brief.
The 2007 iTunes release of the Starcraft score, the easiest way to obtain the music legitimately, includes music from the game’s Brood War expansion as well, mostly from its cutscenes. The mostly short snippets do offer some noteworthy departures from the rest of the music, though, like the “Brood War Aria,” which reaches heights of Russian choral magnificence unheard anywhere else on the album. An additional in-game track was composed for each race in the expansion but is not featured on the 2007 album; this is not a crippling omission. The dark, Russian-influenced track for the Terrans doesn’t fit in at all with the rest of their music, and the Protoss/Zerg tracks are so similar to what already exists on album that they blend in seamlessly and aren’t missed.
In short, there is much to enjoy about the music of Starcraft, especially given Blizzard’s tendency, before and after, to produce bland functional music without much heart for their games. Only the fact that the Zerg material is completely ambient with no listening value outside of the game keeps it from receiving the highest recommendation.