Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mod Auteurs: Razorclaw X

First a brief history: like many modding communities, the Starcraft modding community was fragmented across several sites -- Infoceptor, Starcraft.org, the Star Alliance, etc. -- but perhaps the most prominent / controversial site (though certainly the most productive) was Campaign Creations.

There at CC, Razorclaw X came to Starcraft modding from a "fan fiction" perspective -- which would explain why his characters and universe were such an utterly impenetrable fog unless you played all four campaigns in order -- and went out of his way to create an epic mythology involving the cast of the anime Ranma 1/2. The "Vision of the Future" series was four huge campaigns, spread across 84+ maps, with a new playable race called the "Zeji Armada," all done by one man.

In contrast, most of the other custom Starcraft campaigns stayed firmly within the universe, bloating Blizzard Entertainment's original cast of characters with dozens more of the same caricatures in an effort to re-create the epic space opera of the original campaigns. Which is why Razorclaw X's work was so refreshing -- it was different and it actually kind of worked. Starcraft... and anime. Okay.

I mean, seriously -- an anime about a transgender teenager with a panda for a father? Combined with Starcraft? Fortunately, the provided rationale for it all seems to be "who cares," because I'm pretty sure a sufficient explanation would've been ridiculously boring and unnecessary.

... But then sometimes the universe sometimes took itself pretty seriously (when I try to picture Razorclaw X in my head, I picture Comic Book Guy) with the occasional 10 minute long cutscene supplying reams of boring exposition. In this way it was also unapologetically nerdy, especially with the "Prophecy" campaign designed as a tribute to Wing Commander. You have to give the man credit though, he certainly thought about the mission design pretty hard.

But this lack of dependence on the Starcraft universe allowed for flexibility with the gameplay -- specifically, with the custom units' weapons. One Ghost hero unit fires a ground-based version of the Terran Valkyrie's cluster rockets. A "Mechalisk" Goliath-based unit fires Zerg Lurker spines. "Xaax the Defiler" has an attack, unlike every other defiler. It blatantly violated core rules of the Starcraft universe... and it worked beautifully because these new units were actually interesting to use.

Plus, the "Black Dream" flagship ranks up there as one of the coolest Starcraft units ever; it was a Terran Battlecruiser with Protoss shields and regenerating hit points, armed with a high-powered version of the Zerg Mutalisk chain-spores weapon - simply put, it kicked ass, yet still felt vulnerable if you let it take on too much.

(Unfortunately, starting with "Prophecy," Razorclaw X replaced the Black Dream's battlecruiser sprite with a custom one of his own design -- and it looks like a gangrenous penis-bird. I'd say his self-authored graphics were definitely the weak point of his work, with the exception of the Zeji units.)

But man, were the missions ever fun to play; just killing things with giant armies and fleets -- isn't that the core of what Starcraft is about, after all? Forget the political conspiracies, the same tired ruminations on heroic sacrifice, the blatant thievery from Warhammer, the generic pseudo-mysticical atmosphere of ominous doom looming over yonder; for now, just forget the narrative. Starcraft is about building shit and then blowing up someone else's shit.

And Razorclaw X's "Vision of the Future" series does this beautifully.

DOWNLOAD IT at Campaign Creations - requires Starcraft: Brood War. (However, I recommend skipping ahead and starting with the second campaign, "Black Dream")

Highlights of Razorclaw X's style:
  • Brilliantly mortifying us by injecting Starcraft with anime
  • Not afraid to break the rules of the Starcraft universe to make something interesting
  • Weird RTS unit types that work really well

RECOMMENDED PLAYING. Do you like Starcraft but never got into the custom campaign scene? Well, you're too late - the community is now dead - but here are some recommendations from what I consider the pinnacle of the community. Ahh, the good ol' days...
  • The Antioch Chronicles (1998) - one of the first custom Starcraft campaigns. Personally, I don't think it has aged very well, but you'll hear its name get thrown around as one of the early best.
  • Legacy of the Confederation: Fallen Angel (2004) - the last in the LotC series, and one of the last "huge" mods with voice acting / cinematics to be produced. Recommended for newcomers, as it's fairly short, very polished, and the story mostly stands alone from the previous two parts in the series.
  • Firing Line (2000) - a Tetris clone built in Starcraft by Blizzard Entertainment. It is without a doubt the most complicated Starcraft map of all time; Blizzard supposedly created an external program to automate the map-scripting because of the sheer complexity required to calculate simple block shapes falling in a field. "Because they said it couldn't be done..."
  • Deception (2000) - many community authors tried in vain to make a decently designed "stealth" level for their campaigns; here, Blizzard puts them all to shame with such elegant but powerful variations on regular Starcraft game rules. Plus, the scoring system is ingenious.
  • New Avalon 2 (1999?) - the landmark map of the "RPG" genre of Starcraft UMS maps, with pretty good storytelling that wisely focused on a handful of characters. Good implementation of RPG-style mini-games too. Unfortunately the final boss fight is rather frustrating, even if it's impressive.
  • Celestial Irruption (2001) - the last major release by Desler, with custom menu art / portraits / voices / everything. Well-designed missions hindered by what I consider a ridiculously overwrought universe with dozens of characters spread across 8 factions, much like Razorclaw X's series, except without the charm and weird quirkiness of his penchant for anime.