Warcraft. For almost 10 years, this venerated series (almost) single-handedly established the Real Time Strategy genre as a viable medium for gaming. (Westwood’s Command and Conquer being the other title.) Featuring peasants and pitiful orcs, knights and bloodthirsty warriors, wizards and necromancers, Warcraft managed to woo gamers with its creative gameplay, tight control, and enthralling storyline. Building upon the richness of the universe that was created, Warcraft II and its subsequent expansion pack was released a few years later to a public hungry for more destruction across Azeroth. Even Starcraft, the futuristic sci-fi RTS which is a classic in its own right, at times seemed to merely whet the appetite of the gaming public for the epic battle of Humans versus Orcs. Finally, after almost five years in development, numerous tweaks, revisions to game engines, redesigns to game mechanics, adjustments to racial imbalances, and a few partridges in pear trees -- amongst other things -- Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos has been unleashed upon Earth.
It’s hard to find any gamer who hasn’t seen, played, or read about this game or its predecessors. If you were too young to play the original, or never touched a computer, here’s a quick and dirty recap of the series’ history. (You may want to grab your neighbor or a sibling…chances are, they’ve either played them or are playing Warcraft III right now.) A long time ago in a realm called Azeroth, a kingdom of Humans lived in relative peace and harmony with their Elven and Dwarven neighbors. However, this calm was shattered when the Orcish Horde appeared. Natives of an alien world called Draenor, the Orcs, comprised of numerous clans, conjured up a massive portal with their magic and sought to invade Azeroth to claim it for themselves. Not only were they looking for new territory to conquer, the Orcs were also looking for a place to transport their people from their dying home world. With their fierce attacks and reckless abandon, the destruction of Azeroth was almost assured, until the Humans managed to forge an alliance with the Elves and Dwarves to save their lands.
Slowly, the Alliance forced the Orcs to make a final stand at the base of the portal they’d opened up into Azeroth. After a furious battle, the Orcish leader was defeated, the surviving clans were scattered, killed or captured, and the portal was sealed. Or so the Alliance thought. Secretly capturing some of Azeroth’s magical artifacts in a set of daring raids, the Orcs of Draenor prepared a ritual designed to rip open a permanent gateway to the Alliance’s world. Attempting to mount a counter-offensive, a group of the Alliance’s most valiant heroes and their forces stormed through the original portal and assaulted the Orcs on their own soil. However, after numerous battles, the magical energy expended to open portals and attack foes began to rip Draenor apart. Seeking to protect Azeroth, the Alliance’s heroes decided to close the portal and accept their fate on the doomed planet. Only a few Orc clans managed to escape back to Azeroth before the destruction of their world.
I’m sure that a thought has crossed your mind by now: This isn’t Warcraft. It isn’t Warcraft II, or its expansion pack. It’s Warcraft III. Where’s the plot summary for it? Well, for those of you who don’t own a copy of the game, I’m going to intentionally disappoint you. Why, you might ask? There are numerous reasons I’ve come up with, and I’ll give you three off the top of my head. First of all, you really need to buy this game. The production value of the title alone is worth the sixty dollars, and if you have the means (if they’re not sold out already), sprint out and make sure that you get the Collector’s Edition. Packing impressive goodies, including a soundtrack and a coffee table art book covering the entire series, this is the one you want to fully immerse yourself in the Warcraft realm.
Second, the wizards at Blizzard have been lauded since their inception as masterful storytellers. Personally, I feel a little ashamed at my attempt to address two games worth of gripping plots and narratives, because I don’t really feel that I’ve done those landmark titles justice. But while those previous titles established a rich history across two worlds full of victory and conquest, Warcraft III takes that solid foundation and begins to erect a new chapter in this epic storyline, full of plot twists, character developments and exposition. And, for those of you who were wondering, an expansion pack does seem to be in the cards as the story goes along.
Third, this isn’t your old Warcraft or Warcraft II. The first two games only allowed two choices for your game, either Human or Orc, and you played along divergent storylines with minimal reference, either in plot or in mission, to the other campaign. That concept has been completely squelched in Warcraft III, where one plot is stretched across all the playable races. Starting with the Orcs prologue, which acts as a set of training missions to introduce you to the world and the plot, you progress through the Human campaign, move onto the Undead levels, continue into the Orcs missions and end with the Night Elves. This linear progression of the story may seem a little confining to veterans of the series, because the option of choosing another race and launching off on their individual crusade isn’t available until you’ve finished all the missions of the preceding nation. What will become readily apparent as you play, however, is that the fate of the four races is tied together so completely within this game that you wouldn’t want to skip ahead.
Besides, the individual differences within the races are so unique that you will want to savor your time with them. The Humans host a balanced ground attack with ranged units, and have pretty decent armor. Add some protective magic from their spellcasters, and the Humans can basically repel any threat. The Orcs, on the other hand, are the brutes of the game. Strong and powerful, with units that inflict loads of damage, the only thing that’s worse than an Orc is an angry Orc. Of course, it follows that one of the spells available to them is Bloodlust, which spikes their damage up considerably (Talk about a shot of adrenaline).
Contrasting the Horde are the stealthy Night Elves, who display much more finesse and skill. Excelling at ranged attacks, the Elves are almost perfect assassins, able to attack quickly and from a distance. Plus, if it’s nighttime, the elves can become invisible with their Shadowmeld ability, increasing their hit and run tactics. Finally, the Undead attempt to overwhelm everyone with their massive numbers. Quickly produced and adept at swarming, their ranks can also be increased with each enemy they kill, turning previous foes into new allies. This can be confusing and demoralizing to enemy troops.
What I will talk about are three major aspects of gameplay, which build upon the strengths of the franchise. One of the largest parts of RTS games is the inclusion of the Fog of War, areas of the mission map that haven’t been revealed due to lack of reconnaissance. Typically, the fog of war is cleared based upon the line of sight of your units. As they move forward, more and more territory is revealed until a section is cleared. The largest danger that the fog of war poses, of course, is hidden enemies or ambushes, which your forces can stumble upon and be destroyed by. Warcraft III adds a new twist to this by changing the time of day from day to night. Like real life, when the sun goes down, the line of sight that units have is dramatically reduced. Additionally, certain benefits, like health regeneration, slow down or stop entirely at nighttime. The only race unaffected by night are the aptly named Elves, who gain the ability of invisibility at night.
Similarly, like most RTS titles, you have to deal with the concepts of resource gathering in the form of gold and lumber for the production of units and base structures. Playing up the diversity of each race, the methods of collection and creation are completely different. For example, Orcs and Humans have peasants or peons perform most of the manual labor, while the Night Elves and Undead utilize supernatural means. Now, one of the greatest problems with RTS existence is the tactic of unit rushes, where a player or the computer builds up a massive force of powerful units and steamrolls over a base or stronghold, crushing everyone and everything in sight.
However, unlike other RTS titles, Warcraft III imposes a unit and production limit in an attempt to eliminate this tactic. The first limit is that of a maximum of ninety units of food to feed all of your units. While you can build any number of troops available on your technology tree, you cannot exceed the maximum food cap. The second limit is that of upkeep. When you start out a level, your production units work at maximum efficiency to supply your base with the items it needs to grow. As your armies expand and your base grows, the amount of materials returned to your base decreases because of the necessary maintenance required for fielding a large strike force.
These strike forces will usually be headed by at least one hero. The Warcraft series was practically instrumental in creating the idea of a hero unit, a warrior whose skill and ability on the field of battle made them a precious commodity within any skirmish. Some old faces have arisen to lead their people in this conflict, like Uther the Lightbringer and Grom Hellscream from previous titles, and Thrall, the protagonist of the ill-fated Warcraft Adventures title. In Warcraft III, these characters have taken on an even more important role. Taking an RPG-like twist, each hero earns experience with every encounter they survive. When they’ve reached a new experience level, their already formidable stats are augmented, and they are given the choice of new abilities. There are four different kinds of abilities: spells, passive skills, auras, and an ultimate spell. Spells are things that can be cast by the hero upon other people. Passive skills are the hero’s inherent abilities that affect them personally. Auras affect units in close proximity to the hero. Finally, the ultimate spell is a massive spell that usually affects an area of the screen. Needless to say, it behooves the player to send their heroes into the face of danger at every opportunity to provide ample experience for upgrades.
Heroes are also the only ones who can fully accomplish optional quests and acquire items. Each mission has a main objective, which is the only thing you have to complete to move on to the next level. However, the territories comprising the mission maps have additional areas obscured by the fog of war that hide bonus goals. Comprising everything from saving kidnapped children to healing ailing forest creatures, accomplishing these tasks can sometimes take quick planning and fast swordplay. However, taking these extra risks are worth it, because you are typically rewarded with an item along with your boost in experience. These items can only be used by heroes, and can boost their stats, increase the damage they deal, or heal their armies, among other effects. While each hero is restricted to carrying six items total, the unused objects carry over from mission to mission. This adds an added level of strategy, because you have to decide which items you’ll use and which ones you’ll keep as you progress through the story.
When the single player campaign gets too boring, there’s always the challenge of a custom game on the provided maps against the computer, or multiplayer over Blizzard’s free Internet gaming service, Battle.net. Blizzard’s service provides what has to be one of the easiest setups for a game. All you have to do is connect to the Net, launch the game, and select Battle.net on the menu screen. Aside from the ubiquitous chat, waiting room, and create new game feature features, Warcraft III offers new options for players eager for competition. For players that want to jump right into a game, the anonymous matchmaking mode is perfect. It takes a player’s demonstrated ability with the game and matches them up with an evenly skilled opponent. This ensures that beginners will not be crushed by experts, and masters will not become bored with newbies. Of course, as your talent at controlling your characters grows, you’ll find yourself facing stronger opponents. That’s because Battle.net’s ladder ranking tracks and records all wins and losses that a player has online, and not only ranks them globally, but also actively searches out new competition for people to play. This will ensure that you’ll never get bored playing the same people all the time. However, if you do find yourself fighting a worthy opponent, you can add them to a friends list, which will alert you to their presence whenever they logon to the network. Who knows? You might decide to join some of the people on your friends list and take on another anonymous team in a pitched team battle. And just in case you wanted to increase your skills, you can save your gameplay and replay it later to observe tactical successes and failures. It’s a great tool for computer generals seeking to hone their abilities.
Graphically, Warcraft III is breathtaking. All of Blizzard’s games have displayed amazing, eye-popping, graphics card-bending movies. Not only do they give you a sense of awe, but it also serves to draw you into the gameplay. Warcraft III is no exception. From the very first opening scene, players are treated to a massive, desperate struggle between a knight and an large orc, and the quality of the graphics are easily on par or surpass that of the Final Fantasy movie that came out last year. These gorgeous movies are also displayed throughout the game; however, the major cinematics are used sparingly throughout. As a matter of fact, they are the final statement for each campaign.
To balance that out, cutscenes interspersed throughout missions serve to propel the plot forward and explain new information. During gameplay, the isometric camera perspective picks up the 3D character models beautifully. This is especially true when you see a building built and watch individual pieces of stone and wood get erected as the structure is made. Truly, it’s a spectacular sight to see within this, or any other strategy game. Combat itself is also beautifully rendered. Individual melee weapons swing through the air at their intended targets with impressive realism. Similarly, ranged weapons fly through the air with deft accuracy. Additionally, the particle effects from explosions, collapsing buildings, and magic spells are beautifully displayed.
The sound is just as impressive, with top-notch voiceovers leading the way in movies and cutscenes. The performances are so subtle, and the nuances of the dialogue are delivered so well that the sound and sound effects are almost a secondary character. Thick, heavy thuds punctuate the blows of arms against bodies, along with the whistling air that denotes an unfortunate miss. You can tell when an attack is being launched by the hearty cries of “We’re under attack!” echoing throughout the air. But these shouts of alarm are not the only ones you’ll hear. The humor within Blizzard is readily apparent within the characters dialogue; pop culture references range from the classic like Star Wars and Saturday Night Live to the obscure, like Army of Darkness. There are multiple times that you’ll reload missions just to listen to the wisecracks from your units. And yes, for you Orc purists, “Zug zug” and “Dabo” are back in all their glory.
I haven’t written about any downsides to Warcraft III, and that’s because there are very, very few of them. That’s right, it’s that good. But, there are a few problems…First of all, there are some anti-aliasing issues, primarily with the portraits of characters during cutscenes. You’ll also find some pixel disintegration before and after bodies fade into the ground, and the skeletal remains on the ground are not rendered as well as the character models. This is especially strange because the Undead faction continually raises skeletal units, and these additions to the army look much better than their fallen comrades. Another minor point is the poorly synced portraits in the cutscenes with the dialogue. While not a massive problem, it chips away at the immersion you feel within the game.
Similarly, the cutscene presentation appears to be slightly modeled after that of another successful RTS, Battle Realms. The cutscenes seem as though they could’ve been transferred from that game straight into Warcraft III, with very little difference. (And is it just me, or do the Undead seem to be play like bastard cousins of the Zerg from Starcraft?) Finally, the problem of unit rushes has not been fully solved, even with the unit limits. You’ll find this to be particularly true when you build a force of one or two dozen troops and roll through many bases without problem, and see the same thing happen to you from the computer. Similarly, the AI of the computer in a campaign is a little questionable. For example, there are many times when the enemy will target only the front line of troops, attacking decoys or a few specific troops. This makes it easy for them to be flanked, surrounded, even bombed from afar with minimal casualties to your side. They also rarely target your heroes, who are the most dangerous units you can field.
These issues aside, Warcraft III is one of those titles that are an instant classic. Many critics and writers questioned the four and a half long development cycle for this game, wondering if there was anyway that the game would live up to the originality and solid play of the first two titles. Not only is Warcraft III a worthy successor, it improves upon the series. Blizzard has always held to the credo that the game won’t be released until its ready and meets their high standards of quality. Other game companies would do well to follow their example, because they have never let the gamer down. Like I said before, do whatever you can to get your hands on this game. Your computer will definitely thank you for it, just as I’m sure you’ll thank Blizzard for making this game.