Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
Blizzard Entertainment released their original real-time strategy Warcraft: Orcs & Humans in 1994. This was followed in 1995 by the groundbreaking Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, which refined the formula, adding improved graphics and sound, as well as taking the conflict into the air and sea with the inclusion of flying units and ships. 1998’s Starcraft, however, remains arguably their most polished RTS to date, and continues to be considered the best PC game ever by many players, both casual and professional. Thanks to Blizzard’s continued adage that their games be easy to play but difficult to master (in other words, the basic mechanics are straightforward, allowing newcomers to immediately begin playing without needing to devour a huge manual, but at the same time requiring patience and skill to become a truly impressive player), they delivered a nuanced, balanced game with a solid audio-visual presentation and exciting, addictive gameplay. The game was so good that virtually no other RTS could get a word in edgeways, and that remained the case for many years, although Ensemble Studio’s Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings certainly put up a worthy fight.
2002’s Warcraft III: reign of Chaos, therefore, had a lot to live up to. When it was initially announced at ECTS in 2001, Blizzards’ spokespeople declared that, as the studio felt it had taken RTS gaming as far as it could go with Starcraft, it was going to focus on a new model for the third instalment of the Warcraft saga. The game was touted as an “RPS” - a role-playing strategy, sidelining the traditional strategy activities of base management and unit production in favour of a more tactical approach, emphasising exploration and intense, small-scale battles between powerful hero units, whose strength and abilities would improve with experience. In its initial demonstrations, the game looked rather similar to Myth: The Fallen Lords, sporting a 3D engine and with a camera view locked behind the heroes’ heads, close to the horizon line.
Initial reactions were mixed at best, with Blizzard’s impressive track record and brand loyalty being enough to convince some gamers that this would be the best thing since sliced bread, or at least since Starcraft, but others, sensing a move away from the 2D RTS format that had made the company such a success, were considerably more sceptical. Many were greatly relieved, therefore, when, only a few months after it had been announced, Blizzard declared that it was going to reign in the role-playing elements and bring the game back to its strategy roots.
The finished game, therefore, has a lot in common with its spiritual predecessors, sporting the same basic user interface as Starcraft and once again following the formula of building a base, training units and vanquishing the opposing team. The engine remains 3D, but the camera itself stays, for the most part, locked into a top-down isometric perspective heavily reminiscent of its 2D predecessors. To call Warcraft III the immediate successor to the Starcraft throne would, however, be inaccurate, because, despite the similarities, much has changed. The appearance and core mechanics will still be instantly familiar to anyone who has played any of Blizzard’s previous RTS games, but those who approach this in the same manner as Warcraft II or Starcraft, expecting the same basic strategies and play styles to work, will be in for a surprise.
While the role-playing elements may have been reigned in, they have not been obliterated by a long shot. The backbone of the game is still building up a strong base and maintaining a solid economy, but a low unit cap and a focus on special hero units who must kill enemy units in order to level up and access new abilities means that there is a greater dependence than ever on micro-managing battles. In Starcraft, for example, a Zerg player might simply amass a hundred similar units, send them in the direction of their opponent’s base, and beat them into submission through sheer weight of numbers, but such a strategy (if you can even call it strategy) would never work against a moderately skilled player in Warcraft III. The old rock-paper-scissors system at the heart of all the -craft games has been emphasised considerably, meaning that even the most powerful unit in the game can be completely neutralised by the correct counter.
The result of this is that smart selection of appropriate units and skilled management of the player’s army is rewarded to a far greater extent than in the previous games. There is no longer a be-all and end-all strategy that can be memorised and used to win every game, which in theory leads to a more varied gameplay experience. In practice, of course, a brief glance at the various replays available on the Internet will reveal that the same basic strategies tend to be favoured (virtually every Human player chooses the Archmage as their first hero, for instance), but even within these basic templates there is more variety. Players can now quickly adapt their strategies to counter an opponent by, for example, retraining their heroes with a different selection of skills (for a price, of course), while high level players will frequently engage in minute micro-management of battles, “dancing” with their units in order to conserve as many hit points as possible.
And yet, despite this shift from large-scale macro-management to small-scale micro-management, little has ultimately changed. The objective of the majority of multiplayer skirmishes is still to destroy the enemy’s base, while the removal of sea units (leaving just land and air) actually feels like something of a step backwards from Warcraft II. Blizzard’s -craft formula has endured over the years for a reason, so perhaps the decision to retain the same basic mechanics, almost down to a T, was a wise one. The improvements are generally more subtle - you can, for example, queue up worker units to construct multiple buildings, as well as add weapon, armour and spell upgrades to production queues. Additionally, once a worker finishes building a resource centre, he will then automatically begin harvesting the relevant resource (for example, a Peasant who has finished constructing a Lumber Mill will go to the nearest tree and begin chopping). The result of these subtle refinements is that, once you get used to them, it becomes difficult to go back to an earlier game in the series and learn to adapt to playing without them.
With Starcraft, Blizzard introduced the groundbreaking idea of having each of its three playable factions being completely different from one another, and therefore requiring completely different play styles, while at the same time wrangling the seemingly impossible task of balancing them so that no race had an advantage over the other. By increasing the number of races to four for Warcraft III (actually reduced from an originally projected six), the developers made that task even harder for themselves, and generally manage to pull it off quite successfully. Ultimately, the same basic principles remain for each faction - each race has a worker unit who harvests gold from a gold mine, for example - but little subtleties ensure that they don’t do everything the same way. Orcs and Humans, for example, can harvest gold directly from the mine, but the Undead and Night Elves must first construct an additional structure on top of the mine, with their worker units remaining inside it instead of walking back and forth between it and the Town Hall. Likewise, everyone harvests lumber, but, in the case of the Undead, it is actually Ghouls, the race’s basic melee units, that perform this task rather than their standard workers, the Acolytes. Furthermore, the Night Elves, who have a great affinity with nature, do not chop down trees but instead send their Wisps to “bond” with them and extract their resources non-destructively. Little touches like these show that Blizzard is not intent on making these changes simply for the sake of being different, but has instead worked hard to make them thematically appropriate. The regal Humans, with their imposing castles and fortifications, have the strongest defences in the game, while the Undead, who are running rampant across the world and spreading their plague, can only build on ground that has been “infested” by Blight, which renders the land sickly and allows nearby Undead units to heal more quickly. Admittedly, many of these ideas initially appeared in Starcraft in a similar form (the Blight is nothing more than a variation on the Zerg’s “Creep”), but all the same we’ve come a long way from the days of the first Warcraft, in which the only real difference between the Orcs and the Humans was the colour of their skin.
The game comes with a single player campaign which involves all four races. Strictly linear in its structure, players progress from one level to the next, maintaining their principal hero units’ abilities, experience and inventory items, but with one’s performance in one level generally having no direct result on the next (this is very different from the Myth games, where basic units who survived one level would progress to the next with more hit points and better weapons). It is in this campaign that Warcraft III becomes rather disappointing. Starcraft’s storyline, while not of the same quality as RPG greats like Planescape: Torment, was at least engaging and dramatic, and populated by believable characters that the player could relate to. The ongoing banter between Raynor and Kerrigan in the Terran campaign, for example, was amusing and touching, and made Kerrigan’s betrayal to the Zerg at the end of the penultimate Terran mission surprisingly heart-wrenching. In Warcraft III, however, most of the plot developments are predictable, being lifted either from other game storylines (Arthas’ corruption by the Lich King mirrors the infestation of Kerrigan) or from the work of JRR Tolkien, whose influence permeates through every single fantasy mythology created since the mid-1950s. At times, the narrative even repeats itself, with the characters of Arthas and Illadan going through almost identical arcs as they are influenced by the forces of evil. The pacing is generally not particularly well handled, either, with Arthas’ growing obsession and descent to the dark side not coming across as remotely believable. The campaign also lacks the epic scope demanded by the storyline of an entire world at war, and the decision to focus on small-scale battles disadvantages the credibility of the single player mode. Only on one occasion - during the final Orc level - does the campaign come close to being awe-inspiring, as the sky turns red and giant demons constructed of stone and fire come crashing to earth. More moments like these would have made the campaign less of a slog through a series of predictable and rather easy missions (the entire 34-mission story, including two tutorial maps, can be completed in a couple of prolonged gaming sessions).
The entire graphical presentation is also at odds with the nature of the story. The Warcraft games have always favoured a colourful, exaggerated, cartoony appearance (in comparison to the more realistic Starcraft, and competing franchises such as Age of Empires and Myth), and the third instalment is no exception, with the rather basic polygonal models actually coming across as quite lively in spite of the move to 3D. In the previous games, the storyline itself was restricted to separate mission briefing screens, but, with Warcraft III, the bulk of the plot development has been shifted into scripted events that use the game engine itself. This means that, when grotesquely caricatured figures, whose mouths flap about in a thoroughly over-animated style, are talking about the end of the world, it’s all a little difficult to take seriously. In this respect, the pre-rendered CGI FMV sequences, which introduce the game and bookend each section of the campaign, and are rendered in a more photo-realistic style, are much more effective. Add to this some rather poor voice acting, which tends to be either too bland or too over the top, and it becomes clear that Starcraft was the better game in terms of unifying narrative and gameplay.
As an overall gaming experience, Warcraft III is a solid effort. The presentation is reasonably strong and the multiplayer and player-versus-computer skirmish modes are well-balanced and entertaining. The single player campaign, however, is a let-down, while the smaller scale of the conflict detracts from the worldwide, epic nature of the storyline. As such, Starcraft is still by far the best strategy game experience on the PC, and remains a benchmark that, in nearly nine years, Blizzard has yet to match.