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Warcraft III: Detailed Report
Author: Aaron Dahlen | Drew Lanclos
Date Posted: February 26th, 2002
URL: http://www.slcentral.com/articles/02/2/wc3

Got A Package Here...

There are some things that we gaming editors love to hear. This phrase from the mouth of a FedEx or UPS employee is one of them. Being involved with a beta test conducted by Blizzard is like mingling with gods. They have created some of the most treasured and respected games the PC has ever seen. They've never delved into the first-person shooter market, but they don't need to. With each release, they re-define what a real-time strategy or role-playing game is. The original Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was among the first of the real-time strategy genre, followed by Warcraft II and its Battle.net edition. In Warcraft III, an even further emphasis is put on multiplayer through Battle.net, of which the beta consists. The single player campaign and LAN play have not been enabled. That was quite a disappointing blow for those lucky 5000 of us who were chosen to be part of the closed public testing.

Blizzard mailed CDs containing the beta application to all of the testers, who eagerly jammed them into their drives just as we did. Aside from in some cyber cafes in Korea and with international press members, the beta is taking place only in the United States and Canada. Since there are so few of us, this helps ensure that the majority of people play the game at the same time and multiplayer matchmaking is simple. There are two manners in which one can play a multiplayer game in the beta. Many of the options on the Battle.net screens are disabled, such as arranged teams for playing with pre-selected friends, daylong tournaments, and organized clans. It'll be interesting to find out with what frequency Blizzard is planning tournaments and what kind of bragging rights winners will receive. The first option for beta players is automated matchmaking based on your preferences of a one on one, two on two, or three on three game and map choices. The second is a custom game, but not much is customizable as of yet. For instance, the game speed for the beta is locked at fast.

When the news of Warcraft III first broke, the word was that six races would star in the masterpiece. The amount of playable races has dwindled to four, but that's still double the amount included in Warcraft II. A fifth race will be represented by the AI in the single player campaign. All we can tell you is that it will be known as The Burning Legion, and its appearance is the center of the storyline. The Orcs and Humans make their triumphant return, and are accompanied by the mystical Night Elves and the hideous Undead.

Visuals/Sound

The frontend of the game is now a fully animated 3D representation of a medieval castle, complete with firing cannons, a lowering drawbridge, and knights psyched for battle. Menus swing down on wooden boards suspended by metal chains. It's a very pleasing effect to say the least, and sets up the right atmosphere before going into the gameplay. Battle.net screens are displayed in the same manner, with a dynamic sky filled with fire in the background.

The conversion to 3D is nice very nice. The scenery is beautiful, although It's much better when you have larger maps with which to work. You don't feel restricted. The character portraits are likewise 3D, animated, and cartoony in the traditional Warcraft style. If the detailed units and structures covered with brilliant textures don't impress you, then the wonderful animations will. Because the world of Warcraft now has height, spells are that much more ominous. Watching ice chunks fall from a Blizzard cast by an Archmage, or a spirit summoned by a Paladin reincarnate the skeletons of the dead, is simply awe-inspiring. Blizzard has proved that their talent in game design goes beyond two dimensions. You can't really justify the transition to 3D though, other than "It's what everyone's doing". One has to admit that when you look back at their last RTS, Starcraft, the 640x480 resolution and 256 colors look as if they originated in prehistoric times. However, the alteration doesn't seem to result in battle tactics changes. And so far as we can tell, the camera can't rotate; it only stays fixed at the south end of the map. You can change the downward angle and zoom using the mouse wheel, but you can't rotate it for a more convenient angle.

Performance tweaking has not yet taken place, and as a result high resolutions bring even powerful systems to their knees. On an Athlon 900 with 256 MB of RAM and a Radeon, 1024x768x32 was playable, but framerates got jerky when panning or zooming in and out with the camera. The same was true for a Pentium 4 2GHz with 512 MB of RAM and a Quadro2 MX board. However, an Athlon XP 1800+ with 256 MB of RAM and a GeForce3 could manage 1280x1024x32 most of the time, indicating that a beefy video card will benefit you a great deal in Warcraft III. But unlike within games such as Age of Empires, higher resolutions do not result in a wider field of view. They just let you see more detail and reduce aliasing. If this were not the case, a person running Warcraft III on a high-performance desktop at 1600x1200 would have a major advantage against someone running a more moderate system at 800x600. If you're willing to accept a minor decrease in image quality, 16-bit color is an option, and will give you many more frames per second on average.

Not letting us down, Blizzard has done equally well with the sound effects and music presented in Warcraft III. The score is dramatic and powerful for each of the four races, keeping your heartbeat rapid at all times and keeping the adrenaline pumping as you rush your forces into battle. Sound effects are wickedly appropriate. Who knew that they could hit the nail on the head for the noise made when a huge tree clobbers an Undead Ghoul. Thwack! Yep, that's about right. Aerial creatures screech and swoop in the air as they traverse mountains in search of their next kill.

We couldn't have asked for more than the unit acknowledgements that Blizzard has given us. One click on your Mountain King will give you "Wait till ya see me in action!", whereas many more clicks will give you "Where's the pub?" Of course, the character portraits also reflected what they're saying and their attitude.

Gameplay

For Warcraft III, you'll find that the system of allies and enemies is fairly standard. You share vision with your allies, but also have the option to control each other's units if you wish. This can become especially useful if for some reason your ally is forced to leave, either due to connection problems or by choice. You can take over his/her units and use them to your advantage. Donating lumber and gold resources to your ally is also an easily accessible option.

Warcraft III began as a venture by Blizzard to bring role-playing elements into an RTS. As development went on, it has returned to its RTS roots, but some role-playing elements still remain, such as the heroes feature. Each race has three heroes. The first is created for free, save the cost of food, and you must pay gold for the other two if you want them. Heroes can carry items and gain experience in battle, resulting in level-ups. Unfortunately, the consumables to replace HP and mana just don't get used very often. We wish that, left to their own devices, the heroes would use some AI to determine when to use consumable items. Managing a large battle doesn't leave you time to watch your heroes' HP individually to toggle each one and make them drink a potion. It's almost as if it were an oversight. All the races now have units with "auto-use" skills that you can toggle on and off. For instance, the Troll Dark Priest has a healing ability that he can automatically use if a unit needs it. You can right-click on the button to turn it on or off. If this ability is available, why can't item auto-use skills be employed as well? Especially since it is so costly to bring a hero back to life after you lose him. A separate building must be erected plus an additional cost paid proportional to the level of the hero.

Heroes become the backbone of your force. Even at level one, they are a powerful unit, but become immensely powerful as they reach levels as high as ten. And because they are so vital, they emit a subtle glow to assist you in picking them out from your army. We've seen a high-level Orc Blademaster take on numerous Orc Grunts with ease.

Blizzard has also put in some gameplay changes to try to help stave off the "power overwhelming" strategy. Your gold income rate is based on your population. Basically, the game shaves off a certain amount of your gold income based on the logistics involved. If you have a town with less than 30 food units in use, you get 100% of the gold you process. From there on out, the more food required by your units, the less gold you get. Your mine still loses 10 gold, but not all of that gold makes it into your account. Some gets spent on what we'd refer to as "middleman expenses". The food cap is set at 90, so you can still amass great armies if you wish, but it'll cost you.

The second measure taken against rushing and to help in leveling-up heroes are neutral creatures called creeps, who attack without being provoked. By engaging these creeps, heroes can gain valuable experience and collect items that will help you later take on your enemies. Weaker creeps stand at all of the major crossroads on a map, while more powerful creeps guard vital locations, such as Fountains of Life and Goblin Merchants that we'll discuss later. This keeps you from sending weaker units across the map early in the game, as they will have to deal with many creeps along the way. In order to gain control of a Fountain of Life, be prepared to attack with a significant force, as monstrous beasts such as an Ogre Lord usually protect them. Fortunately, there is an interesting twist that Blizzard has thrown into the gameplay: a day and night system. The equivalent of a sundial depicts the time of day at the top of your screen. Come nightfall, all of the creeps sleep, as indicated by large yellow Zs rising from their figures. During this time, large armies can pass by. On the other hand, the vision of units is greatly decreased at night, making ranged units much less effective.

Unfortunately, all this still doesn't really do anything for a rush strategy. One of the best defenses against a rusher is to play on a large map with few players. In the time it takes someone to amass and move an army of twelve archers, hoping to catch an opponent with his/her pants down, the defending player should've gotten a chance to either get some defensive measures up, or worked his/her way up the skill tree to get some stronger units to defend with. Of course, there's no way to defend your town if you have no soldiers, so it's not as if you're gonna be silly enough to build a bustling outpost with absolutely no defenses in the hopes that you'll save all your money toward building an army of Steam Tanks.

Unit management is getting better. In order to accommodate item usage of heroes in parties, you can now select individual units within a selected party without simultaneously deselecting the party. Bear in mind, though, that this is only useful for item usage. If you're trying to have a certain hero pick up a certain item, you have to make sure he's the only one selected. Otherwise, the first hero to the item gets it.

We appreciate the spell cooldown process. It reminds you of what would frequently happen to you in the original Warcraft. You'd be raiding a town, and suddenly three or four Warlocks would cast a cloud spell on you. They'd just immediately dump all their MP into a wide swath of magic casts. Definitely not realistic or fun. Cooldown helps keep powerful spells in check and prevents overuse.

We discovered what really makes the heroes special, though. Not only do they get stronger when they level up, but they also gain skills and abilities which you can purchase through a skill tree not unlike what's in Diablo II. Most heroes have in their skills list an Aura, just like in Diablo II, that gives them, as well as any allied units in the area, a special attribute or stat boost.

The locations that we mentioned earlier can turn the tide of a game drastically. Except for the Fountain of Life, they can only be accessed via a hero, but are quite beneficial. A Goblin Merchant sells your hero more items to add to his stock that he has retrieved already from creeps. A Goblin Alchemist will sell you units that can be found nowhere else, such as demolition teams to aid in your destruction and zeppelins to transport units across the map and to areas accessible only by air. At a Mercenary Camp, you can hire creeps such as an Ogre Mauler or Orc Berserker to join your own force. At the beginning of the game, if you have the money, these will be the strongest units that you can obtain. Thus early attacks are greatly aided by hired creeps, and they still make a worthwhile addition later on up the tech ladder. If you control the Fountain of Life on any given map, the offensive advantage is yours. Send your armies against an opponent, then let the survivors retreat back to the Fountain of Life where they are recharged while you bring replacement units to join them. Your next attack will be much stronger than the defense prepared by the enemy. Likewise, if you're lucky enough to have a Fountain of Life near your home base, it can secure your defense, by healing the front line as they combat the attackers. Once a player is entrenched around a Fountain of Life, it is extremely difficult to displace them, simply because they have the Fountain on their side. But once you do, it's a major setback for them.

Races

For starters, you can already see one complaint a lot of people are going to have. It's just Warcraft + Starcraft. They took the Humans and Orcs, left them relatively unchanged, and then converted the Zerg and Protoss into races in the middle. The Night Elves build buildings just like the Zerg do. Wisps, your drone class, coalesce into the buildings. Except they can uproot major structures and move 'em out as Terrans do. But unlike Terrans, the walking trees of the Night Elves can fight back when uprooted. Night Elves also have building shielding/healing systems just like Protoss. The Wisps can heal the buildings once you learn the Wisp Healing ability. Their female warriors are invisible when motionless at night, and you can research an ability to give all Night Elves as excellent vision at night as in the day.

The Undead are a story in themselves. You'd think they'd work like the Zerg, but it's actually more like the Protoss, with some unit sacrifice and stuff in place. The buildings themselves have their own "Creep" like the Zerg do, but the Acolytes (the drone class) actually summon the buildings. Furthermore, among their units is the Necromancer, who can raise the dead, and the Meat Wagon siege weapon, which collects dead bodies from the battlefield.

One differing aspect between both these races is resource gathering. The Undead actually have two separate units for timber and gold gathering. Your basic melee soldier units, the Ghouls, hack down trees for lumber processing, while the Acolytes "mine" gold from the mines. Actually, you have to haunt the mine first and then the Acolytes just stand around the mine casting arcane spells that magically move the gold straight into your coffers. The Night Elves, on the other hand, have a completely automated process. Your base structure, the Tree of Life, "entangles" a gold mine and just pulls the gold out of it with its roots. No units required. Your Wisps gather lumber, but since you're using a forest race, they're not gonna actually chop the trees down; they just grow lumber straight from the trees.

Humans and Orcs bring back most of their units from Warcraft II, along with some minor changes, additions, and subtractions. No longer do they train Archers, because they are a Night Elf unit. The primary ranged unit utilized by the Humans is the comical Rifleman, who gets a tad cocky with his abilities to say the least. Some of our most favorite units of the game are brought forth by the Orcs. The Tauren is a huge beast who swings a tree trunk at his enemies, doing a great deal of damage, especially when the Warstomp ability has been researched, which gives him occasional double damage. When accompanied by Kodo Beasts, who give extra attack to all surrounding allied units, a group of Taurens is quite a force with which to be reckoned.

Conclusion

So, now that we've boiled it all down, what do we have? With the unit management reworked so that the focus is now on small squads instead of armies, we're dealing with squad-based warfare with a great deal of role-playing filling inside. Oh yeah, and it's in 3D. The 3D is very pretty, of course, but we don't think it really does anything for the gameplay. It was just a natural evolution.

We'll see how things change during the course of the beta and bring you more information as it progresses. Two patches have been released so far, bringing it to v1.03. Numerous stability and balance issues have already been eliminated, and undoubtedly countless more will be put to rest by the time this sucker hits store shelves several months from now. Believe us folks, it's been worth the wait, and although the next months will be unbearable for those not taking part in the beta, they will be worth it as well. Balanced factions are one of the most critical components to a strategy title, and Blizzard is not taking the chance of messing it up. As the opinions roll in, we'll see Warcraft III grow closer and closer to perfection.

Re-Printed From SLCentral