Before the release of Warcraft III, Blizzard had released five games and expansion packs for three of them (Hellfire was not developed by Blizzard, so it doesn't count). Similarly, Blizzard has released five games and three expansion packs, all of which were critically acclaimed. Having such an excellent track record is a difficult thing to deal with, as increasingly persnickety game players will have higher and higher lofty expectations of what the next game will be.
Also of note, as Blizzard's popularity has grown, the attitude toward its games has gotten an increasingly interesting dynamic. The hype behind the game builds steadily until its release, and then, once the game is released, reaction is somewhat tepid. Within a few short weeks, however, you'll hear nothing but praise for the game, as the fickle gamers have been satisfied with a new addiction.
For that reason, gamers have been waiting with bated breath for the third entry in the Warcraft series, titled "Reign of Chaos". How did Blizzard fare? Will their fans be satisfied? Read on for more.
Quick recap: In Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, the men of Azeroth had driven the Orcs back to the Dark Portal, but lacked the means to permanently seal the portal. With the countryside battered and burned, the men fled to the nation of Lordaeron, under the banner of King Terenas. The humans, allied with the dwarves and elves, fought viciously against the new legions of the orcs pouring from the dark portal, before learning the dark secret behind the swarms of the green-skinned ones; they were but driven by demonic warlocks behind the portal, and subject to their whims. As such, the orcs later fought for their own freedom from the control of the daemons, and began to discover their own identity as a nation.
In Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, the orcs have been given settlement lands within Lordaeron in an attempt to allow them to peacefully coexist with the other races. However, a new threat is coming to the lands, and Thrall, son of Durotan, is the first to see it coming, thanks to the aid of a mysterious prophetic mage. The mage instructs Thrall to assemble the Horde and head west, across the sea to the lost continent of Kalimdor.
Meanwhile, an aging King Terenas sits upon the throne, while his protégé, Prince Arthas, carries justice through the land with the help of an old friend, Uther the Lightbringer. Arthas discovers word of a new plague spreading through the lands to the north, and upon investigating it, discovers a new source of evil, lead by necromancers, skeletal warriors, and the undead. Arthas' quest for vengeance goes unsettled, however, and the paladin finds himself embroiled in a quest to purge the armies of darkness from the land.
To say any more would betray some of the plot elements within the game. Despite the underpinnings of the RTS field in general, Blizzard is noteworthy for its integration of plot and storyline within its strategy titles. This game is no exception by any means; Blizzard has gone out of its way to bring the storyline and the Warcraft mythos in general to the forefront. In Warcraft I and II, the drama unfolded between episodes during the mission briefs, but little changed throughout the course of the game. In Starcraft, Blizzard integrated more cutscenes, but did the majority of plot development through in-game character interactions and also during the mission briefings, which were no longer one-sided dialogues, but discussions, arguments, and all-out threats between the characters.
Now, Warcraft III brings more to the plate with in-game rendered cutscenes during which the plot will unfold. Since the cutscenes are displayed using the game's 3D engine, they can be scripted easily, and thus are smaller and more compact - This translates into more cutscenes, which allows for more plot development. Blizzard uses this widely throughout Warcraft III - Each mission contains an average of about five or six cutscenes, as well as several interludes interspersed throughout each race's campaign. The game also uses Starcraft's in-game dialogue system - Characters will occasionally have discussions during a pivotal battle. While the majority of the dialogue was good, it seemed like the characters making chitchat during battles should sound a bit more…I don't know…involved in a battle?
Like most of Blizzard's sequels, they prove to be both evolutionary and revolutionary. There's plenty of both aspects to cover, so we'll start with the new.
Starcraft introduced a multi-level battlefield, where units could have a height advantage when using a cliff to attack units underneath. Warcraft III turns this on its head with a fully-rendered 3D display, including terrain. Generally speaking, the rolling hills and whatnot will only affect the vision and visibility of your units, though. I would expect that ranged attacks would have a slightly longer range when shot from a higher vantage point.
One thing the new 3D engine affords is the ability to move the camera around, but the depth to which you can do that is limited to panning down onto the battlefield from a side point-of-view. Not terribly useful, since it makes unit selection more difficult, but it makes for a nice dramatic feel to watching a battle that you're either sure to win, or sure to lose. You can also pan the camera around a scene to get the best angle, using the Insert and Delete keys.
Of course, the biggest change in Warcraft III, gameplay-wise, would be the inclusion of heroes. Now, the concept of heroes is far from new - Both Warcraft II and Starcraft had special role units with names and boosted stats. The key difference between Warcraft III's heroes and the prior iterations is the use of RPG elements not unlike what are present in Diablo. Heroes can pick up items on the map that are either hidden as treasures, or dropped by foes. These items can be equippable stat-boosting items, such as a Mantle of Intelligence, consumables like spell scrolls and potions, and tomes which give a single permanent stat boost. The use of these items make heroes a good deal more powerful and versatile - you can effectively custom-configure your heroes as you need them.
An even bigger benefit of the item model is that the relative strengths of a hero are no longer obvious by examination. A Night Elf Demon Hunter, for instance, could have a massive amount of intelligence-boosting items, and while you're preparing for a strong melee attacker, he could instead stand back and start casting spells. These kinds of change-ups make for very interesting tactical battle scenarios that weren't possible before.
Whereas Warcraft II had three types of resources (oil, lumber, and gold), Warcraft III strips the oil away and replaces it somewhat with experience. Not only do your heroes gain items from battle and have inherent stat boosts, but they also gain experience in battle, and when they level up, they gain points to use in their individual skill trees, as well as more stat boosts. Another interesting addition is that gold mines are no longer the single source for obtaining gold - Gold is also won from battles with map creatures. And, just to settle the complaints of the purists - I don't consider food to be a resource, since it is not "gatherable".
Warcraft III no longer uses static maps with a couple of critters tossed here and there. The maps are now populated with neutral buildings and hostile unaligned creatures, called creeps. A wide variety of monsters exist on the maps, from red dragons to wendigos, from gnolls to kobolds, from spiders to centaurs. The maps are also dotted with shops where you can hire mercenaries and purchase items with your heroes, and also shrines and fountains, all of which operate as they did in Diablo II. These make for some useful battle camps when you're halfway to an opponent's settlement, and can often be points of control that turn the tide of battle.
Finally, the game even has a day/night cycle. At night, the visibility and visual range of units is modified, mostly dependent on race. Night Elves (naturally) have an easier time during the nocturnal hours than the other races, and even have a racial upgrade that makes visual range independent of time of day. Creeps also sleep during certain hours, so if you're trying to slip by an unfortunately-placed blue dragon encampment, you may want to wait until dusk. It also naturally affects the visibility of certain races and units strictly by how they blend into the environment. A very clever adaptation of an obvious idea.
Now, moving on to some of the retooling that Blizzard has done to the RTS world...
The biggest difference to note is rather widely encompassing. Blizzard has added more keyboard/interface controls to help simplify the logistics battle. You can instantly select your Town Hall(s) using the backspace key. Idle worker units have an onscreen indicator to notify you when you've got peons sitting around doing nothing. Clicking the indicator will take you to the idle worker(s) so that you can easily assign them new duties. Also, rally points can now be set directly to resources so that newly generated workers will immediately go to a particular target for harvesting. You can also hit the space bar to immediately jump to a message notification (Empty mine, building complete, etc.). All this goes toward managing units with a greater level of ease.
Individual unit management is much more flexible now as well. In Starcraft, due to the varying physical sizes of units, the space they occupied in transports was relative. In Warcraft III, however, each unit occupies the same amount of "space" in a carrier. When group-selecting units including a hero, the hero is automatically designated the "leader", and the control panel functions are based on his skills. However, clicking on an individual unit portrait in the console will select the control functions of that unit, while still leaving the group selected. Let's say you have a raiding party of four knight captains and a healer, all selected. You can direct the whole party to attack a target, then select the healer and ready a healing spell if you need it, or simply cancel the command and right-click on a new target to attack.
Alternatively, you can now use "auto-casting" options on some characters. Forinstance, the primary function of a healer is...surprisingly...healing units. You can toggle that particular spell to cast whenever it's needed, and the unit has sufficient mana. Naturally, it only works on some defensive/support spells, but it's still a great help, especially for units with functions that are only useful in high-tension battle situations. It'd be nice if auto-use were available for hero items as well, like health and mana potions too.
While there's been plenty of innovation in the new features, a couple have been somewhat neglected, or dropped altogether. Waypoints are still functional, and you can assign movements as well as attack orders, but they're not visually depicted as units move, similarly to how Westwood's RTS titles show. It would also be nice to be able to select a moving unit, and see where his destination is. And finally, map bookmarks don't seem to be available anymore. Then again, it's not likely that many people still use them, and the need to use them is almost eliminated, with unit group bookmarking and town-hall instant jump.
Well, we've covered most of the new features of the game, but how does it all factor in? If it seems to you that Warcraft III is little more than Diablo II plus Starcraft set in the Warcraft world, then you're not altogether far from the mark. Don't let that stop you, though. There's a lot to see and do in the single player missions, and Blizzard has taken some good steps to try and keep the game from being a pack of 40 battles. In one mission, for instance, Arthas has to execute the occupants of a village attacked by the Undead, and he has to slay as many as possible before the Undead opponent claims the victims in his own army. In another mission, the Death Knight has to travel through several villages locating Undead acolyte converts among the villagers. If you don't kill the innocents quickly, they'll sound the alarm, and the village defenses will come to try and take you down. Very unique indeed. I wished there were a lot more missions like these throughout the game.
The units are very well differentiated, and balanced as well. Each of the races has their own theme and set of racial traits that make them unique. It doesn't just stop at the units, though. It also goes for the buildings too. The Orcs and Humans, for instance, can issue a call-to-arms which brings in the worker class units for fighting. The Human peasants get trained into militia, and temporarily stop working to defend their towns. The Orc peons run into the Barrows, from which they attack passers-by. It's a great way to help defend against early raiders and rushers, though it's only really available to the Orc and Human races.
Other racial differences exist as well. The peaceful nature of the Humans allows their peasants to work together to construct buildings (which was also allowed in the previous Warcraft games). Since the Orcs are far too chaotic to work together in this fashion, this is unavailable for them. The races also take pages out of the Starcraft playbook in some ways - The Undead summon buildings similarly to the Protoss (and the Acolytes are free after starting the summon), while the Night Elf Wisps morph into most structures, similarly to the Zerg. The Night Elves Ancients (The tree-buildings) can also uproot and relocate, just as most Terran structures could.
With Starcraft, Blizzard only had three races to balance and counter-balance, but they out-did themselves with Warcraft III. There exist many tactics to defend against each possible attack scenario that your opponents could muster up. And you no longer have to worry about something impossibly daunting like a twenty-Battlecruiser assault anymore; All players have a 90 food cap, which ensures that no one player can control an overwhelmingly massive army. Additionally, unit upkeep has been added in, which encourages players to keep lower numbers in the ranks. When you have more than 40 food units in use, you enter "Low Upkeep", and your lumber and/or gold intake rate goes down. Keep in mind that the extraction rate remains constant. The thinking is that, in High Upkeep (for instance), you only get 4 gold for every 10 mined because the other 6 were used to pay the middlemen and cover expenses. This is another good balance adjustment that many hardcore players will be happy to see.
Graphics & Sound
You can't just take an RTS, churn it through Direct3D, and have a winner on your hands. It has to look good, right?
I've got to say it right now. I haven't played any other game that looks this good in 800x600. Blizzard spared no effort with the color pallete. This is a game that you'll want to play in 800x600 with all the options turned on before you play it in 1600x1200 with only half the options on. And if you play it in 32-bit color, you won't want to switch back to 16-bit color ever.
There are a lot of very nice lighting effects employed throughout the game, both for spells and for map objects, like barriers and fountains/shrines. Some very nice graphic effects are also used for area-effect targets and unit auras. The only bad point I can really give to the graphics is the limited amount of unit animations. In several circumstances, units were used to portray specific actions in cutscenes, but the limited animations of the character models made it difficult to suspend disbelief. This becomes mostly visible during the ending sequences, as the developers got goofy with the ending sequence and showed various units doing rather odd things. Arthas, for instance, pretends to be playing a guitar, while still holding his warhammer, of course.
The script is very well done. The character lines are very engaging and move the story along well. The character portraits don't always mesh together with the lines, unfortunately, but it doesn't mar the experience much. As I mentioned before, it would be nice if some of the battle clashing lines would have been accurately presented, though. For instance, there are several conversations between Tyrande and Furion during the Night Elves campaign which frequently occur in the middle of a battle. Yet they speak calmly and plainly, which certainly wouldn't be the case if you were busy fighting for your life.
The musical score is top-notch Blizzard excellence as well. I particularly enjoyed the Orcish and Night Elves themes, as they had the same mysterious drama to them that the Protoss music held. However, seasoned veterans can eventually get tired of even the really good music (especially if they stick to one race), so I'd like to point out in this review, as I have in several before, that the time for widespread use of dynamically-generated soundtracks is highly appropriate.
What would a Blizzard game be without serious Internet multiplayer? Well, let's overlook Warcraft I and II for now. Excluding Warcraft II: Battle.Net edition, this is the first Warcraft game with Internet playability via Battle.net.
The biggest feature Blizzard brings to the plate with Warcraft III is the matchmaking system. In theory, lower-level players are matched up with players of similar skill levels, thus preventing a repeated ego-crushing on behalf of ruthless jackasses on the Internet. Again, in theory, it's a great idea. The problem is that the matchmaking system seems to be relatively broken. I got two relatively high-level players right from the outset in the first two matches I played, despite losing the first one.
It's also open to abuse by humans, too. There's no easy way to stop a longtime player from creating a new Battle.Net account just to crush some newbies. Perhaps Blizzard should consider limiting the number of new accounts you can make within a certain timespan after making two or three initial ones. This would make the n00b jumping much less prevalent.
There's also the matter of disconnecting players keeping people from getting wins. Gabe at Penny Arcade went up and down about this one. My solution is this - If a player disconnects, the system determines the "tide" of the current battle. If the losing player was the one that disconnected or crashed out, and he was losing at the time of the disconnect (IE - being attacked or had just been attacked), then a win is still awarded to the remaining player, and a disconnect to the loser. If the winner was the one disconnecting, then treat it as normal. This should help push back the tide of player abuse of the system.
There aren't a lot of special maps out for Warcraft III yet, but seeing what was done in Starcraft, I'm waiting in anticipation for some really innovative scenarios, like Starcraft's Death Race and Zergling Roundup. There's a lot of room for creativity here, and I'm looking forward to see what some people are capable of with the overhauled and steroids-boosted World Editor.
Blizzard has once again managed to preserve their winning record, and in a way like no other. Warcraft III represents a lot of work and consideration of how to best improve upon Blizzard's most famous franchise. Of course, with another Warcraft offering on the horizon in the form of World of Warcraft, one can only wonder how the tide will turn upon its release.
While some lamented the loss of Warcraft Adventures and others praised its cancellation, the material originally developed for it was integrated *very* well into the new storyline for Warcraft. One almost has to wonder how the storyline will continue from here, as there were some very sweeping changes to the universe portrayed in the game. Considering how well Blizzard has handled it until this point, I have complete faith that they'll be able to do it again.
Oh yeah...About Warcraft III...Um, get it. It's good and stuff. People still play Starcraft today. People will probably still be playing Warcraft III three years from now. You should be one of them.
Graphics & Sound: 9.5
Fun Factor: 8.0
Lasting Appeal: 8.5
Final Score: 9.5