The latest instalment of Blizzard Entertainment's famous precursor to StarCraft, WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002) tells the story of the conflict between Orcs, Humans and Night Elves in a cartoonish medieval fantasy world besieged by an army of the Undead. Still immensely popular, WarCraft and StarCraft have laid down the basic template for all of Blizzard's strategy titles and they still dominate the PC strategy market even now. WarCraft epitomises a highly successful blend of strategy, action, good looks, personality and software branding. No doubt you've already heard volumes about this game's release, and in usual Blizzard style it broke every known sales record known to Humankind when it (finally) came out.
For a long time in its lengthy development phase, Warcraft III was touted by Blizzard as the next step in RTS game evolution: the Roleplaying Strategy (RPS) - a "revolutionary" hybrid of roleplaying and real time strategy. All units would progress through levels like those in a roleplaying game, and the usual economics and base building found in an RTS would be kept to an absolute minimum in favour for micromanagement of a select number of heroic units. Somewhere along the line Blizzard dropped much of the concept and what finally arrived was a simplified RTS game spiced up with a few roleplaying elements. Its a step forward from WarCraft II, but for many people it came across as too simplistic for the sheer amount of time spent in development. There's also been additional angst amongst the Blizzard faithful with the sheer number of game patches that have appeared for it since its release: fourteen, no less. [edit: make that twenty patches - you can't say it doesn't get support]
[Edit: WarCraft III has become a sort of de facto template for most RTS games out on the PC these days. There's a general trend away from large armies and more towards smaller numbers of high glamour units, nearly all of them requiring intense hands on micromanagement, and containing magic spells that also need manhandling. And lots of spunky superheroes who seem to be twenty times stronger than their men. Maps have shrunk in scope and area, and are now jam packed with pretty graphics, beautifully modelled environments, buildings and special effects (like water and magic spells). They feel more like a theatre full of trapdoors and set pieces than the great outdoors. In other words, "trigger" driven events drive a modern "strategy" game more than outright strategy. Tactics is almost pure action, and there's virtually little or no intellectual challenge other than rote learning all the units arcane counters and spells. Economics and management are simplifed almost to oblivion, and the whole game is pitched squarely at a young, mostly teenage audience.
In part, this is due to most of the game's resources being devoted to looks, sounds and effects rather than actual gameplay mechanics. Flashy graphics tend to lead to smaller, more detailed worlds and tends to result in flashier, but more primitive gameplay. But it reflects a general trend towards a sort of highly stylised, deeply formulaic and heavily branded approach to RTS. That, and longer development times. Not a good look, and really, no fault of WarCraft 3's. Its like Hollywood - no one wants to be first to try out a new idea, but everyone queues around the block to be second if it works.]
This is a very simplified game, aiming squarely for the lowest common denominator. Economics and building have been reigned in; you only get a population limit of 90(!) and as you get closer to that maximum the game starts charging "upkeep" from your gold, taxing it as its mined. Heroes are very powerful, and each race has different kinds. Even at level one they severely damage an army, at after progressing through a few levels they become overwhelming. There's an system of spell casting which forces players to win the game through careful management and control, so a hint of the RPS concept has made it through. They cast powerful magic and progress through skill levels, but still require their escorts of regular units to help out. They even have a small inventory for collecting magic items and power-ups. Wandering Monsters guard gold deposits and other items of the map - a nice touch. The Map Editor gives you the opportunity to completely reinvent the game into anything you like - and is easily a selling point in itself.
There's a swarm of tiny but not insignificant changes that helps lift it from other Blizzard RTS, but the basic formula is largely untouched. Its all in 3D of course, although camera control effectively leaves it as a 2D game (not such a bad thing) but it isn't challenging any graphic frontiers. Despite the fact your screen resolution can go all the way up to 2048x1536(!) pixels, you don't get to see any more than someone playing at 640x480 - like StarCraft, one third of your display is buried under a huge game dashboard. That big dashboard just becomes more beautifully rendered at the higher resolutions. You can still only control twelve units at a time, and while Blizzard's unit AI has improved a little, everything is still simplistic and feels 2D. Fortunately though, you can automate things like spells and basic skills - a big improvement. Production values are immaculate and very accessible both for new and old players. It contains the usual high polish, depth and balance values that Blizzard is justifiably famous for.
Again, this is story driven RTS with personalities to manage, not a simulation of massed hordes. The dark tone of the storyline is completely at odds with the chirpy colours and storybook visuals. All units are chunky cartoon characters now with stylised run cycles. Usually with Blizzard plots you get this extraordinarily convoluted tale of dark happenings, epic heroes, mysterious musings and dramatic betrayals and turnarounds, presented as a breathtakingly hyper-real 3D animation with grim colours, hardcore monsters and demonic forces - but the actual game turns out as deep and fluffy as Gauntlet where you just run around and kill everything that moves. I think StarCraft is the only Blizzard title where gameplay and storylines actually complemented each other beautifully. Single player's cute (as ever - its really quite fun) but I don't think my copy of Total Annihilation is going to be collecting dust too soon.
There's a huge range of multiplayer options, and it sounds like Battle.Net's been tamed as well. I've yet to properly try this out in multiplayer - and this is a title that is basically made for multiplayer - so take all my comments with a dose of strong salts! After all, several million Koreans can't be wrong...
Expansion: The Frozen Throne (2003). More units, features, buildings, trinkets, spells, heroes, etc., etc., etc...
Incidently, Blizzard has released a persistent, online virtual world (or MMORPG) called World of WarCraft (WoW) where fans can see their favourite game world from a first person perspective. Again, like past efforts, it's more addictive than crack.
|Warlords Battlecry series|
Last modified Sat, Dec 17 2005 by Lindsay Fleay