Wage war across a massive, magical landscape to save it all from ruin.
PC Release: July 3, 2002
By Ian Coppock
Is Branson gone again?
Actually, I shouldn’t say that this time. For all of Branson’s wit and accomplishments, he found StarCraft to be a complete bore, which is part of the reason I shunned him from last Sunday’s review. But, Warcraft III is a game much dearer to both of our hearts, and maybe I’m writing this alone because I’m still butthurt about how good of a strategist he is. In any case, we’re taking yet another break from this month’s Myst series to focus on Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. It’s not the most popular of Blizzard’s RTS games, but it might be one of the best.
Most gamers today know Warcraft because of World of Warcraft, the undisputed king of massively multiplayer online games. Despite valiant efforts by such genre heavyweights as Star Wars: The Old Republic and ArenaNet’s excellent Guild Wars 2, no one has been able to unseat World of Warcraft from the giant pile of money that comprises its throne.
Before World of Warcraft‘s release, though, the Warcraft series was a mainstay of the real-time strategy genre. In stark contrast to StarCraft, Blizzard’s other RTS entry, Warcraft takes place in a high fantasy universe. Warcraft and Warcraft II were early 90s entries that focused on conflicts between humans and orcs, but Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos is where the series metamorphosed into what we know it as today.
Warcraft III hit shelves in the summer of 2002, and there’s no realization quite like that to make you feel old. Set years after the humans’ heroic victory over the orcs, Warcraft III‘s narrative is told from the perspectives of four civilizations and their leaders. We have the Alliance, a union of humans, elves and dwarves whose solidarity would bring a tear to Gandalf’s eye; the Horde, an unruly army of orcs and trolls; the Scourge, a teeming mass of undead creatures; and the Night Elves, a race of purple-skinned, moon-loving elves who are a real terror when the sun goes down, and not just because of their skimpy outfits.
It’s at this point that most of you will start to draw some parallels with StarCraft, if the similar-sounding names didn’t already clue you in. Once again we have a diverse group of civilizations to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Once again, they’re balanced against each other by different means of producing militaries and gathering resources. Once again, we have an isometric strategy game whose narrative is supported by a simple gameplay structure.
Again as with StarCraft, Warcraft is split into several episodes that each follow a civilization’s own story, while also contributing to an overarching narrative. Each of the four campaigns focuses on each of the four major races and has a large cast of characters.
Things start off relatively simply with Prince Arthas, heir to the human kingdom, who finds himself battling an undead horde threatening to engulf his homeland. After fighting valiantly and engaging in some morally questionable war tactics, Arthas succumbs to the terrible will of the undead, and the very humans he’d been fighting to save weeks earlier become his newest targets.
During the events of this Anakin Skywalker-esque betrayal, the orcs escape human internment and set sail for a new homeland across the sea. Thrall, the brutal but honorable Warchief of the Horde, seeks a home for his people on the turf of the Night Elves, ruled by a priestess named Tyrande. As she fights off the orcish interlopers, she realizes that an army of demons that tried and failed to destroy the world 10,000 years ago are returning, and she must make haste to save both her homeland and the world at large.
Warcraft III‘s narrative is huge, and not easily summarized. Because each campaign has so many characters, most only get a few bits of screentime before we’re back into the fight. I can’t help but feel that StarCraft‘s writing was stronger, both in creating memorable dialogue (“looks like you mashed some poor feller’s dawg, sarge.”) and relying less on character tropes.
Warcraft III‘s main characters can generally be attributed as Darth Vader, Moses and some rabid chimera of Catwoman and Mother Theresa. The Vader analogy is for Arthas, the straight-edged boy of destiny who becomes whinier and whinier until he transforms into a monster, and finally becomes interesting. It was cool to be able to play him leading the humans into battle, and then using the undead to crush the fortifications you’d just defended in the last campaign.
The Moses analogy goes to our stalwart young Orc warlord, Thrall, who does emulate the Biblical figure by leading his people through a desert exodus, but spends time spilling lots of red fluid with his warhammer instead of parting it in a sea.
Tyrande might be the only character who can’t immediately be assigned a stereotype. She rides a giant white tiger (no, not Chinese cocaine, it’s literally a white tiger) and can summon meteor showers with her brain. She makes up for her novel qualities as a game unit with boring monologues about destiny and the power of nature. Her husband Furion, who has a giant pair of antlers for no apparent reason, isn’t much more interesting.
If I keep comparing Warcraft III to StarCraft throughout this review, it’s because I can’t help but do so. The two games are very similar, and encapsulate congruent core narratives across different worlds. The issue I run into with discussing Warcraft III‘s characters is that they lack the charm and the quirks of Blizzard’s earlier writing. StarCraft‘s space rednecks might not be the classiest crowd, but they’re a damn sight more interesting than straight-laced warriors who could be mistaken for Kodlak Whitemane with how much they blather on about hearts and honor and all that bullshit.
If our three main characters yield so little to speak of, their supporting casts are not much better. Each hero has a cadre of buddies that will tag along with them throughout most missions. To be fair, Warcraft III does do a good job of introducing some inner-faction conflict, which inadvertently saves its main cast from being a complete bore. Arthas starts growing distant from his mentor in the human campaign, and conspires against his new master as an undead warrior. Thrall starts having a hard time reconciling his best friend’s heroism with his reckless brutality, and Tyrande gets caught up in a steamy love triangle with Furion and his imprisoned brother Illidan.
Just kidding. I put that last line in there to wake you up.
If the fun of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos is not quite to be had in the narrative, at least there’s a lot to be had in exploring this big, colorful world. Each level in each campaign is gorgeously rendered. The graphics look big and blocky by modern standards, but still retain a lot of color and terrain variation. You can find hidden relics secreted around the maps, and some units can wield them to increase their powers.
The game world also comes alive through the presence of numerous animals, and, unlike in StarCraft, dozens of “lesser” races of creatures that hang out in small camps. From centaurs to ogres to harpies, there are lots of colorful new races to find out in the world. Most are hostile, but some can be hired at mercenary camps to join your standing forces. They don’t come cheap, but they train immediately and might be able to balance out some of your units’ weaknesses.
Speaking of balancing each other out, how does each civilization handle on the battlefield? The rules of WarCraft III are pretty conventional by RTS standards. Start out with some peasants and a cottage, and turn that shit into a brick-and-mortar citadel with knights and cannons. All civilizations must gather gold and wood to build up their bases. Each has a different spin on resource gathering, but if you want to get anywhere in the game, you’ll need ample amounts of both. Like in StarCraft, you can research technologies to speed up resource gathering and make your troops more formidable on the battlefield. Hero units, which can level up a la RPG, make their Blizzard debut in this game. They may be expensive, but are exponentially more dangerous than rank-and-file units.
It’s also worth noting that Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos does not balance its playable civilizations out as well as StarCraft did, and the differences between some of them are hard to spot. Humans are good at producing a mix of medium-weight units, but that’s about it. The Orcs aren’t the world’s best architects but compensate with an arsenal of slow, heavy warriors. The undead devour everything in their path and make their war trail a literal cemetery, and the Night Elves build their bases in mobile trees and can turn invisible at night for brutal ambushes. While cool on their own, none of these design facets really check the strengths and weaknesses of the other civilizations. It’s like they were just thrown into the mix without as much forethought.
My case-in-point for this issue is the Night Elves. They aren’t just my race of choice because I was sired by tree-huggers; they are absolutely brutal on the battlefield. Their buildings can pick up and move position, they have a unit for almost every situation and weight class, and they can utilize the environment in a way no other race can come close to doing.
But, most of this can’t touch the narrative. It’s not as interesting or quirky as StarCraft‘s storyline, but it does carry that feeling of high fantasy grandeur that you get from an Elder Scrolls game, or a Lord of the Rings film. There’s something about running around casting spells and burning whole towns to the ground that just makes me choke up a bit.
(sniff)… I’m not gonna cry in front of you assholes.
I recommend Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos because it’s a big fantasy world to explore. It’s also much more accessible than StarCraft, in that the average joe won’t need cheats just to survive the goddamn tutorial. I managed to beat the whole thing without cheats, and I invite you to attempt the same and give this game a go. Warcraft III was a huge hit in my teen years and remains a great adventure for any gamer, RTS fan or not.
You can buy Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.