A classic, albeit a flawed one
Warcraft was to Dune II as Doom was to Wolfenstein 3D...a step up for the whole genre. As the second real-time strategy game natively released for the PC, it improved upon its predecessor in almost every way, and began the long-running rivalry between Blizzard and Westwood as strategy developers.
Warcraft takes place in a fantasy setting. You can choose to play as either the humans or the orcs, with over a dozen unit, building and spell types for each side...each of which are equivalent. The human footman is the same as the orcish grunt. The human conjuror does the same tasks as the orcish warlock. While this might seem like a step backwards compared to Dune (and it is) it does make the game easy to play. And there are small differences between the humans and the orcs which serve to add strategic depth: for instance, the human archer can shoot one tile further than its orcish counterpart.
Warcraft was an extremely innovative RTS game on many levels. It was the first to have a random map generator, multiplayer support and a level editor, vastly extending the game's replay value. All three of which are taken for granted these days. But even without these Warcraft would have been a good game, as the campaign mode alone is superb. Each of the 12 missions per side are connected by an excellent story, and the level design is top notch. In Dune, each mission was basically the same as the one before it: build up a base and destroy the enemy. But in Warcraft you've got a lot more variety in your missions. Some of them start you with a fixed army and require you to conduct raids on orc encampments, or rescue peasants. Others have side quests that allow more powerful technologies to become available. They are a bit on the hard side and drop you off in the deep end of the pool relatively soon, but you certainly won't be bored playing the campaign mode. Warcraft also supports internet play via Kali, although it never became a hit multiplayer game like its sequel.
In Dune, you could pump out just one unit type and win. But Warcraft forces you to use combined arms, as making just one unit type will most likely lose you the game. Infantry are your primary unit type in the early game, but they can be killed easily by knights. Knights in turn are susceptible to massed archers. Archers get countered by catapults, and so on. It's a really subtle balance, every unit and building plays an important part. Even in the late game you'll still be making use of your most basic unit types, as the weak units make up for it by being quick training and cheap.
The game's AI is mediocre today, but back in Warcraft's time it was the best there was. Rather than just blindly attacking, a computer-controlled opponant would scout the perimeter of your base, searching for weak spots. If you piled all your troops near one entrance, the enemy would not attack there unless it was numerically superior. Decoy tactics wouldn't work against it, and it even singled out expensive/valuable units in battle to weaken you as much as possible. The AI had an annoying trick of slipping troops past your defenses and into your peasants. This was especially bad since peasants had no way of protecting themselves...you'd often lose half of your economy just because you left an entrance unguarded. :(
The game's graphics, though unremarkable, carry the point across well. I actually prefer them to those of its sequel. Warcraft II's graphics look too neat and organised, like a game board instead of a battlefield. Warcraft, on the other hand, manages to capture the rugged feel of real terrain. Audio is also a winner. Glen Stafford's music fits perfectly, and in the typical Blizzard style your units give you several different responses when you click on them. "Zug zug!"
The game isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Warcraft has a number of flaws that can't be justified just because it's old, and which probably prevented it from attaining the super-seller status of its sequel.
Saying that the controls are annoying would be an understatement. In Dune II, if you wanted to move a unit you'd click it and then click where you wanted it to go. Easy. But in Warcraft, you must click the unit, click the "Move" button on the left-hand side of the screen, and then
click where you want it to go. Even when using the keyboard shortcuts this is time consuming, and it's amazing that Blizzard got away with such a user-hostile system, especially since a much better way of doing things had been implemented in a game two years older. Being able to move up to four units at a time is nice, but considering you have to group them manually by holding down Shift and then clicking units one at a time to add them to your group, it was actually quicker moving masses of units in Dune.
I won't belabor the standard complaints: the pathfinding is awful, the AI is retentive, etc. But there are many annoying design decisions that you'd never be able to get away with these days. The only building you can drop off gold at is the town hall, and you can only have one of those the entire game, so once you've exhausted the gold near your base you have to send your peasants on really long trips back and forth between the nearest available gold and the town hall, making it maddenlingly easy for your enemy to raid your gold-gathering lines. And the town hall is the only building you can create peasants at, so if you lose even ten peasants it takes a long, long time to replace them.
Like its sequel, Warcraft is orc-biased. The orcs have the most powerful unit in the game (the demon) which not only eats the human's elemental for lunch but can be spawned for free once you've got a Warlock. Demons can demolish a town with impunity, and the orcs also have a spell which grants invincibility to any unit for ten seconds. Did it ever occur to Blizzard that invincible demons might not be so good for the game's balance?
The Bottom Line
Today, there is absolutely no reason why you should own this game (except for collecting or nostalgia purposes), as its archaic controls and dated gameplay mechanics make it a rather unenjoyable for today's RTS gamer. but Warcraft was one of the most influential games the strategy genre has ever seen. It furthened the concept of RTS games by leaps and bounds. Its flaws are made up for by its innovation.