A quality game which comes close to being classic, but doesn't quite go all the way.
Warcraft II proved to be the game which really cemented Blizzard’s legend status among RTS fans world-wide. With Warcraft II, Blizzard added features and game-play options which really pushed the boundary of RTS games and paved the way for their next game, Starcraft which would remain the granddaddy of later-day RTS for a long, long while. Thousands still play Starcraft to this day, so it was not with little fanfare that Blizzard announced their return to the Warcraft universe (and RTS), with Warcraft III.
Warcraft III includes all the features that were included in Starcraft, such as unit group and building hot-keying, vertical ranged fighting, strategic team play, and of course battle.net support (out of the box). It adds a whole slew of new features, the most notable of which is the inclusion of two brand new races - The Undead and The Night Elves. The Undead are included as the game’s new resident bad-guys, forcing the Humans and Orcs to ally, in the face of great danger. In fact, this danger will force them to sail from Azeroth to lands across the sea, where the ancient race of The Night Elf is encountered.
Like Starcraft, the single player experience is plot driven, with campaigns book-ended by pre-rendered animated sequences. If you were impressed by Diablo II and Starcraft’s CG sequences, you’ll be blown away by Warcraft III’s – they are cinematic in quality, being not just eye-candy, but also serving to set the scene and drive the plot in a very impressive manner. Within the actual game, the plot is unfolded by way of in game sequences which utilize the existing graphic engine, albeit from different camera angles. These sequences are very good and the voice acting even manages to maintain a pretty high quality (although the script sometimes leaves a little to be desired).
Taken alone, these sequences don’t pack quite the impact of their pre-rendered brothers; however since they work seamlessly during the mission progression, they really keep the game from becoming just a rush to complete the necessary objectives. The story becomes key and keeps the single player campaign as a story based experience and not merely a tutorial for the player before they try the multiplayer game. To enhance this plot driven dynamic further, a role-playing style sub-system has been added whereby “hero” characters have experience points, special skills that can be learned and an inventory. As the player progresses, so do their heroes. This turns the game into a welcome blend of RPG-come-RTS.
In terms of the meat and potatoes RTS game-play, Warcraft III is a very good addition to the genre, with good and varied races and imaginative units and abilities. One of the best new features that has been introduced, are automatic abilities which can be toggled on and off. This is something that was toyed with in Starcraft’s Broodwar Expansion (Terran Medic) and has been extended here. Once clicked on these abilities will automatically kick in (but will use mana in most cases) until clicked off by the player. This reduces the amount of frustrating micro-management that must be used to get the most out of units’ abilities during a heated battle.
The progression to Warcraft III has not been all glory and shiny helmets, however. It seems that the introduction of four races has been more troublesome than the three which inhabited Starcraft. Blizzard seems to have spent much more time balancing units and abilities between the races since the game’s release. Even now, balance changes occur on a regular basis. It’s no disrespect to Blizzard, as the challenge in pulling off four distinct races in the one game must be immense, however it can be a bit frustrating for players to be continually beaten (in multiplayer) by people willing to exploit the latest game imbalance. In some ways, the game might have benefited from dropping either the Orc or Human race (which are quite similar) and concentrating on three very different races (ala Starcraft). From a plot/universe perspective this won’t work, however “The Naga” (a planned fifth race) do appear in the expansion pack, but not as a playable race, for these very balance issues. This was a wise decision by Blizzard, as they have their hands quite full enough as it is!
One major gripe that ex-Starcraft aficionados will mention is the new, lower unit limit and the upkeep system. In Starcraft players were imposed the quite generous unit limit of 200 basic units at once. Warcraft III drops this to 90. This change is almost certainly a technology related one, rather than a considered game-play choice. The prospect of rendering 200 units per player on screen (with each unit having in the order of 200 polygons each), would blow the minimum system requirements sky-high and so the limit is a necessary one. A less necessary change is the addition of “upkeep”. This upkeep kicks in when the player hits various population milestones and acts a tax on the income of lumber and gold. By the time the player has maxed out their units they are losing around two thirds of their income to upkeep! The driving force here is to stop players stock-piling large numbers of units, and to force earlier attacks with a more tactical intent. However it does change the game-play dynamic quite a bit, and may not be to the liking of all fans.
The final point is the experience of multi-player and the battle.net service. Long after everyone is sick and tired of the single-player game, it will be the multi-player aspect which ensures long term success. With regards to Warcraft III, the experience is a little inferior to that of its predecessor (Starcraft) for one reason. Players will quickly find that to stand any chance of winning a battle.net game, they have to follow a specific set of steps at the beginning of every game. This essentially involves building a hero and as many units as possible, as quickly as possible and then “creeping” (i.e. running around the map killing NPCs to gain experience on the hero, before launching an attack on an opposing player. Starcraft included enough different low-level units that any number of strategic paths were open to the player from the outset. Warcraft III is not designed in this way however, generally there are only one or two units to build right away and success is reduced to the choice of hero and effectiveness at “creeping” the map. This is quite a big miss, and one that can’t be patched by a balance fix – it’s an inherent part of the game structure.
The Bottom Line
All in all however, single-player or multi-player, Warcraft III is a very engaging RTS, with a good story and high production values. Most of all, it shows that Blizzard have made a successful transition to 3D whilst adding game-play enhancements to their premiere RTS formula.