Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos Review

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Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 400 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 8 MB video card, 700 MB HD space, 4x CD ROM

It's not just for Orcs and Humans anymore. The third in the Warcraft series introduces two new playable races: the Undead and the Night Elves. In the single-player part of the game, you play through, in order, campaigns for the Humans, Undead, Orcs and Night Elves. Each campaign gives you a different perspective on a unified storyline that runs throughout the game. So as to avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that the land of Azeroth is under threat, and each of your heroes and his armies have a role to play (for better or worse) in the unfolding events. And, of course, it wouldn't be a 'Craft game without multiplayer action. In a mechanism quite familiar to Blizzard fans, you can find a game with strangers and friends alike via Blizzard's free, proprietary Battle.net service, or you can set up a LAN game of your own. Numerous custom maps are also available for your use, with scenarios laid out for anywhere from 2 to 12 players. These maps can also be played single player vs. computer opponents. Since Warcraft III also includes a world editor, the included maps are likely just the beginning.

Kyle Ackerman

Blizzard makes polished games. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos represents another step along the path Blizzard blazed with StarCraft and the Warcraft series, and which millions of fans around the world have worn deep into the ground. Warcraft III, though, is not just a refinement of Blizzards' previous games, but strikes out to add a role-playing game dynamic to the real-time strategy (RTS) genre.

The integration of RPG aspects into an RTS is surprisingly successful. It is possible to play Warcraft III, ignoring these elements almost entirely (by skipping cinematic moments and cut-scenes and focusing solely on strategy and unit management), so the changes should alienate few RTS fans while potentially gaining a lot of fans of the "RPG-lite" that has proven so popular in games like Diablo II and Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. The clearest integration comes from the story in Warcraft III, which follows a few heroes (and their armies) through an epic plot that threatens the destruction of Azeroth at the hands of the demonic Burning Legion. The framework of the story, bracketed by cinematic sequences and cut-scenes using the game engine ties the scenarios together, giving everything an extra sense of urgency. You could skip or ignore the storyline, but it imbues each quest with a sense of purpose beyond the need to eliminate the other players, and gives you a motivation for completing the optional quests.

Story does not, in and of itself, instantly create an RPG. In addition to the story elements, your heroes advance in levels, gain skills, cast more powerful spells over time, and manage an inventory that can include powerful artifacts. Most importantly, they lend a sense of continuity, and are a unit to which you can become personally attached. All of a hero's gains carry over between missions, so that level you just gained will help you in the next mission. That tiny sense of persistence makes the game even more enjoyable. Of course, sometimes you develop an attachment to a character, only to have that leader yanked away from you by twists and turns in the plot. Regaining that hero's inventory items in a small stack on the ground is little consolation for the loss, but that feeling is an indication that the hero dynamic in Warcraft III really adds something to the game. This is certainly not a heavy-duty RPG, or a substitute for a character-driven adventure game, but there are other moments that should resonate for RPGers. There's a cave crawl for a powerful magical artifact, and a dungeon crawl littered with treasure. There are crates throughout the game to search (well ... smash and search) and there's even a late-game stealth mission. Finally, you've got creeps. Creeps are the wandering monster encounters of Warcraft III. They don't wander, but they don't truly belong to any of the warring factions, and mostly exist to hassle your troops and provide fodder for leveling your hero.

As an RTS, this game represents a refinement of previous Blizzard RTS games, but I would like to have seen them go further. The most welcome improvements are formations and auto-casting. Finally, when you grab a large group of units of different types and order them to move, the group will arrange itself into a sensible formation with melee units at the fore and missile units in the rear. They will all move at the same speed, and stay together (at least until they encounter the enemy) eliminating a lot of micromanagement. Gone are the days of assigning a hotkey to each type of unit and trying desperately to keep them all together. You can, of course, turn formations off if you don't want the help. Units in a group will also cast spells one at a time, so that your entire group of spell casters don't waste their mana all casting the same healing ward. The unit with the most mana will cast first, followed by his or her weaker companions, in turn. You can also use the tab key to select different units within the same formation – without deselecting the whole group, so you can still issue movement orders to everyone. Some spells can even be set to auto-cast, meaning that the unit will cast the spell if it has enough mana and a suitable target. The mouse-over help is also quite substantial, and useful.

Those efficiencies aside, there is still a lot of babysitting and micromanagement to be done. Blizzard added the auto-cast feature, but only on a few spells, and usually not the powerful or particularly useful abilities. As a result, you still have to keep close tabs on each individual unit and try to activate their skills in the heat of combat. This particularly saddened me, because I loved the concept of the Kodo Beasts. The Kodo Beasts are an Orcish unit that pounds its war drums to whip other Orcs into a battle frenzy. They can do damage, but their most endearing trait is the ability to swallow enemy units whole and digest them until they perish. They were certainly not the most useful unit in my arsenal, but they were entertaining. This skill requires activation, which in the heat of battle was often difficult. Also, you can still only lasso groups twelve units at a time, and even with seven groups assigned to hotkeys, it can be difficult to control forces larger than the requisite dozen at the same time. Too often, you'll unwittingly leave a unit behind because you can't slow down long enough to count your troops. It would be nice to be able to harness more units, especially in light of the formation and tab-select improvements.

It's hard to be a fan of micromanagement, and there's still plenty of that. Everything requires a lot of personal attention, from buildings to unit skills, and managing a battle on multiple fronts is nearly impossible without superior dexterity. For the single player campaign, set on normal difficulty, this is not an issue. Most folks will enjoy playing through the campaign, and can be ultimately victorious with patience and persistence. On hard difficulty, against the AI in custom games, or on Battle.Net against human players, matches are decided ultimately as much by reflexes and hotkey management as by skill and strategic prowess. For the young and quick, this may be an advantage, and it doesn't adversely affect the single player game. This does make it more difficult to play the hard difficulty without slowing the speed, and competing against younger, quicker opponents over Battle.net can be frustrating. Nevertheless, it is still possible to have an enjoyable game with friends and computer players, but the option to automate more functions would be welcome.

To be fair, some of the micromanagement problems have been addressed by trying to focus the game on fewer units and skirmish-style battles. With fewer units, there is less to micromanage. This is done by having a food limit of ninety, and by causing each unit to consume one or more food. You will typically have many fewer than ninety units. There is also an interesting upkeep mechanic. Gold and wood are necessary to build units and buildings. If your army is small, underlings will gather ten units of gold with each trip to the mines. As you move from no upkeep to low upkeep to high upkeep, your units will collect ten, seven and four units of gold, respectively, with each trip. Upkeep increases as your food usage increases, discouraging large armies. The concept is appealing, but might be improved if upkeep were a continuous function rather than the step function it is. Having only two large steps (none to low and low to high) means that there are strong benefits to gaming the thresholds that push you to higher upkeep. More steps, or a continuous function (every additional unit increases upkeep) would have made taking advantage of upkeep levels more difficult (or at least less significant). This is really only significant in multiplayer human games, and overall I find the general emphasis on skirmish groups led by heroes is a nice touch. It makes battles more personal and manageable.

As you might expect, the game looks wonderful. While the world is in 3D, allowing you to rotate the camera or zoom in, the game will revert to a particular angle for which the maps seem to be designed. This combines the ability to design sensible levels with the freedom to look around at the eye-candy. The game could look fancier, with higher-end graphics, but Blizzard deserves kudos for making a game that runs well on a comparatively low end system. With the detail turned down, Warcraft III runs decently on the minimum system requirements. It runs more smoothly and looks better on a high-end system with the resolution cranked way up, but Blizzard succeeded in creating a game that can run on machines in internet cafes around the globe.

Only one small graphical item stood out: the lip-synch of the portraits is ridiculous. It's a small thing, but if the portraits had been remotely close to the voice it would have removed a small, but noticeable distraction. As it is, it looks like someone risked life and limb to smear peanut butter on the roof of each Orcs' mouth, giving the lip-synch a Mr. Ed dynamic (remember talking animals before the days of computer animation?) This is far overwhelmed by the general quality of the graphics, the vivid colors, and spectacular cinematic sequences that will grab the attention of any passer-by. The cut-scenes rendered with the game engine are good, too. There's plenty of arm-waving while characters talk, but if you're not a fan you can always skip directly to the action.

The single-player campaign plays out as a series of four campaigns, one each for the Humans, the Undead, the Orcs and the Night Elves. This string of campaigns is preceded by a short, Orcish prologue. In line with convention, progressing along each races' campaign adds additional structures and units. The Humans build wood and stone structures and are allied with the noble Elves and Dwarven technologists. Orcs build spiked structures that are dangerous to attack, and have allied themselves with the Tauren warriors. The Undead create structures that spread the Scourge, upon which other undead structures must be built (yes... think Zerg Creep). The Night Elves are woodland dwellers whose powers increase at night (there is a day/night cycle). They are the most intriguingly innovative race, as their buildings are giant, sentient trees that can uproot themselves and walk around. This dynamic is interesting because some of the trees can be used to build units, or as attacking units themselves. Also, whole bases can relocated if the gold at one mine is depleted. There is something compelling about an entire base marching on the enemy. In spirit and execution, I enjoyed the Undead most of all, but playing the Undead meant forsaking the Kodo Beasts. The balance of the races seems good at this time, but it is a certainty that rebalancing will occur as players discover new strategies.

The single player campaign is brilliant, tremendously fun, and honestly has some replay value. In multiplayer, the implications of Warcraft III's changes are still playing themselves out. Heroes in multiplayer are critical, powerful units, but don't inspire the same fondness, because battles are all one shot deals. Early gameplay involves frantically leveling up the hero by killing neutral critters and then using the newly leveled hero to attack other bases. The skirmish quality of the game means smaller groups, not massive armies. There are two things likely to be discovered as multiplayer continues. The interplay between heroes (powerful units with devastating spells) and defensive strategies is still being clarified by players. It also strikes me that ultimately the players of the Night Elves have the potential to invent bizarrely powerful strategies with combinations of trees, units and wisps. We'll see.

Warcraft III is a refined RTS with RPG elements that provides a long and intensely satisfying single-player experience. The game should have a long life among those who play against human opponents, or just want to fight the AI on myriad scenario maps. Everything about Warcraft III is refined, though I would have enjoyed the elimination of more aspects of micromanagement. Even so, this game is tremendous fun, and does the series that has garnered such worldwide popularity proud.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on July 14, 2002 4:45 PM.

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