Saturday, March 10, 2012

Warcraft III Review

It's been pushed back a couple times, largely due to my hectic school schedule, but I finally beat Warcraft III a couple days ago, so you get a review. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos is a real time strategy PC game designed by Blizzard Entertainment that was released in 2002. In case you care, the version I played was straight out of the box from the Battle Chest.



So, if you've been on the internet anytime in the past seven or so years, you may have heard of a little phenomenon called World of Warcraft, or WoW for short. If you have, you might know about how popular it is; the game has over 10 million subscribers (according to wiki). Now, you may have wondered at some point, "Why is this MMORPG so popular?" If I had to give one single reason as an answer to this, then it would be: "Because the game that directly proceeded it and set up the story, Warcraft III, is so ungodly awesome." What Heroes of Might and Magic 3 is to the turn-based strategy 4X genre, Warcraft III is to the real time strategy genre, if not more. This is about as close as you can get to a perfect game.

     Normally, I start my game reviews with a section on gameplay, but for this game I'm gonna do things a little differently. Warcraft III is exceptional amongst video games for its excellent story. There is a single, overarching story that expands and evolves across the four campaigns. This isn't that amazing in and of itself. What's so great is that it's an actually good story, with character development and dynamics, twists and turns, and can be followed without much trouble. The first two campaigns are devoted largely to one character (while they still contribute greatly to the overall plot), and we can see that character develop and change. The gradual corruption of a noble prince as he investigates and battles against the wave of death scourging his kingdom is one of the most memorable, or at least engaging, stories in video game history. Now, a wise man once said, "A story is only as good as how it is told." Now, regardless of whether or not anyone actually said this, in the case of Warcraft (and most video games), this saying is very true. The events that happen are not what makes the story so good. Rather, the real reason behind its success is how well tose events are communicated. Through the use of several excellently directed in-game cutscenes, character dialogue (in-game during play), and breathtaking cinematics, the plot is revealed with perfect pacing and in a way that doesn't confuse players. Granted, this story does draw somewhat on the story in Warcraft II, but not so much you won't be able to follow it (especially not with the help of the excellent 157+ manual with it's full explanation of the story from the past two games in the series). It's hard to convey exactly what makes this story so good, beyond saying that it has good pacing and is well made. I guess the best way to sum it up would be to say that the story in Warcraft III feels like an actual story and not just a way to go from one mission to the next. The success of Warcraft III's story is often copied <*cough*Dawn of War*cough*>, but never truly duplicated. This game started a trend of trying to actually tell a story in RTS games, but few products since have reached its standard.

     I'd like to expand on a couple of things I brought up in the above section: the cinematics, and the cutscenes. First is the cinematics.

Remember, 2002.
The cinematics in Warcraft III are simply amazing, no buts about it. They still hold up to today's standards, and even exceed them. That's something I'd like to let sink in for a moment there. The cinematics in this game were ahead of their time by more than 10 years. It's been a decade and only now are we getting cinematics from other games that can stand up to these. I really can't sing their praises enough. They're even directed well. Take the cinematic and the end of the human campaign, for example. Showing the climax of the scene with shadows on the walls, instead of just showing us it from a straight on angle, increases the impact of the scene and leaves us with a stronger impression.

You have to admit, that looks pretty dang nice.
The in-game counterparts of the cinematics, the cutscenes, are nearly as good. Despite using the visually inferior (to the cinematics) game engine, they still tell the story extremely well, and showcase just how much a good director can bring to a game. This is sort of like talking about animation in anime, in that much harder to tell it than to show it. Still, I'll try my best. For one, movement is put to extremely good use. If you're used to boring cutscenes where the first guy walks up to the second guy, they stand still and talk, and then he walks back, be prepared for something radically different. There is lots of movement in the cutscenes; heads turn, people walk together, they move around, people in the background do stuff, etc. The end result of this is that the cutscenes are never boring to watch. There is one at the beginning and end of every level, and usually several in between, and every one a pleasure to view. Overall, excellent.

You're going to be seeing cutscenes like this a lot, and that's a good thing
     There's one last thing before I move on to the gameplay: the voice acting. In video games, the voice acting is usually not anything worth mentioning. If it's really bad, then it deserves a complaint, and otherwise, it's "good enough" and that's that. This game is a little different. The voice acting in this game, or at least a good 90% of it, is superb. So much of Arthas' (the blond in the above screencap) emotion is conveyed through his voice, and what would have been "filler dialogue" with a less skilled voice actor is important indications of character change with Justin Gross (Arthas' VA). The other voice actors did comparable jobs, and the result is something great, worthy of mention. Now, onto the gameplay.

Humans
     The gameplay in a video game is almost unarguably the most important thing about it. No matter how great the graphics, story, or anything else are, if a game plays terribly than it has failed. Fortunately, this is in no way the case with Warcraft III. There are four playable races: the Humans, the Undead, the Orcs, and the Night Elves. All are pretty well balanced, but what makes them notable is that they are unique yet similar at the same time. The Nigh Elves' strategies are based around using the day/night feature of the game (they can become invisible at night) and hit and run ranged attacks; the Undead's focus, however, is on using battlefield corpses and their native "blight" terrain to augment their forces. Now, utilizing these strategies is not always the key to victory. There are also strategies that work with any race. But the point is, they exist, and they make every race a little more unique. All too often there are races who have the requisite basic ground unit, then the flying unit, then the ranged unit, etc. There are different races, but most of the difference between races is just visual. And while these basic types of units do seem exist in Warcraft III, the units are actually very different from each other. The frail night elf archers are much different from the brutal orc grunts, but they are the same "tier" units. Now, one is not better than the other: archers can become invisible at night and attack flying units, but grunts are much more sturdy and do more damage. Although the basic unit types are covered, you'll barely notice the similarities between races. Another nice touch is that every race has three unique hero units available (four in the expansion, but I have yet to play that). This is where some delightful RPG elements come into play. Heroes can level up to level 10, gaining strength, agility, intelligence, and a bunch of special abilities/spells along the way. The three attributes effect hero stats, and can be modified with items. They, along with the plethora of normal units, create a wonderful variety within each race. An especially nice touch is that (nearly) all the hero characters you play as in the campaigns have their own unique models, and all of them have separate voice actors from the generic heroes as well. It really helps make them stand out and makes the story easier to get involved in. Just worth a mention.

Undead
     Lets move onto interface. The controls in real time strategy games are arguably the most important thing about them (except gameplay, but that's not genre specific). Things are in real time, so you need to be able to react quickly. Well, it should be hardly surprising at this point that Warcraft III succeeds in this regard (like all others) with flying colors. There are of course the standard "CTRL + 1-9" groups to organize your troops, which let you select groups of up to 12 units with one key press. Much more useful, however, is the ability to select subgroups within those groups. Say, for example, you're playing as the orcs and have 8 grunts, 2 trolls, and 2 shamans. You need to quickly select all your shamans to move them back because they're getting killed on the front lines. While some games would require you to double click a unit to select all others of that type in the area (if you've ever played an RTS, then you likely know how difficult it is to double click a moving unit), or even worse select each unit individually, this game allows you to simply press tab (to select the subgroup) then CTRL + click on the destination. Your shamans will move independent of the rest of the group, putting them out of danger while still allowing the rest of your forces to remain engaged. The rest of the interface works like a charm too. You can easily see and manage your troops and resources, and the little additions of an idle worker notification and autocasting for spells (for example, priests can automatically cast their heal spell without needing manual guidance). I'm not particularly good at managing several units in multiple places at once, but the excellent controls in Warcraft III make it a snap even for me. One of the slickest interfaces in an RTS I've ever seen.

Orcs
     The next bit of perfection I get to talk about is the difficulty. Now, Warcraft III is an undeniably hard game. Beating the campaign will take you quite a bit of time, especially on your first play through. You can certainly expect to see a lot of "you lose" screens. Is this a bad thing, however? I say no. The difficulty is there, and it is very real, but it is not insurmountable. You learn more about the best way to approach things, for the mission, the race, and the game as a whole, with each playthrough. After you run through the game a few times, you can generally get through it without too much difficulty. For when you do, though, there is a hard mode, which basically puts you through the same process. Even after you "master" this mode (if that's even possible), however, the game can still throw a few surprises at you. I recently bought this game after remembering how much I loved it back in the day (before we lost our CD key), and I figured I could play through it real quick, and I wanted a bit of a challenge so I put it on "Hard" by default. I managed to work my way through it fairly quickly (before school dominated my schedule), but I was surprised at how difficult it was. I had to keep on my toes to stay alive, and I wasn't able to just breeze through it as I thought I'd be able to. Finding a balance in difficulty is, well, difficult, but Warcraft III manages to do it. Not too hard and certainly not too easy, the game is neither unapproachable nor lacking in replay value for someone who's beaten it.

Night Elves
     The last part of gameplay to bring up is of course level design. This is something often overlooked in RTS games, but in fact is one of the most important aspects about them. Maps and levels have to be balanced so that one player doesn't have an unfair advantage (unless it's intentional, where one player is meant to have a clear advantage). Additionally, maps have to be the right sizes for their missions, healing should be strategically placed, and so on. This game has, you guessed it, great level design. Maps are balanced to fit the objectives. For example, if your mission is to defend a city for 30 minutes, then the enemy bases will be strong enough to resist pretty much any attack you can muster. On the other hand, if your goal escape a dungeon with a set number of troops, then well-placed "checkpoints" with healing fountains and perhaps additional units are included. That is one aspect I'd like to bring up. The nature of the game varies with the map. It can be a standard RTS game (with exceptional execution), or it can border on being a RPG, focusing on your heroes and a small group of irreplaceable units. Both are wonderfully done and neither feels inferior to the other, a testament to the skill of the level designers. Overall, excellent level design.


     I know I've talked about the superb cinematics and cutscenes, but I haven't really talked about the graphics of the game itself. As you could see from the gameplay screenshots, the game uses a 3D engine. So, back in 2002 when the game was released, this game of course had pretty darn groundbreaking graphics. How do they stand up today? Not too bad, actually. Most everything has the "sharp" corners common with early polygons, but the level of detail on all the models is really pretty amazing, and everything is perfectly functional. Now, I've said this before, but graphics have never really mattered to me when playing a game. As long as it's not so ugly I can't stand to look at it, a game generally gets at least a "passing" score from me. So perhaps I'm not the best person to talk about graphics. Still, I do like to think that my impartiality towards good or bad graphics has a plus side: it allows me to look at functionality very clearly. I'm not so focused on how things look, I'm more focused on how they work. Now, in Warcraft's case, things work great. The default views gives you pretty much all the functionality you'll ever need, but if you need to look around a clump of trees of want a closer look at a character model, then there are zoom and camera turn options. Additionally, the terrain, regardless of the age of the models, still looks excellent, and all the movement in the game looks natural and fluid. Idle animations, moving, death animations, you name it, they all look great.

     Next up is the sound. I already talked about the voice acting, so all that's left is the music and the sound effects. First the music. Now, this is quite possibly the weakest part of the game, because it's only good and it's not great. Every race has two tracks that seamlessly fit together, and every track fits the race quite well, capturing their "feel." In addition, there are a few non-race specific tracks that usually play during cutscenes. Much like the other tracks, they fit the mood well. It's nothing amazing, but in it's favor you'll probably never get bored of hearing it, and you'll be hearing it a lot. So overall pretty good. The sound effects are more in the "excellent" range with everything else, however. Nearly every spell, attack, and ability in the game has its own effect, and every effect is well done. Somehow, the "heal" spell just sounds like it's healing. I've long said that after establishing that sound effects have quality and/or quantity, there's not much more to say, and the same holds true here. Good music, great effects.

     Warcraft III is a superb game. Addictive gameplay that keeps you coming back after every victory (or defeat), unique races, great visuals, and an amazing campaign are just some of the reasons why this will always be remembered as one of the best games ever made. I've yet to see an RTS that matches up to this game, and I doubt I ever will.
     Gameplay: The gameplay in Warcraft III simply can't be beat. Deep and complex yet approachable at the same time, the game style ranges from RTS to RPG, and remains near impossible to pull yourself away from all the time. Varied races and units, cool heroes, excellent controls, and great level design all come together to form what is quite possibly the best RTS experience known to PC games.
     Story: I don't generally rate the story in video games, but with this game I just had to. The story in Warcraft III is not the best I've seen in a video game. It does come pretty close though, in terms of the storytelling. Now, I could talk about how it's especially good because games aren't about having the story told, they're about experiencing the story as it happens. But I won't. That the topic for an editorial of its own, and could never fit in a short ending summary. Rather, I'll simply leave you with this statement. Warcraft III has an actual story. No, not just a plot, not just a way to get from mission to mission, but an actual honest to goodness story. It has a narrative, and characters you can care about. And that's something you will rarely, if ever, find in any other RTS game, or in the vast majority of games in general.
     Visuals: The game engine may seem a little blocky at first, but after you get used to that there's really nothing to stop you from loving the visuals in the game. Everything in-game is perfectly functional, but what really stands out is the amazingly well directed cutscenes and the stunningly good cinematics. Really, I can't communicate in words just how great these are. Very strong visuals.
      Sound: Great voice acting, good music, and a full range of sound effects are really all you could ask for in a game (which is not to say more couldn't be done, but you'd be hard pressed to find an RTS that takes full advantage of the massive potential that exists in sound. The genre is hardly the best platform for it). A nice little bonus common in Blizzard games is when you click on units multiple times and they start saying funny stuff (lots of Monty Python quotes in here). My favorite one is from Kel'Thuzad, the necromancer: "50,000 gold a year in child care and they call it a cult!?"
     Game Content: Warcraft III has pretty much everything you could ask for, as far as content goes. Four amazing campaigns (a total of 34 missions, I believe, not counting the prologue) with a great story and multiple difficulty levels, that you'll want to play over, and over, and over again; a great custom map scenario, with maps ranging from 2 all the way to 12 players; and a custom map creator. I was tempted to give this area a 9.5, because the map editor is very confusing and difficult to use (as my brother would say, "You have to be at least a level 3 programmer to use it."), but it is not impossible to figure out, and the fact that they even included it at all is enough. And please keep in mind, this review does not include the expansion. I have yet to play Frozen Throne, which has a few campaigns of its own, as well as a bunch more maps. Trust me, you won't get bored of this game for a long, long time.

Overall: When I think of the "pinnacle" of real time strategy games, I think of Warcraft III. I'd recommend this game to anyone who doesn't play games strictly for the visuals and can't stand having to try more than once. Even then, the cinematics are probably good enough to tide over anyone who needs eyecandy, and on normal mode the difficulty isn't too bad. Besides, you can just play custom maps on easy with a handicap if you really need to. So, yeah, I guess there actually isn't anyone I wouldn't recommend this game to. Maybe if you really hate RTS games. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off the play the expansion...

Got feedback? Be it suggestions, requests, criticisms, or even <gasp> compliments, I read it all, so go ahead and post a comment!

3 comments:

  1. I remember playing a bit of Warcraft. I got to the Orcs' storyline but stopped for unknown reasons. Definitely a good game but my schedule is packed with so many other games I want to play I don't know if I'll have time to pick it up again.

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    1. Well, this isn't as addictive as, say, Heroes of Might and Magic 3, but it does get close, so I'd wait until you have time. Honestly, I could hardly stop myself from playing this when I started, to the point I was playing it instead of writing the review like I should have been (sheepish grin).

      Thanks for commenting, hope you get time for your games backlog soon!

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    2. No problem there dood. I remember playing some games I really liked more than once after my first playthrough. Now I've become more of a collector than completionist so it's rare for me to finish a game. Thanks for the pep up.

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