Warcraft III Reigns Supreme

How long has it been since Blizzard released a quality RTS game? About 4 years, if I remember correctly. I have always mentioned how Blizzard seems to take forever to get their titles out on the market. However, unlike other developers who take forever to make a title that ends up being bad (Battlecruiser 3000AD, anyone), whatever Blizzard releases ends up pure gold.

Remember how long it took for Starcraft to come out? But also remember how the final product was so memorable, so engrossing, and just so deep that it is still enjoyed to this day (especially in Korea where it has a massive following). In fact, when we did our first awards I felt that Starcraft was should have won the Game of the Year (GOTY) title by, of all things, Heart of Darkness? At least Diablo 2 won that year.

Granted, it also took forever to develop (announced in late 1997, released late 2000), and it didn’t look significantly different from its predecessor, but the game was just as engaging as before, and it won its share of followers all the way up to another GOTY title. Even our readers got some common sense by voting Diablo 2 a GOTY title, which it rightfully deserves.

Let’s face it, Blizzard takes their time to release titles, but that’s because they don’t make good titles, they make GREAT titles. Name me one title that bombed (ok, Warcraft Adventures never came out, but it looked very promising anyway).

Now it seems as if Blizzard is quoting Britney Spears in their own way by saying "Oops, I did it again." The recent release of Warcraft 3, a title seven years in the making (the last Warcraft came out in 1994), continues the company’s tradition of taking their own sweet time to create a gaming masterpiece that will stand the test of time.

Since the last Warcraft game, the Human Alliance and the Orcish Horde are still fighting it out, but in Reign of Chaos, a new, more deadly threat arrives that might threaten the fabric of the earth. Only a sorcerer named Medivh knows the truth and, in a dream, warns the Horde’s leader Thrall. Thrall listens and gathers his forces to locate sanctuary for the new Tides of Darkness.

He also attempts to warn the Human Alliance as well, but King Tereanus dismisses the warnings as paranoia. Unfortunately his son Arthas, a highly praised paladin, finds out the warning is true, as signs of a new Undead Scourge start to destroy his homeland of Lordaeron. I could go deeper into the storyline, but it would end up like an "Ain’t It Cool News" article, and I don’t want to do that. Let’s just say the plot has a similarity to Braveheart or Excalibur with the cinematic flair of Gladiator and just a hint of Star Wars Episode II (as far as Anakin was concerned), and hopefully you’ll understand where I’m going on this.

But what I will get into is how great the game plays. At first glance it is the standard Warcraft/Starcraft gameplay. Build a base, defend it, and destroy your foes, plus a couple special stages similar to before (survive 30 minutes, get to a certain item where your main characters MUST survive). The way each mission is played out however is vastly improved.

To start off, WC3 improves on the hero/legend concepts of before. The WC/SC series had special characters used to carry on the storyline, but now for WC3 these Heroes earn experience, grow levels, and learn new skills, similar to an RPG. They can also be equipped with special items (healing potions, town portals, attack items, etc.) to assist in battle.

Again, each faction in the game has their own specialties that help separate Blizzard’s titles from any other RTS on the market. The Human Alliance is the most versatile group available and provides a good mix of air and land attacks, while the Night Elf Sentinels (one of the two new playable races) specialize in quick stealthy attacks and are capable of moving their structures around (similar to SC’s Terrans). Meanwhile the wrongly accused (of being evil, at least) Orcish Horde maintains their skill in brute force, but the best of all the races (as far as I’m concerned) has to be the new Undead Scourge.

Not since Dungeon Keeper 2 has being the bad guy been so much fun, as the Scourge attacks without mercy, and even when the enemy has fallen, their corpses become a new resource to mine (in addition to gold and lumber). Goblins can feast on the rotting corpses to gain health, or better yet, load them onto (perhaps one of the cooler units in the game) a Meat Wagon and either use their bodies to create new monsters or fling them into structures like a catapult.

The problem with the Scourge is that structures can not be directly built on ground (save for the Necropolis, their Town Hall), they must be built onto the Blight, which is the same as the Creep that SC’s Zerg race used. Also, the Scourge uses two different units to harvest minerals. While Acolytes obtain gold (where they must first haunt a mine, and only 5 Acolytes can use a mine), the Goblins (foot soldiers) are used to obtain lumber. However, these four races are only the precursor for a fifth race, the Burning Legion, which unfortunately was left as non-playable in a recent decision by Blizzard. According to Blizzard, the Burning Legion was too powerful to make a playable race. In their logic, beings powerful enough to destroy entire planets would look silly cutting timber for their war machines.

In an attempt to prevent massive unit rushes dominant in other RTS titles, especially when playing online, Blizzard added some stricter guidelines as well. First of all, when a total army count reaches 40, an Upkeep fee must be paid. What this means is when gold is collected, 30 percent is used to pay for Upkeep (and it becomes 60 percent when the count reaches 70). In addition, to make it much more difficult, there is a unit cap of 90, so careful planning must be made in unit development, because once it hits 90, no more can be built unless someone is killed (save perhaps the Undead’s summoned Skeleton Warriors).

Also, there are neutral creatures on the battlefield, that sit mostly between you and your foes. These neutral creatures are more than able to destroy early units rushing towards you, so sending three or four guys across no-man’s-land to attack early probably won’t work. Then again, at night the neutral creatures sleep, so you can still use tactics to get around them.

Blizzard’s first attempt at true 3D (Diablo 2 used 3D cards to simulate parallax scrolling) is a successful one. Never before has Azeroth looked so amazing. The 3D even captures the cartoonish quality that was dominant in Warcraft 2, right down to the superbly animated character portraits on the command interface (they were in WC2, and in SC they were simple animated renderings). Watching battles unfold in a new 3D environment is a real treat, and on my test system (GeForce 4 MX420, Windows XP, 256MB DDR) it ran without any breakup whatsoever.

Not only is the gameplay gorgeous, but so are the cutscenes. After Diablo 2, Blizzard set a new standard with cinematics, only to have WC3 eclipse them. You can tell a lot of work went into these scenes, and as I said earlier the set design takes cues from great movies such as Gladiator. Audio is as top notch as ever, be it from the beautiful soundtrack (if you listen real close on the Human campaign, you might hear a little touch of the theme from WC2), or the always impressive voice acting. The silly character responses from WC2 and Starcraft have also returned and are as great as ever, and I was so pleased to hear that the Human Peasants still have that dopey accent that was such a hoot in days past.

WC3 was released in both standard editions (with 4 different boxes, representing each of the four playable races) and a limited Collector’s Edition featuring the game, a DVD of all the cutscenes, an autographed instruction manual, four lithographs of each cover art, and the WC3 soundtrack. Blizzard did this before with Diablo 2, and I wish more companies would offer collector packages. The only catch is the Collector’s Edition is $80, as opposed to $50 for the original game.

However, I feel that $80 is worth the quality and time that went into Warcraft 3. Since my copy arrived on launch day I couldn’t pull myself away, even to write this review. Blizzard has done it again with perhaps an early Game of the Year candidate, and I only wish that I could give this game 6 Gems instead of the normal 5, because it deserves it.

I do have one request for Blizzard for their next release"I WANT STARCRAFT 2!

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