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Warcraft III


Overview

Warcraft III (W3) is yet another masterpiece from Blizzard, a game development company that, in many ways, sets standards that few other companies match. I confess I wasn't at all impressed with the original Warcraft, and although I thought Warcraft II a somewhat more interesting game, it still didn't grab me. Frankly, I wasn't even planning to buy W3. I was (and still am) far more interested in Starcraft II. In fact, when Blizzard let the news slip that W3 was in production, I was seriously disappointed. I was hoping for a sequel to Starcraft (SC), not another rehash of the whole Orcs-vs-Humans thing.

A friend suggested I buy W3, however, and when he did so I was reminded of another game he recommended some years ago, namely, SC. I wasn't at all interested in RTS games prior to that title, and I almost rejected his advice at the time. It just didn't seem like something I'd enjoy playing. Of course, I'm glad I did pick up a copy, as SC is easily one of my all-time favorite games. Heck, I still play it after roughly four years, and that says a lot. So why am I rambling on about all this? That's easy. I'm rambling on about it because W3, like SC, turned out to be one heck of a good buy. I also think it's the best RTS game made to date for reasons I'll try to make clear.

Analysis

Visuals

I really have to buy a thesaurus or something, because I'm running out of superlatives for describing the visuals in the latest PC games. Maybe I'm too easily impressed. My very first video-gaming experience was with the original Pong, after all, so I was there at the ugly, blocky start of it all. I don't know. What I do know is that W3 easily looks as good, or better, than any other video game made to date.

The terrain in W3 is utterly first rate, with an incredible amount of attention to detail. The textures are very well done. The modeling superbly reproduces rolling hills and valleys, forests, etc. with equal aplomb. The water effects, presumably the result of some snazzy multi-texturing, are simply beautiful. I stopped and gawked at the terrain itself on more than one occasion.

The unit models, animation and texturing are equally impressive. I still remember Blizzard taking a lot of heat when they announced that SC was going to be a two-dimensional sprite-based game. Other RTS games at the time were going polygonal, but Blizzard stuck to their guns and, in my estimation, produced a much better looking RTS game because they did so. No home system at that time was capable of pushing the number of polygons necessary to do justice to a host of little units, and that was painfully obvious, I think, in the other games of that period. Obviously, computer gaming has come a long way since, however, and W3 is proof positive that Blizzard can do 3D as well as anyone.

Almost everything looks simply fabulous. The special effects range from merely stunning to positively amazing. The particle system provides very nice looking fire, smoke, magical stuff, etc. It is really quite impressive to see a beefed up hero standing around with magical auras pulsing beneath his feet, various special effects rippling about his weapon, etc. Even the menu system is simply delightful, and it's surprising how nice a touch the various background graphics really are.

I have only two, minor complaints with the visuals. First, some of the buttons in the "command card" at the lower right don't change from race to race. I realize that's pretty minor, but while a sword makes perfect sense for the humans, it's really quite jarring when taken with the whole undead motif. I'm surprised Blizzard overlooked such a small thing in light of the clear abundance of attention to detail elsewhere.

Second, I just don't like the overly-cartoony style to the game. I realize it's thematically consistent with the previous game in the series, but I didn't much like the look of that either. Maybe that's one of the reasons that SC really grabbed me; i.e., it didn't look like a goofy cartoon. Even watching the W3 units run around, while very well animated, just looks silly to me. It's very hard for me to take all the attempted drama seriously when I'm watching it acted out by incredibly gaudy characters, who are only a few inches tall on my monitor, strutting around in the most larger-than-life fashion imaginable.

To be clear, neither of these complaints should dissuade anyone from buying the game. I really don't like the artistic style, and yet the game itself remains very compelling. In spite of my complaints, W3 really does break new ground for RTS games in terms of its visuals.

Audio

The audio is good, but it isn't as stunning as the visuals. The voice acting is especially well done, though Blizzard should really try to hire some different talent. Nothing is more disconcerting than hearing W3 dialogue spoken by the voice of a Protoss zealot from SC! The sounds of battle are also a little tiring after a while. There just isn't much variation in sword/claw/arrow/etc. on armor/hide, I guess, and it gets a little old over time. I must also note that I find some of the sounds (e.g., the chopping of wood) outright misused. It is jarringly wrong that a ghoul hacking at a tree with his bony claws just happens to make the same sound as a human peon with an axe!

I assume Blizzard made such decisions for sake of consistency. The voice actors they've used in the past are a known quantity, and their voices definitely help give W3 the Blizzard feel. Similarly, using some sounds across all the races does make it easier, no doubt, to recognize and act upon very familiar audio cues. Overall, though, I would still prefer a bit more variety in the voices and sound effects. In terms of the audio, W3 felt like I'd been there before.

The music, quite surprisingly, is very forgettable. Whereas the music for SC was a definite highlight to the game, particularly that of the later Brood War expansion pack, the music in W3 is as appropriate as it is bland. I've been a musician for a few decades, so I'm relatively fussy about this sort of thing. I guess I expected something much more impressive from the company that served up the incredible background music of SC and Diablo II.

Interface

The interface is both wonderful and irritating. In the plus column, Blizzard breaks some new ground in terms of the menu system for W3. It is surely the most dynamic, most interesting, and well-rendered menu system I've seen to date in a game. The different background graphics and transitions clearly set the mood for the game generally as well as for each of the four races specifically. It adds a great deal to the overall feel for the game.

The degree to which the interface is simultaneously simple and powerful is also very impressive. A few mouse clicks are all that is needed typically to keep the home fires burning, the battle raging, or accomplish whatever else needs to be done. Keyboard shortcuts are clearly well-considered and easily used. Everything works as well as it looks and feels.

I must also praise the simplicity of the game configuration screens. I can't imagine anyone of even moderate intelligence finding the game a chore to set up. Blizzard has clearly opted for simplicity, and adjusting the video, audio, gameplay, etc. are all about as dirt-simple as it gets. In fact, I should note that W3 is one of the few games I've purchased that actually makes "intelligent" choices after analyzing my system. It auto-configured my video and sound perfectly. I didn't have to make even one change, and that's never happened to me before.

Still, there are some things worthy of complaint. First, the simplicity is insulting. I can't help thinking that the relative paucity of options in W3 speaks directly to the lowest-common denominator. I, however, am not an idiot. I know how to build PCs, write software, etc. As such, I'm quite technically competent. I would really have preferred being able to tweak the configuration settings to a greater degree.

For example, I thought the volume balance between sound effects, the voices, the music and ambient sounds could use some adjusting. Perhaps it is an artifact of the EAX2 implementation on my sound card (viz., Creative Labs SB Live!), but the voices were never where they should have been in the mix as far as I was concerned. Similarly, I would have been willing to trade a few visual effects for a better framerate in some of the really busy battles. As it stands, though, I never had an opportunity to adjust such things.

Second, I really wish I could hide the interface panel. Perhaps games like Baldur's Gate II, Dungeon Siege, and Neverwinter Nights have spoiled me, but with graphics as good as those in W3, I want to be able to get the interface panels out of the way and see what's happening. I suppose I should take heart that Blizzard even allowed different resolutions in W3 (unlike several of their other games). I would simply have preferred to be able to see more of what was happening.

Third, the complete inability to bind keys is astonishing to me. Again, I imagine Blizzard elides this feature to avoid complexity, but if I could map my own keys, I just know I would be more comfortable switching from race to race. I could have a completely consistent keymap for doing all sorts of useful things. Heck, I could even program it into my Microsoft SideWinder Strategic Commander. Come on, Blizzard. Stop aiming for the most incompetent user alive and build interfaces that allow serious players to bind their own keys.

Game Mechanics

Wow. This is where W3 really, really shines. I've registered some complaints about the visuals, the audio, and the interface thus far, but I have absolutely nothing but praise for the game mechanics of W3. In fact, I think W3 represents the very best RTS design to date for several reasons. To explain why W3 is such a step forward, I'll compare it to several other RTS games, most notably the aforementioned SC, E2150 and Sacrifice, a truly under-appreciated game in the genre.

First, W3 solves the rushing problem. I positively hate click-fest games that last all of a minute or two because my ten-year old opponent can manage to get a couple of his units to my base before I can respond effectively. In SC it was the unbeatable Zerg rush, the pylon/cannon blockade, the forward command-bunker trick, etc. No matter which of these techniques was employed, the result was (predictably) the same: a completely uninteresting game.

While nothing is going to appease the turtling segment of the RTS crowd, W3 renders the two-minute victory essentially impossible. Speed and proficiency with the interface are clearly still factors in W3, as they are in any real-time game, but the game model itself is such that lame rushes are just not worthwhile. If anything, the player that tries it will likely put himself at such a disadvantage that he'll not recover in time to save himself from the counterattack!

Second, W3 solves the control problem. Games like SC, E2150 and Sacrifice all feature units with really interesting special abilities. Unfortunately, the pace of combat is such that in those (and other) RTS games, one rarely makes any good use of them. It is a thing of beauty when a well-coordinated attack decimates the enemy, particularly if it required making good use of the various special abilities. In my experience, however, such moments are as rare as they are beautiful. More often than not, one is simply fighting to make the best use of the cannon fodder that so many of the units are, and is thus too busy to micromanage effectively.

This is not an issue in W3. Yes, the game still features pretty fast-paced combat, but individual units are not so weak that they die by the dozens before the player can blink. Blizzard seems to have struck a roughly perfect balance between attack and defense in W3, so that it's genuinely possible to make use of special abilities. It helps a great deal, of course, that many of the special abilities are either passive or can be set to be used automatically, thus requiring no effort on the part of the user. Better still, the ability to select sub-groups of units and activate a special ability by exactly one of the units in that subgroup is long overdue. Whereas selecting the psi-storm ability for a group of Protoss templar in SC will cause them all to cast it, stupidly wasting precious mana on a spell whose effects don't stack, selecting the night-elf sentinel ability for a group of huntresses causes only one of them to use it, thus preserving both mana and the player's sanity.

Many of these improvements are subtle, natural and seem so obvious that it's hard to understand why other games haven't yet included them. Frankly, I wrote about just such improvements years ago, so maybe I should be a game designer, eh? On a more serious note, the confluence of all the little changes present in W3 is such that one actually cares about each individual unit. No longer can one simply build tons of cannon fodder and click madly to get them all headed in the same direction. Rather, the player is rewarded for playing intelligently, taking the time to micromanage his troops for best effect. It really highlights the 'S' in 'RTS', and that's a very welcome change.

Third, the continuity of W3 is head-and-shoulders above previous Blizzard games, though W3 does fall a bit short of other games like E2150 and Sacrifice. Blizzard has always provided drama-packed stories, which tend to tie the individual missions together into a coherent whole, but W3 is the first game where hero units not only persist, but develop. Better yet, though the possibilities are relatively limited, the player has an interesting, and often difficult, set of choices to make along those lines. True, by the time a hero is maxed out, he'll have the highest levels possible of each special ability, but his inventory will be entirely of the player's choosing, and, of course, the prioritizing of special abilities along the way can make a very big difference.

My complaint against continuity is that W3, like SC, forces me to research the same thing over and over and over. What, aside from the purely pragmatic let's-give-the-player-something-to-do impulse, can possibly explain why the humans constantly forget how to make better arms and armor from one mission to the next? Hmm? I much prefer the approach taken by E2150, wherein once a technology is known, it's known. Period. Or, as in Sacrifice, once a spell is in the wizard's book, it's there. Period. A limited subset of technologies do stick around from mission to mission in W3, but it really drives me nuts having to re-research the same things over and over in the single-player campaign.

Fourth, W3 places the focus of the game squarely on units, not economics. In multi-player games of Sacrifice, E2150, and especially SC, almost every victory is an economic victory. The guy who expands quickest and most often wins. The reason? Because he can build more cannon fodder. Hey, you throw enough fodder at a cannon, it's eventually got to clog the barrel, right? In contrast, the entire economic model of W3, as well as the mechanics of developing a hero, all encourage the player to get out of his base and engage the enemy.

The upkeep, which is downright pernicious at the highest level, prevents a user from simply out-manning his opponent through economic victory. Yes, a player who expands quickly and frequently will still have a good source of income, but if the player is planning on winning simply by throwing hordes of units at his opponent, he's courting failure. An intelligent enemy will micromanage his troops and their abilities, then respond in force while the simpleton is busy building his next horde.

Similarly, the mechanics of developing a hero practically force the player to get out of his base, particularly during the early portion of the game. A hero can sway the tide of battle. A well-developed hero can easily reverse it all by himself. Leveling and equipping a hero are very important, particularly in the early portion of each multi-player game. I absolutely love how W3 manages to decouple economics and victory, instead allowing tactics and intelligence to play the dominant roles.

I could go on about all the "little" tidbits as well (e.g., the different damage types, armor types, etc.), but those things are done so well they fade entirely into the background. What really can't be underestimated, I think, is the degree to which Blizzard has made a leap forward in redefining the RTS genre. W3 is the first of any RTS game that really gets the game mechanics roughly perfect, in my estimation, and I hope other game development companies will take note of how important W3 is in this regard.

Story

I would have to say 'overwrought' is the word that comes to mind most immediately when thinking about the story in W3. I really have to give Blizzard a lot of credit. You can tell from reading their game manuals that a non-trivial amount of time and effort goes into the stories for their games. In fact, calling it a mere "story" might be a bit unfair. It's not that they sit down and write a story; rather, they invent an entire world. The game's "story" simply flows out of the world's history in a very natural way, which tends to make it pretty compelling.

This is the same reason that The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest works of fiction in human history. That is, J.R.R. Tolkien didn't merely sit down and write a story. He didn't even do what George Lucas claims to have done with his Star Wars series (i.e., developing some back-story to help make sense of the main plot-line). Rather, Tolkien sat down and built an entire world, literally right from the beginning of time itself with a supreme deity who wrought it all. Taking such an approach is much more work, but it provides a kind of consistency that really speaks to a player on a subliminal level. It's what makes everything "feel right" in such a work.

W3 succeeds in that very way. Though the plot-line is thunderously predictable, and though much of it really does seem overwrought to me—is there even one heroic figure in a Blizzard game who isn't ripped straight out of Greek tragedy?—it does drive the game. The various little scenes at the beginning and end of each mission, the interludes, and the high-quality cinematics keep the player engaged. I played for hours each night after receiving my copy of W3, and I finished the game within a few days. That's not because it's short, mind you; it's because I just couldn't stop playing the bloody thing! The reason was simple: I wanted to see what happened next. That's the power of a good story.

Content

I've been disappointed with the length of a lot of games. For example, Rune went on too long for the amount of variety it contained. The experience was long and drawn out with only flashes of high intensity play. In contrast, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault didn't go on long enough. The experience was consistently intense and positively brimming with rich detail, but it fizzled to an abrupt ending after only a few hours of play.

To borrow from Goldilocks, W3 is just right. Not only is each campaign varied and interesting in its own right, it ends on a note that manages to push the player forward into the next, barely pausing to take care of basic, biological needs. What's more, the end is perfectly timed in each case. Just as one is beginning to tire of footmen, knights, et al., it's time for ghouls and crypt fiends. About the time the stench of death is growing old, it's time for grunts and raiders, and so forth.

It bears recognition that W3 packs a huge amount of content into the game. Blizzard set the standard with SC by providing three genuinely interesting and very different races, each with its own campaign and piece of the story. With W3, they've gone one better and expanded that to four races, providing even more missions and certainly more plot development than before. If nothing else, W3 is one heck of a value for the single-player campaign alone.

Note also that each of the four races of W3 are wonderfully distinct. The humans, of course, are somehow quite familiar, despite my never having played them before. Their whole approach to the world just makes sense because, well, I'm human. Or at least, that's how I listed myself on the 2000 census—they didn't have a check box for "pod". At the beginning of each of the other three campaigns (viz., undead, orcs, and night-elves), I went through serious culture shock. Each race plays so differently from the others that it really takes a lot of adjustment, a whole new way of thinking.

Yet despite all the differences, the game seems very well balanced. I'll have more to say about that in the next section, but for now it's sufficient to note that every tactic seems to have a counter. Every weakness seems balanced by a strength. This is an incredible achievement given the complexity of the game, and I can't congratulate Blizzard heartily enough for pulling it off so well.

Of course, what review of a Blizzard game would be complete without complaints about pathfinding? It's the only major negative thing I have to say about W3, and it's very annoying. W3 finally features moderately intelligent formation-based movement, which is long overdue to my way of thinking, but it doesn't provide any user control over the type of formation used. Still, I can overlook that. Where it fails badly is with units getting in the way of other units.

Because the number of units managed is typically so much smaller in W3 (e.g., I often attacked with 24 or fewer units compared to the typical 60+ in SC), the problem isn't as ridiculous as it has been in other games. Nevertheless, it rears its ugly head too often. The most egregious example that I can remember was in the underground night-elf mission. Several of the corridors were pretty narrow, and on more than one occasion I commanded my units to attack, only to watch them march stupidly to and fro, trying to get out of each others' way while dying furiously. Gosh, that was fun. Here's an open appeal to Blizzard: either (1) fix your bloody pathfinding, or (2) let units walk through each other! I don't really care which. I'm just sick and tired of units getting trapped in brain-dead clusters or marching around stupidly.

Multi-Player

I haven't played enough of the multi-player aspect to render well-founded conclusions. I can say a few things with some confidence, however, and I think they're worth saying. First, the game is insanely engaging in terms of its tactical depth. The strategic possibilities are simply overwhelming for play against a creative human mind. There are so many different ways to approach the multi-player game, depending upon the chosen race, terrain, and playing style, that I know gamers won't exhaust the possibilities for years to come (if ever).

Second, Blizzard seems to have addressed most of the complaints levied against SC. The ranking system doesn't seem vulnerable to the kind of exploits seen in the past. The game-matching features make it far easier to play a game you actually want to play; i.e., on a map you like, with a game mode you like, etc. That was always a weakness of SC. I hated scrolling through a huge list of games trying to find one I wanted to play. That's exactly the kind of administrative crap at which computers excel and people bridle. I'm glad that sort of thing is finally being handled for me.

Third, all of the changes to the game mechanics make the multi-player game something genuinely fresh and new under the sun. W3 isn't an RTS game that lets you win by simple economic power, by rushing the fastest, etc. Rather, W3 forces the player to think, to choose carefully and deploy carefully, all in an atmosphere that encourages and rewards both. The player who cares for his hero, surrounds him with a well-balanced set of forces, and makes good use of their special abilities will surely prevail.

Fourth, and best of all, W3 seems pretty well-balanced, though this is clearly something that will require more "research" to verify. I do have some concerns at present about undead building speed, night-elf weakness in the early game, orcish forward burrowing, and some other potentially unbalancing tactics, but they're only concerns at present. Overall it seems that every tactic has at least one counter, every weakness is offset by some particular strength.

That kind of balance and strategic depth is what makes me look forward to hundreds of hours of multi-player W3. Frankly, the only disappointing aspect to the game is that I don't presently have more free time!

Conclusion

W3, despite my various complaints, is one of the better games I have played. I still wish that Blizzard had made Starcraft II instead, but I do truly enjoy W3 nevertheless. As a single-player game, it's a no-brainer buy. It is simply not to be missed. It's clearly an RTS game that should set some new standards for the entire industry. As a multi-player game, it's an even better buy. I have played SC on-line against friends for literally hundreds of hours over the last four years. Though I don't have a lot of free time right now, I have no doubt that W3 is also going to be on my hard drive for years to come. The tactical depth and solid game mechanics are what will keep me coming back for more. Thus, unless you absolutely hate the RTS genre altogether, I strongly advise that you go to the store right now and buy a copy of W3. It's the best introduction to the genre for which any gamer could hope.

Reviewed by Phileosophos
http://www.geocities.com/phileosophos

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