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by Blizzard

s16-large-01.jpg (7273 bytes)There is no company in the PC gaming world quite like Blizzard. Up until very recently their games had a spotless reputation that stemmed from both their dedication to uncompromising quality and the fact that they always managed to be about 20 times more fun to play than anyone else’s. The Blizzard mystique was a powerful thing, and for gamers the release day of every new Blizzard game was an Event, something you might even skip work for. We awaited the arrival of Warcraft II and Diablo and Starcraft (and even their expansions) with an anticipation that rivaled that of Star Wars fans, and we were rewarded with some of the best, longest-lived games ever made. Then came Diablo II. While it wasn’t the unmitigated disaster that, say, Episode One was, it was a bit of a disappointment. While fun to play, it was buggy, it was graphically dated, and it was one hell of a lot like Diablo. Of course, it sold a bajillion copies, too, but there were some grumblings from the hardcore that maybe Blizzard had lost its touch. So while I awaited the release of Warcraft III with just as much excitement as usual, that excitement was tinged, for the first time, with just a little doubt.

s19-large-01.jpg (7581 bytes)Oh me of little faith. With the release of Warcraft III, Blizzard has yet again managed to catch lightning in a bottle. While there’s nothing very revolutionary here, Warcraft III’s combination of stellar graphics, killer setting and story, addictive real-time strategy gameplay, and unstinting polish makes it a spectacular gaming experience, one that easily places it in the ranks of Blizzards’ best games. Again, if you’re buying Warcraft III because you’re expecting something entirely innovative, you’ll probably be disappointed. You’re probably also misguided; novelty for novelty’s sake has never been a Blizzard trademark--refining existing genres with an eye toward maximum gameplay and fun has.

s17-large-01.jpg (7850 bytes)Those familiar with Warcraft II will feel, at least intially, right at home in the world of Warcraft III. Races include the beloved Orcs and Humans, but also two new additions—the Undead and the Night Elves, both of whom play very differently from our two more familiar races. In the single player game, each race gets a campaign of about eight missions or so. The single player campaign begins with a short introductory orc campaign that serves to provide both narrative background and a tutorial. This combination of narrative and gameplay is one of the most impressive aspects of Warcraft III, and it continues throughout the long but never dull single-player campaigns. Each campaign gradually introduces you not only to each race’s units and their capabilities, but also to their backgrounds and motivations. For the most part, mission objectives are varied and extremely well-integrated into the story—you rarely wonder why you’re doing something, and many missions are sprinkled with cut scenes and optional quests that really draw one into the game. As is a Blizzard trademark, the game’s storyline is ambiguous and deep and the characters memorable, as memorable here as Kerrigan and Duke are from Starcraft.

s13-large-01.jpg (8022 bytes)Though a real-time strategy game, Warcraft III plays very differently than Warcraft II or Starcraft. Don’t expect to build up massive armies that cover the board, to hoard resources, and to be able to use rush tactics. The emphasis here is on small units and individual heroes, and as such gameplay probably owes more to the Warlords: Battlecry series than Blizzard’s designers would care to admit. While Warcraft III contains the usual resource-gathering and base-building component found in most RTS’s, it is here somewhat streamlined—peons only gather gold and lumber as resources and build farms for food. Nevertheless, resources must be carefully managed—the population limit in Warcraft III caps at 90, and as your population grows an "upkeep" penalty automatically skims a percentage of the resources gathered by your peons. This makes it much more difficult to field a large force and accrue a vast surplus of resources. Since buildings seem to produce units—especially more powerful ones—at a slower rate than most RTS’s, the kind of "rush waves" typical of most RTS’s are very difficult to replicate here.

s15-large-01.jpg (8085 bytes)This places a welcome emphasis on heroes and small-unit tactics. Heroes are probably the most significant gameplay innovation in Warcraft III, and the aspect that most differentiates it from Blizzard’s previous RTS’s. Each race can avail itself of three different kinds of heroes, each with access to different abilities and spells. As heroes progress in the game, they "level up", RPG-like. Not only does this add to their base statistics, it also allows you to buff up the various abilities and spells they specialize in. Heroes will also find magic items aplenty scattered over the board, and this combination of high stats, powerful abilities, and magic items makes heroes incredibly powerful, though never quite invincible. Since Blizzard realizes that losing a hero can be a devastating psychological experience, the game allows you to resurrect slain heroes at altar structures.

s18-large-01.jpg (9025 bytes)As to units, don’t expect your structures to pump out innumerable zerglings, either. Though each race has a wide variety of very distinctive units (and you can sometimes employ units from other races), they are not as "dispensible" as your typical RTS unit. There’s no real fodder unit, and each unit can access special abilities. I don’t know about you, but in most RTS’s I’ve found that special unit abilities (with a few exceptions) aren’t all that useful—fast production and swarming tactics tend to carry the day more than careful deployment. That’s not the case in Warcraft III, where careful deployment and small unit tactics actually pay off. Of course, each army’s units and structures add to its personality. Humans are adaptable jacks of all trades with lots of guns; Orcs are tough melee nightmares with brutal magic spells; Night Elves are stealthy and quick; and the Undead have resilient undead hordes buttressed by powerful and nasty magic spells.

s20-large-01.jpg (9490 bytes)Besides fighting the other races, you’ll find that Warcraft III’s maps are loaded with NPCs, which the game calls Creeps and Critters. As you move across the map towards your enemy, you’ll find it populated by various hostile creatures. This contributes towards deeper gameplay in two ways—first, it discourages rush tactics by forcing you to fight through NPCs before coming to grips with your enemy; second, it gives your hero a chance to gain experience and valuable magic items.

ss011-large-01.jpg (9591 bytes)Overall, I’m very pleased with Warcraft III’s gameplay; the emphasis on smaller units and careful resource management means that mindless rush tactics and bunkered in bases are no longer the sine qua non of successful generalship. We’ll see how this works out in multiplayer when opens up to Warcraft III on July 3.

ss015-large-01.jpg (9675 bytes)The game’s graphics are nothing short of spectacular; Blizzard has finally made the jump to a 3-D engine, and everything--from the units to the terrain to the spell effects—is colorful and vibrant and well-designed. Of course, the game’s cinematics are just breath-taking; can someone talk these guys into doing a full-length feature? The only graphical problem I have with the game is the rather limited camera. Though you can change resolutions, the amount of area you can view of any map is quite fixed. While the game’s camera allows you to scroll sideways and to pan from overhead to ground-level view, it never allowed me to zoom either in or out as much as I wanted to, and the lack of a rotating camera is an utter mystery. This can sometimes effect gameplay, too—I’ve lost more than one unit behind a building I could not see behind. Sound is excellent, and multiple clicks on units will elicit a wide variety of really funny comments. Just another example of the kind of attention to detail and polish that makes Warcraft III such a joy to play.

e05-large-01.jpg (10699 bytes)I’ll comment more on multiplayer later, after I’ve spent some time on, but the LAN games I’ve played have been very good. Of course, it’s too early to tell if Blizzard has missed a killer strategy, or if one race is more powerful than another, but in the games I’ve played so far the races seem fairly well-balanced. The multiplayer game ships with over 40 maps for anywhere from 2-12 players, and includes an easy to use and powerful map editor, so this baby has legs.

ss012-large-01.jpg (9786 bytes)We’ll update this review as we wade through the intricacies of Warcraft III’s multiplayer component, but for now I have to give Warcraft III an unqualified and enthusiastic rave review. It recaptures the Blizzard magic in a way I haven’t seen since Starcraft; in fact, I think it’s Blizzard’s best game yet--and one of the best PC games I’ve ever played. 

Rick Fehrenbacher   (07/03/2002)


Ups: Almost everything you can imagine.

Downs: Limited camera movement.

Platform: PC