I’ve made it no secret that I’m not a fan of fantasy, but I try not to be a snob about it. After all, we’re really talking about the same basics here. Whatever your explanation, be it mental power, nanites, arcane mysticism, or the proper incantations from a scroll, the end result is the same – shooting lighting from your hands is awesome. Traveling the countryside, getting into adventures, and helping out the locals – awesome. Going to war against a legion of mutants that cannot be bargained or reasoned with – fucking awesome.
Now the Command and Conquer series and I have an extremely limited history, but I’ve always avoided Warcraft due to its icky fantasy trappings. I’d heard they were good games and didn’t doubt that, but when you play as many games as I do, and when money is on the line, you tend to stick with what you know. Now that I can buy the entire collection with change scraped from under the couch, I decided to install what could still be considered one of the Godfathers of the modern RTS, and see how the ol’ boy fares. I’ve been quietly playing it since, off and on, for the past few months.
Warcraft is subtitled “Orcs & Humans,” which gives you a fair indication that you can play as either Orcs or Humans. Each side has their own set of missions and their own set of units. While the missions are unique, the units really are not – each one has an evil twin working for the enemy. Like its predecessor Dune II, there are about two units near the top of the tech tree (and toward the end of the game) that differ, but not significantly. Human clerics can heal friendlies; their counterpart, the Orcish necrolyte can reanimate fallen corpses. Both are extending the lives of units. This ultimately means that there’s little reason to play both sides, unless you’re really into the story (which, in Blizzard fashion, is deep, explained in a lengthy manual, and interesting enough to be a valid reason to keep playing). And if it was balance they were worried about, maybe they should have taken a look at the Orcs’ whole “invincible daemon” thing.
The interface is simple to understand, but clunky and merely functional – again, another borrow from Dune II. You’ll have your main game window with a fog-of-war that must be lifted by scouting units. You’ll have your minimap in the upper-left corner, which thankfully is always on this time and doesn’t require a structure to activate it. It also acts as a multi-function display, giving information on objectives, units, and your economy based on a few F-key selections.
You select a unit by clicking on it, which displays its current health and upgrades. Icons (or shortcut keys) select the action you wish him to perform, and another left click tells him where to perform it. The system is identical for managing structures and upgrades. You cannot queue items to build or research, but a progress bar and an audio alert when construction is complete makes this manageable. The F1 key reminds you of all your useful shortcuts if you get lost.
Yes, it does mean a lot of inelegant click to the right, click to the left, click to the right actions, as you move between your units on the field and their controlling icons on the left. But, if you consider this more of an animated tabletop game, it becomes a little more forgiving, and I was able to accept it after a few missions. You can also streamline the process a bit by selecting up to four units at once with shift or a lasso. (You apparently could select all units in an early build, but Blizzard decided that made the game too easy. Share a chuckle with me at that, RTS vets.) It’s also inconvenient to have to click on every soldier in a group to display their stats and find the wounded one, but there’s plenty of time between battles or waves to nurse and regroup.
I like Warcraft’s resource system, which is fairly elaborate. Instead of a single catch-all resource, you have three pools to concern yourself with: food, lumber, and gold. Gold is taken from mines, and the mining process is quick, but requires travel to and from limited points on the map (wherever the mines are). Lumber is taken by sending workers to literally chop down the trees around you. It takes longer than mining, and also deforms the terrain with appropriate consequences. If you expand your base into a forest, you lose that natural barrier as you harvest it. Food dictates your unit cap, and you can’t field more units than you can feed. Food is increased simply by building more farms, but just like every building and unit, farms must be built using lumber and gold. It’s a nice little trinity to balance, and gives you more of an economy to consider back home.
It also contributes to the major flaw I found with the game. Warcraft is SLOW. Real slow. Fossilization slow. I’m not particularly talking about movement speed – which is plodding as well, but can be adjusted. It’s more about the time it takes to put together a combat-ready force. You won’t start strong until the later missions, so you always have to build basic structures like farms and barracks. You have to find the closest mine. You have to chop down wood, which takes a good minute or two each trip. You have to construct an army of builder/harvesters before you can raise your regular army, using the same resources that would go towards that fighting force, while the handful of defensive units you start with get whittled away. And what happens when an enemy unit breaks through your thin lines and whacks a couple builders? You’ve got to reallocate resources and time to replacing those builders before you can replace your fighting army to defend them. It will happen too, because you never get to dictate where your headquarters is; you’ll always start in a fixed place on the map that has multiple entry points, which you don’t have enough starter units to defend. Repeat and drag out until the point gets across.
You’d think you could take a lesson from the small attack/harassment groups the computer regularly sends against you with great effect, but you’d be wrong. The computer always starts with a thriving city and plenty of resources. Blizzard themselves admit that, while the game doesn’t “cheat” per se, it doesn’t play by the same rules you do, and doesn’t have to harvest gold or lumber to meet its goals. You’ll never be able to rush an early city and raze it. Instead, you always must methodically build up your stores and army, and because of the complex economy and fragile defenses, do so at a snail’s pace.
Unit types and specializations also discourage small, secondary raid parties, and work to keep you clustered together around the base until hours later into the mission. It’s a typical rock-paper-scissors system of balance: archers have the range to attack charging footmen, but are quickly felled if the soldiers catch up. The catapult can smoke entire groups of foes, but knights are simply too fast for it to hit. The enemy will always send mixed groups after you, forcing you to keep mixed groups yourself to meet them – a basic line of archers or catapults shooting over a line of blocking foot soldiers is pretty much the minimum. And to churn this formation out, you’ll need money, which means you’ll need to protect your fledgling economy for quite some time with the only soldiers you have.
Actual combat is not quite as frustrating as you might expect. A somewhat-authentic medieval pace to things helps – you’ll see enemies slowly marching from the edge of the screen and have time to reposition your men into a defensive wall. Being able to select four-man teams helps with this, though I wish you could select them by unit type. Pathfinding is pretty good, and while they always take the shorter route, and not always the safest route, you can click just about anywhere and they’ll get there. Strategy is fairly basic, but still fun, with a core line, knights that charge and retreat, and mages supporting with magic from a safe distance. I enjoyed setting up successful phalanxes and watching enemies crumble against them, and the larger units toward the end of the game offer an evil, Godzilla sort of fun.
The only real complaint I have here is that your guys can be fairly overzealous, and frequently break ranks to charge and fight. I like that they have some level of autonomy, and will attack approaching enemies if left alone, but it does turn some battles into babysitting as you keep pulling stragglers back to the line. Even if you click “Stop,” that order won’t stick, and they’ll immediately go back to attacking foes in range.
You get a neat variety of missions for either side. Each has twelve, and while most are of the standard “build base, smash enemy base” kind, you get a few where you have to fight evil versions of your team (like rogue humans), where you have to rescue and rebuild besieged towns, where you have to liberate builders from an enemy camp in order to crush a nearby base, and a few “task force” missions. Warcraft introduces this concept to the mainstream RTS – instead of building barracks and churning out units, you begin in a contained map (like a cave) with a preset mix of units and an objective. You can’t build anything here, and can’t augment or replace your team. The challenge thus becomes to use each unit’s strength to create an effective unified force, with no backup to save you from missteps.
The game looks pretty sharp, somewhat of the “believable fantasy” of Lord of the Rings, but far shinier and less gritty. I wouldn’t say that it looks cartoonish, as WoW tends to do, but more because this hand-drawn style was how most game looked at the time. Units are small, but fairly easy to distinguish – not because of details, but because the collections of pixels have different shapes. Soldiers hold their swords out prominently, archers have a brown thing that I suppose is a quiver. The orcish raider is the only one on the field riding a large coal-colored thing that I guess is a boar. They get the job done, and do set up the fantasy battles in your head. Terrain looks pretty good by comparison, with lots of colors and detail in places like the dry, cracked land the Orcs start out from.
Sound is a little weaker than you might expect. One voice actor for each side provides all the lines for that side’s units, so be prepared for an extreme overuse of “Yeees?” “My Liege?” and “[unintelligible orkish grumbling]” as you click through your army. MIDI music is gloomy and suitable, with an option to turn it off independent of the effects (can’t do that with the voices, unfortunately). Effects are limited, but very appropriate when used. Digitized clips of swords clanking together in battle, trees being sawed for lumber, and nails being hammered in for building help the field come alive. The same clips will be used for every event, with no variation, and they do start and stop abruptly as there’s no ambience other than the music, but like the graphics, the job gets done.
Warcraft remains a competent title. Units support each other well, its resource system is intriguingly elaborate, and its AI is surprisingly capable at finding the undefended path to your base. I’m not sure how critical the story here is to the overall Warcraft universe, but it does provide both creative missions and a purpose behind them. The only trouble will be if you cannot overcome its primitive interface, or the laggard pace of its gameplay. I don’t think you’ll be missing anything if you skip ahead in the series, but its a fun distraction that will last a few weekends if you choose to stay.
Decent story. Excellent variety of missions. Moderately clever AI. Units support each other well.
Primitive interface. Extremely slow to build up an army. Some double-tough challenges.