Rites of Passage
Real-time strategy franchises tend to attract fanatical followings, from the legions of Command & Conquer fanboys to the near religious fervency of Total Annihilation devotees. None more so, however, than Blizzard's WarCraft series - and its futuristic spin-off, StarCraft - a series of RTS games which have honed to perfection a formula which balances relatively simple gameplay with surprisingly complex mechanics, innovative graphics and a healthy dollop of bizarre humour. It's a long time since the last game in the series grabbed the attention of the strategy gamer, making WarCraft III one of the most anticipated PC titles ever; can it possibly live up to the legacy of its forebears?
Set years after the conclusion of WarCraft II, with orcs and humans living in an uneasy co-existence, much has changed in the lands of WarCraft. For a start, they're entirely rendered in 3D now; from the intricately animated menu screens to the often stunning battlegrounds, every element of the game has been given a polygonal, texture-mapped makeover. The interface, which will be immediately familiar to fans of StarCraft, even features animated 3D portraits of each character you select - right down to the bored-looking sheep who occasionally wander through the map.
Purists need not worry, however, as nothing has been lost in the conversion to 3D. The basic gameplay of the series remains intact and, perhaps more importantly, the character and humour of the art in the original WarCraft games has been moved seamlessly into the third dimension. Blizzard were perhaps wise to wait until 3D was quite mature before releasing this latest game in the series; uninspiring, badly textured models would have ruined the feel of the title, but the quirky and beautifully animated models and portraits seen here carry the classic feel of the title admirably.
Nothing offered, nothing gained
Those running low-spec systems will also be pleased to hear that, despite the graphical splendour of the game, it won't cripple even the most basic of systems. Playing four-player games on a network - usually the type of play most likely to bring an RTS title's framerate to its knees - saw smooth and perfectly acceptable framerates even on our lowest spec system, a Duron 800 with a GeForce 2. With a little tweaking, the game is undoubtedly playable on systems even less well endowed than that. Real time strategy titles have never been the most demanding games on the market in terms of system spec, and it's good to see Blizzard continuing this tradition and resisting the urge to add curves, bump mapping and all manner of other widgets which would rule out much of their audience unnecessarily.
But while little has been lost in the conversion to 3D, little has been gained either, although admittedly the move is nowhere near as disappointing as Command & Conquer's abortive foray into voxels. The switch to 3D has opened up significant scope for in-game cutscenes, but for the purposes of pure gameplay WarCraft may as well have remained in two dimensions. Camera rotation and movement is shockingly limited; you can't zoom out (and the default camera is very tight indeed, often making it impossible to see an entire skirmish on screen at once) and the 3D terrain is very obviously a polygonal sheet draped over a resolutely 2D map.
Aside from the updated technology underlying the game, the "big idea" behind WarCraft III is the inclusion of hero characters, with three distinct types for each race. These form the focus of the single player campaign and add a role-playing element to the gameplay by gaining experience through involvement in battle, with players earning a point to spend on upgrading their abilities every time they go up a level. Heroes are remarkably powerful and flexible characters, and their presence changes the mechanics of the game dramatically. Some have automatic status effects on all units within their range, others can cure units in their group, and most possess powerful physical or magical special attacks.
Leader of the Pack
Elsewhere, the gameplay of the series remains almost untouched, bar various tweaks. There are four races to play as now, with Dark Elves and the Undead being added to the traditional line-up of Orcs and Humans, and the influences of StarCraft are very obvious - the Undead are effectively a clone of the Zerg, complete with blighted land to build bases on. Each race is nicely balanced in terms of strengths and weaknesses, with the interesting addition of resource gathering abilities to the mix of differences. The Undead, for example, gather resources far more quickly and efficiently than other races, making it far easier for them to expand earlier in the game than the other races.
Frustratingly though, the unit control and production foibles of StarCraft have also made their way into WarCraft III. Many aspects of the control and grouping system are superb - the ability to select all units of a single type by double clicking on one of them should be enforced as law for every RTS game, and the "sub-grouping" system which allows you to press tab to move between unit types in your current group, enabling you to access all their various special abilities, is another excellent addition. However, the crippling inability to select more than a dozen units at any given time is every bit as annoying here as it was in StarCraft, and is seemingly arbitrary; the only explanation we can find for this unit limit is that that's the number of icons which would fit in the group panel at the bottom of the screen.
Much more frustrating, however, is the absolute food limit in the game. Each player is restricted to 90 food units total, and once you hit that limit you can build as many farms (or equivalent food-producing buildings) as you like, but the limit won't budge. Not only that, but many high-level creatures and units take up several food units apiece. Micromanagement near the food limit is astonishingly annoying - RTS should be about battles, not trying to get some low-level units killed so that you can afford to fit in another high-level unit! Food also quickly becomes the most important resource in the game, much more so than gold or wood, which is a ridiculous situation. The limit may be there for balance purposes, but if so it's a clumsy and cack-handed way to balance the game, and possibly the single most negative factor about the title as a whole.
These issues aside, there's a hell of a lot to enjoy in WarCraft III. As mentioned, the sense of humour of the previous games is retained, naturally including the ability to repeatedly click units for a variety of amusing speech clips, some of which are fantastically funny. There's a massive single player campaign which is entertaining and varied, even if the difficulty curve could have done with a little tweaking in some places, while multiplayer is perfectly balanced and a lot of fun, either on a LAN or through the superb Battle.net system. This performs excellently and makes playing on even a humble modem possible. Our only complaint about multiplayer is that many units pop up in the single player game which aren't available in multiplayer - a somewhat frustrating oversight.
One element of the game worth special mention is the cinematic clips that punctuate the single player game. These are, in a word, superb; possibly the most impressive examples of rendered video we've ever seen. While much of this splendour is purely technical progress - cloth, leather, fur and feathers all look excellent - quite a bit of it is down to first-class direction and animation, and the game's classical score contributes in no small measure as well. While these sumptuous cutscenes aren't quite up to the standard set by Final Fantasy X in terms of facial animation, in every other respect Blizzard has leapfrogged Square's video department - an impressive feat indeed.
So does WarCraft III live up to our high expectations? Yes. It's not perfect by any means - the food limit and unit selection limit will drive you nuts after a bit of play, and the "Upkeep" tax on your gold mines when you have more than a certain number of units is frankly daft, since it encourages you to build as few units as you possibly can. It is a worthy update to the series though, and makes the transition to 3D with flying colours while adding some interesting new gameplay elements to an already hugely enjoyable title. No fan of real-time strategy should be without WarCraft III, and many RPG fans will want to take a peek as well.