For months I ran the Stratholme dungeon in World of Warcraft, over and over through the burning city, through the big gate towards the corrupted paladin lord Baron Rivendare and his coveted skeletal horse. But all the time I never really knew why. I never really knew the significance of the place, that it was the turning point for famous paladin Arthas on his path to to the dark side, to becoming Lich King. But I would have had I played Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos*.
I dabbled in Warcraft 3 - I think I even played The Culling of Stratholme mission - but it didn't mean anything to me then, some 16 years ago. Now, however, it does. The repetitive running on of Stratholme has hammered it progressively deeper into my memory, which is why when I play The Culling mission in Warcraft 3: Reforged at BlizzCon 2018, I see everything through new eyes. So that's what happened!
Warcraft 3 is chock-full of these kind of moments: Sylvanas becoming baddie Sylvanas (she's still my Horde chief) and starting on her genocidal path; Thrall leading the orcs horde to Kalimdor; and many more historic moments besides. Warcraft 3 is the foundation for WOW, and now Blizzard has decided it's time for the many millions of people the MMO opened the story to, to experience it.
Blizzard has taken the opportunity to change things. With the benefit of hindsight, and WoW having developed the lore exponentially, Blizzard now knows how important the characters it's showing are - Sylvanas, for example. Considerable work has gone into bringing the character models up to date because of this. They are night and day contrasts with how they used to look. Now, what you see are high resolution characters with oodles more detail, and who talk in newly shot cut-scenes.
In old Warcraft 3, everything was shot from a zoomed out RTS view because Blizzard didn't want to get too close to simplistic character models (I learn this during an interview with designer Michael Scipione and production director Tim Morton). Characters pointed with whole fists because they didn't have individual fingers to do it with. But now they do, and much more besides, and Blizzard has breathed cinematic life into the mission intermissions which wasn't there before.
Maps have been affected by hindsight. The Stratholme you sacked in the original Warcraft 3 was barely recognisable in the dungeon I ran World of Warcraft. Now it's much clearer. "One of the things reforging Warcraft 3 has given us the opportunity to do is look at how the world has evolved since Warcraft 3," said Tim Morton, "and WoW has obviously fleshed out the world and the characters in many ways, so this is a chance to reconcile the two.
"Stratholme particularly," he added. "In the original Warcraft 3, the art-style and layout are something which would not feel familiar to a World of Warcraft player, so we have looked at the layout and art in World of Warcraft and done our best to revamp The Culling to be consistent with that."
Characters created for WoW, like the stitched together abomination Meathook, have been retrofitted to spice up encounters too. Stratholme is a much more charismatic and tactile place as a result, and almost unrecognisable from the original in Warcraft 3. It's an approach Blizzard is hoping to lavish across the whole game. "That level of quality we're aiming to maintain across the board," said Morton. "We're still in process, we haven't upgraded every asset yet, but that is definitely our target."
Gameplay, however, while newly balanced, remains largely intact. And, crucially, the new balance changes will be applied to the existing Warcraft 3 game as well. This is because the two versions of the game - old and new - need to be compatible with each other for multiplayer purposes. One cannot have an advantage. "It's actually very important we maintain parity between gameplay of the standard and Reforged edition so two players [using either version] can battle each other online," said Michael Scipione.
It's hard to tell what changes Blizzard has made to gameplay because it's been so long. But it feels sharp and pacey and how I remember Warcraft 3 - a bit antiquated, in other words, but not unpleasant by any stretch.
Being built on the same engine bodes well for mods, which were so important to Warcraft 3. After all, were it not for Warcraft 3, Defence of the Ancients wouldn't exist, and without DOTA we wouldn't have MOBAs as we know them today. Imagine playing DOTA in Warcraft 3: Reforged - it's a tantalising prospect. It's why being able to painlessly transplant existing mods is very important. "We're working to make that as easy as possible," said Tim Morton. "As much as possible we'd like to make it plug and play, but there's still some work to do."
Easing the process will be a revamped editor, and other additions to Warcraft 3: Reforged include a new user interface and Battle.net multiplayer improvements. You can see, then, this project has been a significant undertaking. Warcraft 3: Reforged actually begun development before StarCraft Remastered, apparently, which was released last summer. By the time Reforged comes out in 2019, it will have been in development multiple years. "It's a pretty substantial effort," said Morton. "The scope of art assets and complexity of the engine - this was Blizzard's first 3D game - [means] it's orders of magnitude more work than even StarCraft Remastered was.
"This, to me, is the most exciting thing to happen in real-time strategy in years," he added, "and will revitalise the genre in many ways, bringing players from WoW who haven't experienced this story, and players from other genres like MOBA who want to see where this comes from. Yes, this is a remaster, but it's in many ways a brand new release."
Whether it will rekindle the genre to a popularity it once enjoyed, I'm not so sure, but of Reforged being a worthwhile journey back through Warcraft and Blizzard's history I have no doubt. I do not want to miss it.
*The Culling would later be added to World of Warcraft with expansion Wrath of the Lich King, as a time-travelling dungeon experience.
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