Review by Kane

"War and Peace"

Whether you’re in a Korean gang or not, you may probably have heard of StarCraft, the notorious Real Time Strategy game developed by Blizzard that became so popular it even generated professional gaming leagues in certain Asian countries. But only the most fanatic of you readers can still clearly remember its ancestors WarCraft (father and son) and the epic battle for Azeroth they beautifully depicted. Memories of intense LAN parties and heated strategic discussions, feelings of uncontrollable anger following close defeats, and last but not least, the overwhelming joy of leading your side to an unquestionable victory. Those were all considered things of the past in our minds, the kind of memories that are buried deep under the reality of most recent games and that you tend to peacefully leave there, but never entirely forget.

And after so many years, the triumphant return of its much-hyped sequel was eventually announced under the enticing name WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos. Notwithstanding the time, the flow of emotions and excitement was still there for every fan like me, who couldn’t wait to try this new version of their favorite epic.

Right from the start of the opening sequence, it becomes painfully obvious that WarCraft III more than delivers in terms of atmosphere. It goes much further than the immensely popular Lord of the Ring movies, it offers you an authentic chance to immediately enter a unique and fantastic world populated with legendary dragons and evil necromancers. As hinted by the subtitle of the game, a dark age of chaos is falling on the prestigious realm of Azeroth as its inhabitants begin to discover a frightening reality strangely reminiscent of Darwinian principles: from now on, only the strongest will survive.

But make no mistake, because WarCraft III is a complex game that doesn’t seem to promote brute force as much a raw strategic skills. Through five campaigns each containing about 7 missions, the player is asked to successively take command of four fairly balanced races and build massive armies in order to fulfill their respective leader's ambitions –unfortunately, those chapters remain desperately linear.

Those missions are stringed together thanks to an impressive story (arguably the best to ever come out of Blizzard’s studios) that reflects the conflicts of interest of each race. After a very conventional opening campaign, the game will surprise you with its surprisingly dark themes that remind one of Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. From the pathetic fate of a young prince Arthas to the setbacks of Furion Stormrage, powerful druid from the night elves tribe, the smooth flow of WarCraft III’s storyline and fantastic dialogues easily hold the player’s interest like no other strategy game has ever done.

At the core of the gameplay lies the constant struggle between four different races for the domination of Azeroth. Fiery and fierce warriors who don't know the meaning of fear, the Orcs are undoubtedly the most fearsome one. Their brute strentgh seems unstoppable, but their troups are lacking in variety and magic. At the other end of the spectrum, the mysterious Night Elves rely on animal and vegetal forces, allowing them to move faster and use powerful spells. Their mastery of archery put them at a great advantage during ranged battles, but their defense is fragile.

Another new race in the WarCraft universe, the Undead are probably the most dangerous one for they control the realms of the unknown and can thus defy the logic of traditional battles. Not only are their spells disgustingly devastating, but the Necromancers also have the power to revive dead units and build massive, varied armies. As expected, the Humans are the most versatile race and can summon noble knights to tear through enemy lines as well as devout priests to heal the wounds of those brave fighters. Yet, far from being the weakest of the bunch, they can be surprisingly dreadful under the command of a skilled player.

The interface of the game seems eerily similar to what could be found in the precedent episodes. Truth be told, this game actually showcases a great number of minor improvements that greatly improve the general comfort of the player. For example, it is now possible to move the units in formation and attribute them a number for faster reaction via the keyboard. Fortunately, a system of sub-selection allows you to focus more particularly on one unit and therefore, to use each unit’s abilities to their fullest.

Entirely new to the series is the introduction of heroes that act as independent units with the ability to equip items, use magic spells and most importantly level up. Although this isn’t necessarily new to the world of strategy games, it does add a little flavor to an already massively approved gameplay. Nevertheless, the game feels slightly too much like a mix of StarCraft and Diablo and sometimes seems to fail finding its own identity. Indeed, WarCraft III may be a wonderfully crafted piece of work but it desperately lacks originality.

Worse yet, the profoundly hyped heroes probably hurt the game’s balance at times and end up shifting the emphasis from real strategy to micro-management and role-playing game skills. Things start becoming even more annoying once you find out the actual importance of manual skills (also known as mouse speed) in the game. Most of the time, the player who can both control the evolution of his base and send his hero along with a small number of units slay a few wandering monsters to gain experience quickly gets a smooth win. Indeed, the way you attack opposing troops doesn’t nearly matter as much as your army’s strength –which gives the game an annoying rpg-ish ‘level up and annihilate everything’ touch.

On the other hand, WarCraft III has enough variety to offer the player numerous opportunities to fight this apparent plague. Contrary to their futuristic StarCraft-ian equivalents, the races are all built on the same general concepts, but the fact that each kind of unit can learn particular skills opens the door to countless strategies to rid the surface of Azeroth of such overpowered “heroes”. Thus, the only question left is related to the surprisingly low maximum unit count hidden behind a pompous ‘food limit’ excuse: can Warcraft III stand the test of time and still offer new viable strategies a few years from now? For the common run of people, including me, it seems more than likely –especially if you take into account the excellent world editor that comes with the game.

But Blizzard’s most hardcore fans have a right to be disappointed because the wait was so long and the expectations so great. The initial balance issues should easily be fixed with the help of patches or perhaps even expansion packs -come on, you know they’re coming. Yet any way you look at it, WarCraft III’s gameplay contains enough meat to make it an excellent basis for multiplayer, which is good news since it’s packed with configuration options –up to eight players for online confrontations, with every team setup imaginable and computer generated bots.

As usual, Blizzard’s free server works wonders and will keep any gamer desirous of becoming famous among the community busy for countless nights. Two things related to the server happen to be particularly noticeable, though. First, most users appears to be either extremely immature or sore losers, certainly due to the competitive nature of the game that keeps trace of your online record. Secondly, the difficulty of computer is quite variable but generally rather high, which added to the unforgiving gameplay contributes to the fact that WarCraft III is particularly hard on beginners. The game is a joy to play so this shouldn’t be a real problem, but consider yourself warned: even becoming only decent takes serious dedication.

Thankfully, the rest of the game is also very solid. The visuals, without attaining the excellence of the most recent new-generation console hits, reach beyond most expectations for a game of this genre. WarCraft III’s three-dimensional world is very credible and the maps are once again characterized by a great variety. Rivers, woods, mountains... The landscape of Azeroth is rich and full of contrasts that were magnificently transcribed into the game. Similarly, each unit is not only easily recognizable on the battlefield but also highly charismatic. In short, WarCraft III is very stylish but not at the cost of the gameplay.

The character models are still imperfect during some cut-scenes and some of the portraits remain a bit blocky at times, but this bears no effect on the overall charm of the game, especially since most of it is seen through an aerial view that places the player fairly far from his troops for the sake of clarity. And yet, the game does become somewhat confusing at times during large-scale battles, but that’s mostly because of the profusion of special effects and peculiar animations that wonderfully illustrate the beauty of the world of WarCraft. Even online, the game runs without noticeable slowdown and ends up being a delight for the player’s eyes.

Similarly, WarCraft III’s symphonic tunes are admirable and perfectly convey the epic feel necessary for successful heroic fantasy works. Sometimes terrifying, other times relaxing, the game’s music is hard to forget and always seems to perfectly fit the action. It conveys so much emotion that the player constantly has the impression of playing a role in the story, of being a part of something special and indeed, WarCraft III’s atmosphere is one of a kind. Moreover, the sounds are also remarkable: sword clinks, strange incantations and barbarous shouts are common on the battlefield, but the most impressive part is probably constituted by the particularly humorous voice acting: hearing your men quote the Monty Pythons and making other obscure, sometimes even suggestive references instantly boosts their charisma.

Finally, the Full Motion Video sequences that punctuate the campaigns are breathtaking works of art that do not pale in comparison to Peter Jackson's works. Never, I repeat, never have any pre-rendered movies ever come close to such a cinematographic quality: they’re so beautifully orchestrated and realistic that it could incite even the most old-school players to finish the game just to see all of them. Seriously.

With this episode, Blizzard has created a complete and fascinating title that deserves to become an unprecedented hit. Although at first in terms of bare gameplay Starcraft seems to offer more possibilities, WarCraft III has a lot more character and feels much more refined. It's accessible and has that special touch that makes any player come back for more no matter how many games he lost in a row.

War is so addictive nowadays.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 07/16/02, Updated 02/02/03

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