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July 8th, 2002

[7/8/2002 11:43:54 AM | David Krieger]
WarCraft III

I have very fond feelings for Blizzard games. The very first game I played online was WarCraft II. My best friend and I managed to get my roommate's computer to dial in to mine so we could play head to head in my apartment - calling out smack-talk to each other through the hallway. It was one of many "lost weekends" for computer games that the two of us had. So, I was pretty excited about WarCraft III, especially since it purported to reduce some of the frenetic click-festing of StarCraft, and emphasize the story elements, to make a real-time strategy-rpg. Intriguing stuff! The buzz about it was fantastic, every critic loved it.

But not me! I got it on the day it came out, I think - or maybe the next day. Anyway, I went home and installed it, and started to run it. The opening cinematic was astonishing - every detail is lustrous and fantastic. The story, right away, is ominous and gripping - as usual, Blizzard made some great cinematics. But then the game starts.

The first two things I noticed were the graphics, and the voice-acting, both of which suck. The graphics are true 3-D, with a limited ability to move the "camera" around - but that's not what makes them suck. What sucks is the hyper-colored cartoony look of the graphics. It's like when they reviewed the graphics of the previous games, rather than try and use a better engine to make the new game look more realistic and distinctive, they decided to become even more cartoony. Every character has enormous feet, impossibly broad shoulders, and teeny-tiny heads and waists. The colors are so lurid, and the characters so blocky and exaggerated, that it's hard to figure out what they're supposed to be. Even the way the characters "breathe" is impossibly exaggerated -- when standing still, units pulse up and down fully a third of their height. I know, I know - it's supposed to make them seem "alive", but c'mon! Subtletly is definitely a lost art here. Also, add to this the fact that the units' weapons are gigantinormous, most of them easily as large as the units themselves, and it's just freakin' hard to figure out what each unit is actually supposed to be!

And then there's the voice-acting. Okay, the voices for the individual units are as hilarious as ever when you click on them. Each one has a series of complaints that it will voice if you keep clicking on them without giving orders, and it's worth it to just keep clicking on every new unit you get, just to hear them. The talent for the dwarven units, especially, is great - each dwarf has a thick Scottish brogue, and an attitude like a soccer-hooligan. However, the characters that carry the central story are awful! The worst I've ever heard in a game, actually. Never mind the fact that the story is moronic and simplistic, and the characters completely unlikable -- the actors who breathe life into those characters breathe about as much life as an asthmatic in the geriatric ward. The voices are flat, unemotional, and unaccented. Further, they're all obviously recorded in a sound studio - so that characters that are allegedly shouting curses and doom at each other on a battlefield, sound like their sitting next to each other on a couch watching football. There's ZERO in terms of environmental sound. Imagine, if you will, George Patton dosing himself into a coma with Robitussin before giving his most famous speech, and as a result just mildly speaking in a Tobey McQuire-esque deadpan, and you start to get the idea.

And the story! It all revolves around an unidentified prophet, who appears to the leaders of the orc and human nations. He tells them they have to pack up and leave their homes. Apparently, the fact that he can shapeshift into a raven means he should be believed. Unsurprisingly, the human king doesn't take him very seriously - and who would? It's a world full of magic, why on earth would any prophet think he could just flap into the throne room, tell an entire nation to remove itself to another continent, and be treated like anything other than a loon? And he actually seems offended (in a monotone laconic sort of way) that no one is listening to him. Of course, the orcs actually do listen to him. Imagine George Bush getting a call from a dial-a-psychic who tells him he has to relocate America to Central Asia... so he just orders the entire country to roll up it's carpets and go!

The story doesn't get any better. I won't include any spoilers, but suffice it to say that unsympathetic characters become even less sympathetic, and for no apparent reason, either. Unlike the deep conflict experienced by the believable characters in StarCraft - in which the conversion of Kerrigan to the Zerg is actually kind of traumatic - I couldn't have cared less what happened to the characters in WarCraft III. No attempt is made to give them any motivation, or personality... and pretty clearly, the script writers didn't have any particular insight into the way people think, what motivates them to fight or struggle for survival... or even how real people actually talk to each other.

But - the game itself is pretty good. If you can get past the cartoony graphics and simpleton story, and dreadful voice-acting... gameplay is exciting. Despite being bored by the story, I wanted to keep playing the game... each faction (and there are four) has very different units that do different things, yet balance is very good. Each faction has a particular strength - human units cooperate with each other very well, and produce strong buildings, quickly. The undead units will keep coming back, full-strength, if you don't kill them outright - and even in death, they'll keep coming back sometimes. Orc units are produced very quickly, and dish out punishing damage - while the Night Elves are extremely sneaky and hard to pin down. (And of the lot ,the Night Elves LOOK the absolute coolest)

One of the new aspects to the game is the heroes. Heroes have whacky powers that can tip the scale in a battle - a cluster of units lead by a good, tough hero is much harder to take out than just a regular cluster of units. However, the heroes also require more micro-managing to use their powers... like the undead's death knights can cast "resurrection" which will bring up to six units, both friendly and foe, to life to fight on. If the six nearest units are hard-hitting combat units... the effect can be devastating. Each "flavor" of hero has some power that makes it just as influential on the outcome of a skirmish, and particularly in the single-player game, it's fun to level up your heroes (they get experience for killing enemies and "creeps" which are netural critters around the board) to max out their powers.

The interface has been cleaned up, too. One of the biggest headaches with the previous *Craft games was the clickfest that ensued during combat. To use the powers of units that had unique abilities, one had to navigate the interface for each individual unit, and click on the power, and the target. Now, when units of a like type are clustered together and selected, the tab key will cycle through groups of different types, so that you can mass-cast a spell or ability. Even better and more important, you can select "auto cast" for an ability by right clicking on the power's icon... thereafter, the unit in question will use that ability whenever it's appropriate. This makes the high-powered spells of sorcerors really worth researching. Now, rather than having your battle go un-managed while you try and fussily pick out one or two powers, units will automatically use their best abilities. I find this immensely helpful.

So - to sum up - WarCraft III is a game that's lots of fun to actually play. The interface upgrades were well thought-out and will hopefully become standard in the genre (particularly that auto-cast ability) - and the unit balance and plethora of maps available for multi-play probably mean that online play will be far more fun than the single-play version... provided Blizzard can workout past problems with rampant cheating on battle.net, their online server. The design of the game in terms of playability is excellent - it's just the polish that is lacking... with ridiculous graphics in over-saturated lurid colors, atrocious voice-acting, and a story which only a drooling fanboy could love.

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