Warcraft: Orcs & Humans
The Fantasy-themed strategy game has evolved to become (along with the development community's continued obsession with WWII) one of the strongest pillars in the RTS genre. Certainly, it's hard to remember a time we weren't marching armies of heroic fantasy figures into bloody battles with one another.
Back in 1994, strategy gamers were playing around with Dune II and were yet to experience the pseudo-military warfare of Command & Conquer. Then all of a sudden, a relatively small team of 20 people at a virtually unknown development team decided to release a game that pitched humans against orcs in the mythical land of Azeroth. The game was Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, the studio was Blizzard Entertainment and it was a partnership that would rocket both into the gaming stratosphere.
Origin Of The Species
Westwood's Dune II was certainly partly responsible for bringing Warcraft to life as Mike Morhaime, programmer on the original game and now president of Blizzard, explains. "We were very big admirers of Dune II and we brainstormed a bunch of ways that we could make a game that was similar, but with our own stamp on it. We thought it would be fun to play a real-time strategy game in a fantasy setting that let two players compete against each other over a modem or network. We were all fans of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons, and we very quickly settled on the two factions being orcs and humans."
Blizzard also wanted players to be able to play the game from both sides, and so it put as much emphasis on developing the bad guys as it did the good ones. The two races even got joint share of the box and manual cover.
With the two sides decided upon and roughly sketched out, it became the task of Bill Roper, co-producer on Warcraft (and who would later become one of Blizzard s most recognisable faces) to breathe a godlike breath over Azeroth and give the world a bit of substance and history.
I was handed the basic concept (orcs fighting humans) and some other components, including one or two character names - Blackhand was the main bad guy. for example. But apart from that. I really got the chance to run with it." explains Roper. "For my part, the world was inspired by numerous authors, including the Middle-earth works by Tolkien, the Riftwar Saga by Raymond Feist, as well the work I did on orcs as a noble race for a G.U.R.P.S. (tabletop role-playing) campaign I ran in college.
Around this time the Dark Portal was also conceived. Initially it was a pathway for the orcs to enter the human's realm but according to Roper, this idea became a pivotal one in the expanding world and providing a historical context. "The concept of having a portal between distant worlds is something I've always been fascinated by as it lets you bring vastly different cultures into direct conflict.
This was appropriate for the Warcraft universe and enabled us to build two disparate civilisations with entirely foreign concepts and world histories. It was this dedication to creating a vibrant historical storyline for the world that somehow went beyond the pixellated peons and chubby catapults depicted on-screen. It created a gaming universe that you could believe existed and one that was eventually going to form the backdrop for an entire franchise.
Morhaime is of the opinion that there was always some inkling that this was going to be a game that could grow into a larger universe, although no-one really foresaw just how popular Warcraft was going to become. Roper on the other hand has always been about creating full worlds" rather than the usual developer trick of creating a patina of a story spread on top of a game.
It all goes back to my days of game mastering Dungeons & Dragons campaigns in high school and college, and writing fantasy stories for my own enjoyment. You can create more compelling characters and a richer place to set your game by doing a lot of background work to ensure that there's continuity to what you're making."
A Kind Of Magic
Warcraft took approximately ten months to complete, an amazingly short length of time considering that's usually how long it takes developers to mock up a few screenshots and some concept art. And Roper remembers the development cycle for both Warcraft and Warcraft II as being almost magical" in their ease, where everything seemed to work first time.
Indeed, for Roper the project was also exciting because it was the first title he'd worked on as a full-time member of Blizzard, having previously done some contract work creating music for the PC version of BlackThorne. It was an amazing time from a personal perspective, in the history of Blizzard Entertainment and in the game industry as well," he recalls. As time goes on, any bad memories are either sharply contrasted or fade away. Actually, if there were any bad moments, they were insignificant enough to have been washed away."
When the initial sales projections came in at 200,000 copies (fairly crazy for the mid-'90s), there was surprise all round. None of us could possibly foresee just how popular Warcraft would become, says Mike Morhaime. But we had hopes that it would be a hit and some ideas to grow the gameworld if it became a franchise.
Peon Vs Peon
Most candidates for a Game That Changed The World' have a Yes!' moment in their development cycle. A point where you get the faintest mental nudge that you have something really good on your hands. According to Roper, that seminal moment happened when two members of the team - Allen Adham (a founder and president of Blizzard as well as the executive producer on the game) and Ron Millar (now with Lionhead Studios) - played the first multiplayer game.
After an intense battle, they both came running out of their offices, hands held high in victory, talking smack (boasting) like no-one's business." Although Roper gleefully notes that: There was a sync error that caused the game to split, thus allowing them both to win, but the point was that playing an RTS against another person was incredibly fun. In that moment we knew we had something special." It was the multiplayer side of Warcraft that would be one of its main contributions to strategy gaming, particularly as it was something that Westwood hadn't experimented with in Dune II. Morhaime was working specifically on this area of the project and thinks that, along with its sense of humour ("It didn't take itself too seriously!"), this aspect was an incredibly important addition to the RTS genre.
However, he also notes that it was one of the areas where there were a fair amount of bugs to track down and vanquish. Morhaime adds: In retrospect, it may have been the best thing for the game, because other than that it was ready to ship. We used the extra time to further refine and polish and ended up with a far better game.
The follow-up - Warcraft II: Tides Of Darkness - milked the original's success, but it also came about because the team had so many ideas they couldn't fit into the first game. There were significant changes between Warcraft and Warcraft II explains Mike Morhaime. It introduced a host of characters that would endure deep into the series (including appearances in World of Warcraft), and it made some great leaps forward in terms of ease of play and overall design modifications. It also introduced the concepts of naval battles and even some very early designs of hero units."
One of the most interesting stories sunrounding Warcraft // is that originally, the Blizzard team discussed pushing the game into the modern era, going as far as working on a cinematic involving F-16s versus dragons. Thankfully, the team decided to scrap that fairly quickly, otherwise Warcraft might have been a very different game, and piobably not nearly as successful and endearing. The game also moved to SVGA graphics and supported eight players over LAN. moving the game from mere head-to-head battles to the arena of true multiplayer action. Roper elaborates: "With eight players in a game, it was chaotic, fantastic and amazingly fun to play. There are some who argue that Warcraft II is still the best RTS of all time, although millions of Starcraft players would disagree!"
Third Time Lucky
Blizzard brought out Warcraft Il's expansion pack Beyond The Dark Portal in 1996 and then, save for a Battle.net edition of WC2 in 1999. things went quiet on the Warcraft front (Blizzard was busy with its Diablo and StarCraft franchises). Fans had to wait until 2002 for the release of Warcraft III: Reign Of Chaos.
This marked the series' departure into 3D and a new emphasis on the storyline and the characters. Morhaime believes the long layoff was necessary for the franchise. We've always valued gameplay and storytelling over technology, and so while other RTS developers had made the jump to 3D. we weren't going to do the same until we were confident we could recreate the same stylised and unique setting that was evident in Warcraft I and II."
Coming To Life
The 3D environment meant Blizzard could roll out the world in a whole new way, taking its influences from what it had been doing on StarCraft: Brood War. Beyond The Dark Portal and even nods to the Diablo series in the form of the new hero units. The game ended up giving players unprecedented levels of control and perspective. The wait was worth it and fans lapped it up. It really allowed us to do a lot of incredible things, not only in regards to the gameplay, but also in tenns of telling stones in the world," reveals Roper. "We started to realise just how much more we could bring to the RTS genre with regards to creating a compelling gameworld. With StarCraft: Brood War and with Warcraft III we were able to fully realise that vision. Warcraft III showed that Blizzard was always looking for new ways to advance the genre, trying different approaches and looking for new ways to excite gamers. It ended up being an extremely solid, extremely compelling RTS that really interested a great number of gamers." When Warcraft took the plunge into the online world last year, the depth of story and historical background that had been built up in the previous games paid off no end.
Play World Of Warcraft and you'll be able to fight your way through recognisable areas that you'd only ever seen from a god's eye view before. Warcraft has become a definitive title in the strategy genre. It managed to combine a dark, grandiose storyline with a real sense of humour and. along with Dune II and C&C, is the game practically every other RTS has been compared to. Warcraft set many of the core gameplay standards that we still see today. What's more, it also raised the bar in terms of production values in art, music, voice, multiplayer and design, and in doing so it changed the way developers approach creating strategy games forever.
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One of the problems with RPG-based strategy games is they inevitably have RPG-type plots. Almost without exception, these unlikely tales tend to be unimaginative, sleep-inducing, two million-page bores. Enter Warcraft with its tale of the mythical land of Azeroth (oh gawd, here we go).
All was well in the land (hurrah) until nasty conjurer bloke Medivh came along (boo) and opened up a gateway from another world. From this gateway came millions of ugly ores who didnt like anybody and decided to prove it by clonking everyone they came across. The King of Azeroth immediately sat up and said: Something must be done. Unfortunately, he didnt mean that he was personally going to sort it out; he was talking about you. Get on your hoss and do the lot of them," he probably said. And so it came to pass that you, protector of the land of Azeroth, brave baddie-clonking do-gooder, are tasked with sitting in front of a computer screen, looking at lots of little people moving around in it, and, er, killing lots of ores. There's also a game stuck in here somewhere too. Lets move on to that then.
Ores and more ores
The game is played out over a series of increasingly difficult scenarios. At the beginning you have to decide which side you want to be on. You can be on the humans side and go into battle with folk sporting the same fair features as yourself, or if youre really ugly, you might feel happier teaming up with a bunch of ores. Either way, the gameplay is more or less the same. You are given an objective at the beginning of each scenario. Mission types vary from rescuing people and building lots of stuff to simple kill-them-all-immediately affairs. As was the case with Dune, the key to success in each scenario is to build places to make weapons as quickly as you can and, when youve got enough heavy-duty weapons together, you wade into your opponent's area and hope he hasn't had enough time to do the same thing.
There are only two resources you need to get hold of in Warcraft: lumber and gold. You get these by sending peasants to chop wood in the forests and trundle backwards and forwards from gold mines with loads of money for you. Once you have enough resources, you can start building a barracks to train soldiers and a church to train clerics (wizards). And so it goes on. You build things, you train people, you send them off to kill lots of ores. In the early missions, you only get puny footmen or, if youre really lucky, an archer. But as the game progresses you get to train knights and wizards and use great big catapults for chucking heavy objects at people. Just like Dune, all the action is played out in real time (i.e. the little people on the screen dont stand about, they move about) so the battles get really hectic, with people chucking arrows about and casting mega-spells all over the place. Before you can get into any serious scraps, though, you have to explore the playing area for each scenario. This is done Civilisation style, where the play area is blacked out until you move into it. The more of the play area you explore, the more gold mines and forests youll find and, of course, the more ores youll come across.
Thats about it as far as gameplay is concerned. On to the crux of the matter, i.e. is it any good? Well, like so many games of its type, Warcraft has its good points and bad points. Lets get the downers out of the way first.
The main problem with Warcraft is that, although its quite addictive to start with, it eventually becomes a tad repetitive, despite the variety of the missions. For the first half of the scenarios, youre doing exactly the same thing youve been doing in all the others: building and searching. It turns out to be not so much a race against time as a battle against boredom. Also, you have to play really far into the game before your wizards get to have any serious spells to play with. The other problem is one of personal taste, really. In the CD version, when you click on one of your units, they acknowledge you in digi-speak by saying things like your bidding my lord? and crap like that. Frankly, after a very short time, the whole thing began to drive me up the wall. If, however, youre a power-crazed lunatic with a penchant for patronising olde English-type gibberish, youll probably love it. Anyway, you cant turn it off, so you have to either get used to it or you have to play the game with the sound off. Blimey, I didnt realise quite how many problems I had with the game until I started to type up this review.
Fortunately, the game has some plus points to make up for the aforementioned probs. Namely...
Going back up again
... Its fun. I played it for ages and ages. Some of the later missions are really hard and had me vowing resolutely Id beat that bastard if it killed me. Also, some of the spells the clerics get to use in the later stages are a real laugh: like when you see four or five of them together blowing the whole playing area to pieces. Warcraft is not particularly original, and the graphics wont win any awards, but its reasonably playable, and its big (there are lots of scenarios) so if you like it youll be playing it for ages. Also, Dawn (one of Interplays PR persons) says its great, so it must be.