It’s hard to think of a game developer that has seen its image in the industry falter as much as Blizzard has over the past 20 years. Blizzard was once the developer known for quality. The games would be announced with no release date, they’re done when they’re done, and once delivered they were met with almost universal praise. A buyout and a series of accusations about the company’s work environment dominate the news around the company now, but even before some of those allegations came to light, the company’s reputation regarding its actual software had already taken a hit. There was the muddled launch of the much-anticipated StarCraft II, poorly engineered remasters, and news of a mobile Diablo that caused gamers to question just what the company’s direction is these days.
That was certainly not the case twenty years ago. The year 2002 was a big one for Blizzard. The company had established itself as perhaps the premier developer of real-time strategy games thanks to Warcraft, Warcraft II, and StarCraft. The company had also successfully branched out to dungeon crawlers with Diablo and was even eyeing the role-playing genre and stealth gameplay on home consoles, despite Blizzard largely being known as a PC developer. And arriving during this height of popularity was Warcraft III.
Warcraft was the game largely responsible for Blizzard’s success. It was the game that proved that Blizzard could make its own products in-house and make a living off of it. Heavily inspired by Westwood’s Dune II, Warcraft arrived in 1994 and was at the forefront of the RTS boom in the 90’s and the company found itself in a friendly rivalry with Westwood and its Command & Conquer series. A sequel arrived the following year and was even bigger, in more ways than one, than the original. Warcraft II was supported with an expansion by Blizzard as well as third party additions and was popular both for its story-driven campaign and for its player vs player appeal.
Following Warcraft II was StarCraft in 1998. StarCraft, which took the basic gameplay of Warcraft and turned into a space opera, was seen as bigger and better than its predecessor by many. It also had the advantage of arriving after the launch of Blizzard’s own Battle.Net service which made it easy for players to find opponents over the internet, a fairly new concept for RTS gameplay. Warcraft II had been re-released with Battle.Net support, but the shine had worn off by then. Following StarCraft’s success, it was no longer a foregone conclusion that a Warcraft III was on the way. Blizzard had announced a sequel in the form of a point-and-click game called Warcraft Adventures. It was to tell the story of Thrall, a young orc seeking to unify his people and restore the orcs to their former glory following their defeat in Warcraft II. It wasn’t to be as the game was cancelled before launch. Warcraft III was officially announced in 1999, but it wasn’t going to be a real-time strategy game. Instead, Blizzard envisioned it as closer to a true RPG where players would control a hero character and a small, supporting, cast. Either due to problems with the gameplay or fan backlash, that version of Warcraft III would be scrapped, but the engine and assets created for it could be applied to what would eventually be called Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, which arrived on PC in July 2002.
In my younger days, I didn’t play a lot of PC games, but I did play Warcraft and Warcraft II was one of my personal favorites. While I thought StarCraft was fine, it was the medieval fantasy setting of Warcraft that appealed to me more and I followed the development of Warcraft III as best I could. I was certainly wary when it looked like it was going to be a radical departure for the series initially, but when it finally arrived that summer I was more than a little impressed. The game was released in four versions with each of the game’s factions getting its own box art. I went with the undead, and eventually the orc cover would become the standard one. I feel the need to take a moment and reminisce on PC game packaging in the 90s and early 2000s. The games seemed to always come in oversized boxes with lavish instruction manuals. It was something I loved about Warcraft II. While Warcraft III arrived in a much smaller box (7.5″ x 5.125″ x 1.25″ approximately) which was fast becoming the standard, it still had a robust manual. This thing is basically a manga-sized trade paperback. Not only does it detail practical descriptions of every unit in the game, as well as game modes, it also has a second set of profiles for each unit from a lore perspective. There’s a detailed write-up on the history and events that lead to the present game from the perspective of each of the game’s four main factions which introduces many of the game’s characters. While one didn’t have to read it in order to enjoy the game’s story, doing so meant having a greater understanding of a character like Illidan Stormrage when he’s introduced beyond what’s shown.
Warcraft III seemed to be influenced greatly by not just the game’s in the series that came before it, but StarCraft as well. When StarCraft arrived, Blizzard upped the playable factions from two to three, so naturally Warcraft III makes it an even four. Returning are the Orcs and Humans and joining them is the Undead Scourge and the Night Elves. The game refers to them as playable “races,” though the term faction seems more appropriate because they’re made up of multiple species. The Humans include elves, dwarves, and gnomes while the Orcs have trolls and the minotaur-like Tauren amongst their ranks. There are actually no depictions of race as we would call it amongst the humans as all are white.
In what was a first for Blizzard, Warcraft III is presented entirely with three-dimensional character models and scenery. The camera is positioned overhead at a slight angle which can be modified in-game to zoom in or out as the player prefers. Almost all cutscenes are depicted utilizing the game’s own engine, which resulted in a mixed presentation even back in 2002. The models just weren’t created with the intention of showing them up close, though some (such as Furion who was created solely for the campaign mode) are better than others. All of the dialogue is fully voiced and the acting is more than capable. The world of Warcraft III is presented with lush, Earthy, colors when appropriate, and murky and dark ones when needed. Textures are quite good, and the game does have a touch of style to it which gives some characters (like the lowly Peasant) a cartoony quality to their appearance and animation. It’s in contrast to the more Dungeons & Dragons art style of the past games and it gives Warcraft a style all its own.
The game includes multiple modes of play including one-off custom games, a level editor, and competitive play, but the meat and potatoes is found in the game’s campaign mode. It’s here that the game’s story is presented and it does so by having the player engage with each of the game’s four factions starting with the Humans, followed by the Undead, Orcs, and concluding with the Night Elves. The story for each will tie-in with the rest, but each faction also has its own tale to tell and lessons to learn. The Humans begin the game in a state of hubris oblivious to the rising threat posed by a plague sweeping the land and they all but laugh at a mystical prophet foretelling of doom (granted, most don’t take doom-sayers too seriously, though most also can’t morph into a raven). The Undead are basically the bad guys as the demonic Burning Legion has turned its attention to the scourge following its repeated failures via the Orcs. And speaking of the Orcs, they found themselves defeated and enslaved following the events of Warcraft II and the young War Chief Thrall (remember him?) hopes to restore honor to the horde. The Night Elves are the most mysterious of the new characters. They were the ancient victors over the Burning Legion once before and have largely lived an immortal life of peace since, but when war between the other three arrives on their shores they’re forced to intervene and overcome their own prejudices towards outlanders.
The campaign is quite dense and gives the player a taste of each of the playable factions. Of the four, the Humans are the most “vanilla” in that they’re largely as before. Their alliance with the elves has mostly ended which means swapping out the old Elven Archer unit for a Dwarven Rifleman, but the change is basically cosmetic. They really only gained the ability to convert the Peasants to a militia when needed. They’re still fundamentally weak, but I’ll admit that the militia function has saved my ass on more than one occasion. Otherwise, the basic mechanics of Warcraft remain unchanged. The player has a town hall where their base begins and the worker units are tasked with harvesting resources and building additional buildings which are then utilized to train an army. Warcraft III dropped the naval battles of its predecessor so the only resources to manage are gold, lumber, and food, which is supplied via the buildable farms up to a maximum of 90. The Peasants still harvest gold via a mine and chop down lumber for wood. When building a new building, the Peasant charged with the task is tied down to it until done, but others can join-in and help which speeds up the process.
For their part, the Orcs received only minimal changes. The ability to have multiple workers speed-up production on a building is now exclusive to the Humans, so they can no longer do that. Instead, their farms are now burrows which the Peons, the workers of the Orcs, can now inhabit turning them into defensive structures as they toss spears from within. Their buildings can also be upgraded to spiked buildings which damage other melee units when struck and their watchtowers can no longer be upgraded to canon towers. On the unit front, the Orcs are no longer allied with goblins and ogres, but still retain a few troll units in the ranged attacking Headhunter and the Witch Doctor, who provides a way for the Orcs to heal their units, another thing previously available only to the Humans. They also no longer hold dominion over dragons, instead trading down for Wyverns. They’re fundamentally still a powerful faction as, one on one, the Orc Grunt is the most powerful base melee unit and the Tauren pack the most punch out of all ground-based melee fighters.
The Undead borrow heavily from Blizzard’s other RTS game, StarCraft, as they feel like a combination of that game’s Protoss and Zerg. All Undead buildings must be constructed on diseased land known as blight, except for their main town hall. Gold is harvested by haunting a gold mine where Acolytes simply chant the gold into their coffers via some magical means. The Acolytes are unique in that the only resource they can harvest is gold as lumber is chopped down by the Ghouls, which double as the Undead’s base melee unit. The Ghouls are weak on their own, but fast, and a swarm of them can wreak havoc on opponents. They also can feast on corpses to regain health, and the Undead’s siege weapon, the Meat Wagon, can even store unused corpses for later consumption or reanimation. Buildings for the Undead are also summoned into existence and the Undead’s “farm,” the Ziggurat, can be upgraded into a defensive structure. As for the units, the Undead is where necromancy came to roost as the Necromancer can reanimate corpses as skeletons while the Banshee can possess other units so if you want a mighty Tauren on your side you need only send a Banshee at one.
The other new faction, the Night Elves, are perhaps the game’s most unique. From a durability perspective, they’re probably the weakest of the four as their strength lies in ranged attacking and their females can even turn invisible at night. They also share a power over nature which takes the form of their buildings being living trees. When a gold mine runs out, the Night Elves need only uproot their Tree of Life and send it onto the next mine. There it will entangle it allowing the Wisps, the workers of the Night Elves, to inhabit and harvest gold sending it back through the roots of the tree. Each Wisp can also harvest lumber without damaging a tree simply by attaching itself to one. The trade-off here is the Wisp can’t attack, and in order to build one of the living trees a Wisp must use itself as a seed thus turning itself into the building the player desires. The base unit for the Night Elves is the Archer requiring a more tactical approach. It’s champion melee unit is the Druid of the Claw, which doubles as a spell-caster. In Night Elf form, the Druid of the Claw can cast regeneration and roar, which is similar to the Orc’s bloodlust, but it’s not a particularly powerful fighter. In order to realize that potential, the druid must transform into a bear. It gains a potent melee attack in doing so, but also loses its ability to cast spells. This element of trade-off is also seen in the Night Elves’ air unit, the Hippogryph. By itself, a Hippogryph can only attack other airborne units, but if it picks up an Archer it gains the ability to attack ground-based units as well. The trade-off is they can’t be separated once combined.
The campaign mode presents its story quite well, but from a gameplay perspective it almost feels like an introduction. By virtue of being up first, the higher points of the tech tree for the Humans is barely scratched. And even though the Night Elves come last, the campaign doesn’t even introduce their most powerful air unit, the Chimaera, reserving that for custom games only. The campaign also tends to grant a lot of access to one Hero unit per faction, while relegating others to a much smaller role, or in the case of the Undead Dreadlord, no player control at all.
And speaking of Hero Units, that’s the biggest change of all! The Hero is basically a holdover from Warcraft III’s original vision. The Hero is a powerful and durable unit capable of earning experience as it battles through enemies which allow it to level up. Some past units have essentially been turned into heroes, such as the Paladin and Death Knight, and even their abilities are familiar to seasoned players. Heroes can also carry up to six items which can apply buffs to the hero or take the form of consumables. Most of these items are found by defeating powerful non-player characters which now dot most maps. Some of these NPCs are also familiar, like the Ogres and Troll Berserkers, and their presence is often needed to give players easy access to experience points in one-off games. During the campaigns, the story is told via these heroes and they’ll have level caps for each scenario and some of their abilities won’t be available until certain story conditions are met. In a non-campaign setting, players are free to choose from any of each faction’s three available heroes and even add a second and third, if they wish, though there is often a finite amount of experience available making a multi-hero approach sometimes counterproductive. Heroes are also effectively immortal as if they fall in battle the player can resurrect them, for a price, at a building specific to hero creation.
It’s the addition of the Hero that does give Warcraft III it’s unique flavor. Rather than depend on amassing a giant army composed of heavy-hitters, the game would prefer the player surround their hero with a small band of attackers and support units. Numerous quality of life improvements were made as well to the game over its predecessor. When selecting a group now, the player can tab between the units within that grouping providing easy access to spells and abilities. Some are also able to be set to auto-cast, so if you want your Necromancers continually raising skeletons it can be done. Mostly though, there’s a lot of variety in the play styles afforded by the player options. Previously, it felt like Blizzard tried to keep the two competing sides essentially even. Aside from an ability here and there, there wasn’t much distinguishing the Orcs and Humans before. Now, there’s quite a bit. The Orcs and Humans still feel like the most straight-forward. You can basically just grab a bunch of either group’s units and send them at the opponent with decent results. For Night Elves, that often leads to death as more micro-managing is involved. Especially early in the campaign when only Archers are available, it’s important to make sure all units are targeting the same enemy. Some micro-managing is beneficial for the Undead as well, but given that they’re designed to be able to cheaply overwhelm opponents with numbers, it’s not as crucial. Their mid-tier attacker, the spider-like Crypt Fiend, even can auto-cast web which brings down air units which makes it really easy to just send them at anyone. The Orcs have a similar unit in the Raider which can cast a net on flying units, but can’t be set to auto-cast. If you’re not paying attention, one Gryphon or Gargoyle can wipe out a group of Grunts and Raiders.
Twenty years after its release, Warcraft III remains an engaging play even today, albeit a harder to access one. Blizzard supported the original release for years through Battle.Net, but shut down those servers when a remastered version of the game was released in 2020. It was not well-received as many features that were promised ended up getting cut and the performance was suspect. The original game was released in the era of Windows XP, which is how I recently replayed through the entire campaign. I happen to have an old laptop with XP that still works and I’m glad I hung onto it. It does mean I can’t play through Battle.Net any longer, which is something I did a lot in the summer of ’02. I never got good enough to consider myself great at it, but I won more than I lost. It could be a challenge to find a good game though as the Hero unit, with its might available right from the start, seemed to popularize the “Rush” technique even more in comparison to StarCraft. Rushing meant selling out to build as many low level units as possible to pair with a hero and win quickly, which was never the way I liked to play. It was far more fun to find a group that allowed players to mix and match strengths and weaknesses across factions or just in Hero usage, but the best way to do that was just to find a group of friends rather than toss the dice with randos online.
Sadly, Warcraft III marked the end for the franchise as an RTS experience. Announced before Warcraft III was released was World of Warcraft which took the franchise to the world of RPGs as Blizzard had intended, only now via the Massively Multiplier Online variety. WoW was, and still is, a huge success for Blizzard and the RTS version of Warcraft has seemingly become a victim of WoW‘s success. Blizzard now appears to view the brand as an MMO with StarCraft as the RTS brand and Diablo the dungeon-crawler. That said, it’s been ten years since the release of StarCraft II so maybe the RTS is just no longer a major part of what Blizzard wants to do. Now under the ownership of Microsoft, maybe there will be a push from Blizzard’s new boss to go back to its roots. Or maybe not, who can say? For me, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos is the pinnacle for both the franchise and for Blizzard. None of the developer’s games have appealed to me like Warcraft III has since. It’s incredible to think that 20 years has nearly gone by since the game’s original release and just how much has changed since then. It’s also incredible to see how well this game holds up. Maybe we never got a Warcraft IV because this one simply can’t be topped? Even if that were true, it would still please me to see someone try. I have to believe even a subpar Warcraft IV would be worth playing, but for now, I’m glad I hung onto my copy of Warcraft III and a PC that can still run it.