Blizzard has a large display in the south hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the company is showing off both of its upcoming Warcraft games. Warcraft III is now just weeks away from release, and we had a chance to sit down and play through the tutorial and the first missions of the human campaign. The missions are remarkably different from what we've come to expect from the game, based on our experience with the multiplayer beta. It's in Warcraft III's single-player where you can see Blizzard's attempt to inject role-playing elements into established real-time strategy conventions. A couple of optional quests are available for each mission, monsters drop helpful items, and there are a number of opportunities to talk to the inhabitants of Azeroth.
Warcraft III is intended to gently introduce new players to real-time strategy gaming. After a cinematic that introduces the game's epic conflict, there's a short mission that both serves to introduce a new orc hero and teach the basics of the game. At the beginning of the tutorial, you meet Thrall, an orc hero who is part of a naval expedition to Kalimdor, the land of the night elves. The orc ships are separated and broken up on the rocky shore of Kalimdor, so Thrall sets out to fit allies. From the first seconds of the opening in-game cinematic, it's clear that the best of Warcraft III's graphics have been saved for the single player, as the camera zooms over a watery expanse and past palm-lined beaches with softly rippling waves before stopping on Thrall. In the course of the first mission, you'll encounter some of Kalimdor's indigenous monsters--centaurs and spiky pig creatures--which Thrall quips are "much prettier than humans." Thrall is a farseer hero, so you get the use of chain lightning to help out the few orc grunts and trolls headhunters in your small band. It doesn't take long to come across some bull-like taurens being overwhelmed by centaurs, and there's a story twist that sets up the alliance between orcs and taurens units seen in the multiplayer beta.
After this first easy mission, we jumped right into the human campaign. Again, there's an in-game cinematic to introduce the heroes and local conflict. The first hero you control is a paladin called Arthas, who is being counseled by the more elder Uther. Arthas is first charged with saving a town under attack by orcs. But along the way, there are a few simple side quests that provide helpful items and even a couple of extra units. The RPG flavor comes in, triggering Diablo-like conversation events. There is a quests screen you can pull up at any time, and it shows a mission's primary objectives, as well as the optional quests you know about. Quests you haven't triggered yet are indicated with a question mark, so you always know how many there are to find. When you do get to the town, you'll find a group of orc grunts attacking helpless villagers, led by the Slave Master, a unique unit that started out as a full hero unit and was subsequently demoted.
As the human campaign progresses, you'll find out that the orcs are sacrificing humans to summon demons, the burning legion that's threatening all of Azeroth. Soon you'll meet Jaina, a wizard hero who is investigating a local plague. There are eight missions for each of the four races' campaigns, and you'll switch through playing each side's unique heroes--up to three at a time in later missions. There are also some characters, like Uther, whom you never get to control but who will fight alongside you. Even after putting Thrall, the orc hero, in a positive light in the first mission, it's hard to be sympathetic to the orcs when you see them through the eyes of the humans. So it's not at all surprising that the orc campaign doesn't follow the human episode.
There's plenty to come after the eight progressively more challenging human missions. After the humans comes the undead campaign, followed by the orcs and then the night elves. The night elf campaign is said to be particularly unconventional. We played the early missions on the normal difficulty setting, and they seemed very straightforward, but there are also hard and easy difficulty settings if you want more challenge or just want to quickly run through the missions to experience what seems to be a very engaging story.
The significant changes during the multiplayer beta, including a reworking of the night elf harvest mechanics, gave some people the impression that Blizzard was changing a lot even after years of work. In fact, large parts of the single-player game have changed relatively little in the last year. The parts of the campaign that have seen the most work lately are the unconventional mission types, which require a different type of balancing. The absolute final touches are being put on the game right now, and the game is said to be right on target for a late-June release.