Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos impressions

Warcraft III will be in stores next week, but we were able to get our hands on an advance copy, which means impressions and new shots for you. And don't worry, there aren't any spoilers.

After years in the making, Blizzard's fantasy-themed real-time strategy game Warcraft III is finally complete and is currently being shipped to stores worldwide as a single game that runs on both PC and Macintosh platforms. As the follow-up to Blizzard's 1996 breakthrough hit, Warcraft III is as highly anticipated as PC games come. Though we've 256222covered the game's multiplayer beta test during the past few months, we have seen little of the game's story-driven single-player campaign and have been excited to see how Warcraft III shapes up overall. At last, we got our hands on an advance review copy, so we're here with our early impressions of every aspect of the game, along with some brand-new shots that show off some of the first campaign missions.

Warcraft III has some very slick production values. One of the biggest differences between Warcraft III and its predecessor is that the game now features a fully 3D graphics engine, and Blizzard uses it to good effect even in the game's menu screens, which are vibrantly colored and fully animated. The game provides many options for customizing graphical settings, but on a 1.1GHz system with 512MB of RAM and a GeForce4 Ti 4600, we've been able to run the game very smoothly with all the settings maxed out.

The game will of course be playable online via Blizzard's proprietary Battle.net service, which will feature automatic player-matching based on a player's relative skill and experience. Battle.net isn't up and running yet for Warcraft III, so we've spent most of our time forging through the game's campaign.

First off, we explored the game's skirmish mode, which lets the player and up to 11 computer opponents engage in an all-out free-for-all or compete in team-based matches. The game ships with more than 40 different maps, from small ones suitable for two players to very large ones suitable for 12, and custom options can be adjusted to toggle whether or not all terrain is revealed from the get-go, to lock or unlock teams, and more. However, there is no obvious option to adjust the difficulty level of the skirmish AI. Unfortunately, we haven't played against the AI in skirmish mode enough to gain a good sense of how challenging it is or whether it scales to the human player's skill level.

Warcraft III's campaign does let you adjust the difficulty, initially between normal and hard settings. If you lose a mission, you gain the option to play the mission in easy mode. Having played all of Blizzard's previous real-time strategy games, though, we found that the default normal difficulty mode is quite easy--at least initially.

Like Starcraft, Warcraft III has a campaign for each of its races: the humans, the orcs, the undead, and the night elves. In addition, the campaigns in Warcraft III, like those in Starcraft, all tie together to form a single epic storyline, told from four different perspectives. Starcraft, however, included the option to play the campaigns in any order, while Warcraft III does not. You do have the option to play or not to play through the two-mission prologue campaign, in which you're taught the basics of Warcraft III's mechanics while guiding the orc war chief Thrall and his green-skinned mobs. Yet since this prologue campaign is indeed part of the game's story, it's worth checking out even for experienced real-time strategy players.

Before, after, and often during each mission, the game's story unfolds through in-engine cutscenes using the actual 3D characters you'll see during gameplay. The voicework for these cutscenes is of exceptional quality, though the 3D character models don't look as good up close as they do from the game's default top-down perspective. Nevertheless, the colorful artwork and the intriguing story make the in-engine cutscenes worth looking forward to and effectively give each mission some real context. In between campaigns, players will be treated to some undeniably impressive prerendered cutscenes, which show some key developments of the story. The quality of these cutscenes is nothing short of amazing, though the cutscenes themselves are relatively short.

The human campaign is first after the prologue, and each of the missions we've played has had distinctly different objectives. Like Starcraft's campaign, the campaign in Warcraft III seems to be a great primer for multiplayer battles--players will be introduced to each of the game's dozens of units one at a time and in plausible contexts, allowing them to learn how all the game's specialized units work and interrelate.

The core gameplay of Warcraft III does have a lot in common with the gameplay of Blizzard's previous RTS games, though the scale of the battles has been reduced so that Warcraft III skirmishes are all about clashes between small yet powerful mixed groups of warriors. Of particular note, hero characters play a dominant role both in skirmish battles and apparently throughout the campaign. In the campaign, hero characters gain experience levels from combat and retain their skills and any items that they find from one mission to the next. The campaign does limit the number of experience levels that heroes can gain in a single mission, though.

We've really enjoyed what we've seen of Warcraft III's story so far. It uses effective expository sequences to introduce a number of key characters, who all seem interesting. One of these characters, a young paladin named Arthas, plays a central role in the human campaign, along with his mentor, Uther the Lightbringer--a character whose name Warcraft II players are sure to remember. The story isn't predictable, yet it doesn't seem to make twists merely for the sake of it. That is, it is genuinely intriguing, and this makes the entire campaign game very addictive. You'll want to keep playing just one more mission to see how the plot continues to unravel.

We forced ourselves to quit out of the game for a couple of reasons: to write these impressions, but also to try the Warcraft III World Editor utility, which ships with the game. This utility appears to be very powerful--however, it's quite intuitive. You can paint new maps in a fully 3D view and easily adjust map topography, add scenery details and creatures, and more. Of note, the World Editor includes a sound editor program that lets you listen to all the game's great unit acknowledgements. Make sure you don't spoil the game for yourself when you use the World Editor, though--all of the game's heroes and units are readily on display here.

The gameplay of Warcraft III seems smooth and responsive. It still involves managing resources and production, as well as micromanaging battles, like in other real-time strategy games. Yet Warcraft III does have a distinct feel to it--a feel that's different both from Blizzard's previous games and other RTS games. The game seems to strike a good balance of giving players just the right amount of control over their units and just the right amount of tasks to try to manage.

In short, we're having a lot of fun with the game. It's still too early to tell whether Warcraft III will live up to the incredibly high expectations that most players seem to have for it, but our first impressions of Warcraft III have been very positive. Stay tuned for our full review of Warcraft III next week.

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