Blizzard Entertainment has outdone itself with this sequel to Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. The development company has become known for highly playable games - including cartridge classics like Interplay's The Lost Vikings and PC greats such as the side-scrolling action game Blackthorne - but the original Warcraft was the first to show Blizzard's penchant for strategic fare. Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness continues in the same vein as its predecessor, but adds more depth and features to the formula.
Combining the best aspects of many strategy favorites - Dune II, Populous and SimCity - Warcraft II manages to create a truly unique experience that considerably improves upon its predecessor. A plethora of options and features have been added to the real-time war game engine of the original, making every aspect of the game, from combat to resource management, much more enthralling. Flying vessels and seafaring crafts have been added, improving upon the landlocked combat of Warcraft. There are new technologies to research, new structures to build, and new races to align with. Resource management has been expanded, and now includes oil, in addition to gold and lumber, as a necessary ingredient for successful construction and destruction.
In addition to noticeably improved artificial intelligence, the most obvious change to combat is the "fog of war," a shroud of semi-darkness which allows your minions to see only what is in their direct line of sight. This decimates any fool-proof strategies that were available in the original; for instance, you can no longer send a kamikaze scout into enemy territory, then watch the goings-on for the rest of the game. Warcraft II also gives you the option to command nine units at once, making large-scale battles much more viable and enjoyable. And as a complement to the drastic changes in gameplay, the aesthetics have been enhanced too, with highly-detailed SVGA graphics and a bombastic soundtrack that suits the regal mood quite nicely.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Warcraft II, however, is that it takes two seemingly geek-dominated niches--namely war gaming and fantasy role-playing--and makes them incredibly fun. And funny. There's nothing quite as amusing as hearing one of your minions say, in a faux Shakespearean tenor, "Why do you keep touching me?" in the heat of battle. The only slightly justified complaint is that the game is too short as single-player fare. But the incredible multiplayer options (including the ability to have several players use one copy of the CD), coupled with the custom scenario builder and the Beyond the Dark Portal expansion pack, make that nit too insignificant to pick.