Warcraft III has loomed large in my mind ever since its launch in 2002. A natural evolution of the real-time strategy games that birthed the franchise, Warcraft III turned the genre on its ear. The introduction of hero units, named characters more powerful than a typical soldier, made it unique within the genre. To see Blizzard return to Warcraft III after all these years is heartening. The RTS genre may have a faint pulse after all.
Warcraft, as all RTS games are, was about sound time and economic management. There is a greater sense of value per unit than in a game like StarCraft or Command & Conquer. In those games, units are part of a larger force, a multifaceted war machine built for invading enemy territory and taking ground. Warcraft III‘s units are more expensive and more resource-hungry overall, meaning you can only afford to build smaller forces. The trade-off is that they hit much harder when deployed correctly. Any good RTS player goes into a match with a plan, but Warcraft III wanted more from you. It wanted to shake RTS players out of their comfort zones. To that end, it introduced heroes.
Heroes helped separate Warcraft III from its sister series, StarCraft. They made for strategies that were less about building massive armies and more about smaller, smartly assembled platoons. Heroes could be levelled up, accessing new or upgraded abilities as the match wore on. The level system encouraged players to push out, explore the map and wipe out minor enemies called creeps. Doing so netted you XP and item drops that could modify your hero’s base stats. It also encouraged base expansion and establishing multiple income streams. The risk, of course, was running into your enemy before either of you were ready and taking losses. But the reward was a crucial, potentially game-winning edge over that opponent.
If this game loop sounds familiar, there’s a good reason: Modders and mappers seized on Warcraft III, creating original modes built around the hero mechanic. The most popular of these was called Defence of the Ancients, the battle arena mode that became a LAN party staple. I still remember where I was the first time I heard someone call it “Dota.”
Warcraft III Reforged‘s closed beta began shortly before BlizzCon. The beta went live with a small amount of content: 1v1 and 2v2 PvP, five maps and two races — human and orc. In the week since, Blizzard has added the Undead race and the game’s beloved map editor. The editor can be used to create custom maps right now, but you can’t actually play them yet. You’ll have to sit on anything you make for the time being. Further, the Save Replay button appears in the post-match carnage report, but it doesn’t actually work yet.
Visually, everything has received a lovely fresh coat of paint. The art design finds a home somewhere between realism and the smooth-edged WOW styleguide, while still evoking the unique look and feel of the original. Build and unit icons have been updated, as has the look of certain buildings. Every unit in the game has had a facelift. All of the audio, as far as I can tell, remains exactly the same.
While Reforged runs in a native 1920×1080 resolution, the UI is still in the classic 4:3 ratio, so it sits in the lower third of the screen but doesn’t reach the edges of the screen. One of my primary complaints with Warcraft 3 was always that it felt like the UI took up a lot of screen space, and I still feel like its using more vertical space than is strictly necessary, but it doesn’t take up quite as much overall and I am happy about that. I’d like to see Blizzard incorporate UI scaling moving forward, but there’s clearly a lot on their plate already. We’ll see.
Mechanically, the game remains much as it was at the end of the Frozen Throne expansion, with a couple of minor tweaks to resource costs. There are certain buildings across the Human and Orc races that have had their lumber costs halved from 150 to 75 wood, which greatly increases the speed at which matches can play out. Quick games mean more games, and more games give Blizzard more data, which is, of course, the point of any beta.
It’s clear that it’s still pretty early days for Warcraft III: Reforged. My time with the closed beta has been rife with issues, most of them to do with net code. My assumption is this is the beta’s core purpose — ironing out connectivity wrinkles while slowly adding more content to the mix.
Holding onto a stable connection is a bit of a challenge for the beta right now. Players get dc’d before the match countdown can complete, forcing another match search. Players regularly dc from a match in progress without warning, the connection simply dropping out. This is frustrating, certainly, but the game is clearly still a work in progress so I can’t be upset about it. It’s worth noting that issues like these aren’t typical of a Blizzard beta. Blizzard’s strategy has always been to roll out a beta at a point when other publishers would be going to market. It’s rare to see a Blizzard game to go into beta this early.
In-game, I’ve run into two very distinct player types: the newbies and the veterans. When matched with a newbie, a similar, repeated refrain appears at the start of each match: “Hey, please be patient with me. I’ve never played this game before, I’m still learning.” Game after game, I’d encounter lovely, pleasant players hopping over from World of Warcraft to see what all the fuss was about. None of them had any idea how the game worked. They were all very nice, and I hope they enjoyed themselves. Their situation is the inverse of mine; they’ve never known Warcraft as anything other than an MMO, a grim truth that makes me feel incredibly old.
The veterans ignore the chat. Awakened from their decades-long slumber like old and angry gods, they have shaken the rust out and are creeping by minute three. They are marching into your base with an impossibly large force by minute 10. They remain silent and impassive throughout the beheading, giving you the chance to really dwell on your failures as a strategist. I hope they’re having a nice time too. They’ve clearly been waiting for their moment to re-emerge.
In its current state, Warcraft III Reforged promises the grand return of an enduring favourite. For all the beta hiccups, the game remains as dynamic and engaging as its ever been. The improvements and performance fixes have been coming thick and fast since the beta went live and I look forward to seeing how it evolves in the lead up to full release.