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Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness
I have not played the original Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Although I'm actually quite a fan of the RTS genre, enjoying the thrill of building little armies and going around, crushing other armies under the might of my boot, there are some games I've simply not gotten around to playing. One of those is the original Warcraft and that's because I got into the series, and the genre as a whole, with Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness.
Playing the original Warcraft wasn't difficult to arrange, what wit the "Battle Chest" existing on shelves for years, combining the original game with the sequel and expansion for a fully fleshed out experience. It's just that, when I looked into playing the first game, everyone I knew said, "don't bother. The sequel is so much better." And, yeah, when you've already played a masterpiece, why go back for the inferior original. Sure, there's something to be learned from seeing where a series came from... but on the other hand, I could go play Warcraft II.
Although RTS games existed back in the 1980s, starting with the likes of Herzog Zwei, arguably the genre came into form in the back and forth battle between Blizzard, with their Warcraft series and Westwood studios with Dune II and then spiritual successors, the Command and Conquer series. Now I'm not going to try and argue which series was better here as I've enjoyed games from both, off and on, but I will say that I spent far more time with Warcraft II than any other game in the genre. It's just a whole hell of a lot of fun.
The thing I like about Warcraft II, and that I feel a lot of other games tend to lack, is that it's very tightly plotted and controlled. By that I don't mean the story, which is largely nonexistent in this game (it's told via the instruction booklet, and some short cut-scenes and text, but mostly it's just "go here, kill this, fight this"). What I mean is that the game is very assured in how it controls and what it's doing. From the outset you understand the basics of the game and it guides your through how to play it so you know what do instantly. It's smooth.
The basics of the game are pretty standard. You pick one of two factions (Humans, who also have elves and gnomes on their side, and Orcs, who get ogres and goblins and the undead) to do battle with the other side. You can play in either a single player campaign, or go at it with a multiplayer game, and in this title, both are viable. We touch upon the single player experience first as it's what guides you through the learning process of the game. You get either side, launch into the campaign, and things slowly ramp up as the game introduces all its ideas to you.
Playing Warcraft II is about controlling all the various needs, and pieces, you have actively going. You start off with your currencies: gold, wood, food, and eventually oil. Your very basic units, the peons/peasants and grunts/soldiers, only require gold to build. Peons are your worker drones, the ones that go out and collect your resources, while the grunts defend you and can attack other units. Once you start building more buildings, and hiring other units (such as the elves) that's when more resources are needed. You gotta have enough food to support all your units, so that means you need farms. You gotta have wood to build the bows for your elves. Want knights? That's more gold and wood. Want ships? That's going to need oil, which you can only get on the sea. Everything takes balancing what you have, what you can get, and what you need.
When it comes to the two factions, they are for the most part mirrors of each other. This helps the learning curve, of course, such that you can play either side and understand the basics of what you want. The orcs have axe-throwers to the human's elves. The humans get paladins, the orcs get ogre mages. Wizards for Death Knights, Dragons for Gryphons. Everything is balanced in this way, and you can easily understand what you are going to do. Some things are a little different, like the paladins having healing magic while the ogre mages get berserker rage, but for the most part you can easily play either faction without a steep learning curve.
This is good and bad, though. On the one hand, it does mean that both sides are very tightly balanced and it's hard to say that either the humans or the orcs have an advantage over the other. That means personal preference for the personality of the units and their graphics will really guide you on your choices. I leaned towards the orcs myself, just because I found their grunting and complaining funny, while I found the humans far too stoic, but to each their own on that front.
At the same time, though, the fact that both factions play more or less the same means there's little to set the two sides apart. You essentially play are one of two armies, and while their sounds and graphics are different, it all otherwise feels very samey. Once you've gone through one campaign and go back to play the other you have to go through the same kinds of missions with the same kinds of units, doing the same things all over again. It's a bit tiresome once you've made it through one whole experience.
With that said, the game really does sing when you take it into multiplayer mode. Playing against a group of friends, all you you trying to kill each other with your chosen teams, can be a whole hell of a lot of fun. There the fact that all the armies play the same is a benefit, not a downside. No one can say, "man, your team is unbalanced. They're so cheap!" Everyone has a level playing field and it comes down to skill, not faction, to decide the match... unless you're playing against the CPU.
The issue with playing the computer is that it cheats. It cheats hard. While you are bound by the rules of the game, the computer gets to have knowledge of where you are, what you're doing, and how you're playing. Plus, of course, there's no downtime for the choices they make, no needing a second here or there to guide their armies or train their next unit. It's all instantaneous, something a human just can't quite match. Yes, there are ways to cheese the game (I love sneaking into their base before it's too built up and just building towers everywhere to kill everything they have quickly), but the CPU comes with a an unfair advantage you just have to understand and learn to work around. It really is better to play against other humans.
Still, these flaws aside, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness is a fantastic game to play. It's one of those classic RTS titles I can go back to time and again and just play through. When the computer cheats, you at least know it's coming, and for the rest of the time you can just sit there and enjoy the grunts and growls of your crew as you storm the countryside, kicking as and taking land. It's glorious.