Into the Rift

Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal

With Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, Blizzard Software (eventually becoming Blizzard EntertainmentOnce an independent gaming company called "Silicon & Synapse", Blizzard Entertainment released a number of beloved cult games form various systems (including The Lost Vikings and Rock 'n Roll Racing) before going on to become one of the biggest game companies in the world thanks to a little title called Warcraft.) had a hit. It's not that the original Warcraft: Orcs and Humans performed poorly, per se, just that it was a respectable little game that showed the potential of the "Craft" franchise. That game was meant as a pilot to show that Blizzard could do war-style RTS games. Warcraft II refined it.

Released one year after the original Warcraft, the sequel was almost like the most massive expansion pack you could think of. New graphics, update sound, refined menus and units and everything else. And yet it still felt of-a-piece with the original Warcraft. It was everything the first game wanted to be, just better. It was all fans wanted, and more, and set the standard for the series going forward. Thus, when an expansion was announced, Beyond the Dark Portal, fans were pumped. The resulting product, though, was less than was likely expected.

It's not that Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal is a bad expansion, it's just a very limited one. It is, in essence, just a new campaign for the original game, a new series of missions and maps for players to conquer. As far as adding exciting new content to their game to stretch the game play experience, this expansion really didn't provide that at all.

In the expansion were two new campaigns, one for the humans and the other for the orcs. Structurally they were much like the original campaigns: a series of ten-ish missions assembled in a "story" that guides the players through an adventure as your chosen faction. If you played through the original campaigns then you know about what to expect as this is more of those kinds of missions, with your factions building, warring, and sometimes exploring, all on the new world of Draenor.

"A new world?" I hear you ask. Yes, this game features new swamp locations on the orcish home world, Draenor. This tileset is actually pretty extensive, with new "vine-wrapped" sprites for all the buildings, along with a map tileset heavy on the dark browns (and with little mushrooms you chop down instead of trees). It's got style, that's for sure, but functionally it's just like all the other tilesets in the game, not adding anything new to the play loop.

In a way, this was reasonable as the original game had a map editor and this expansion was meant to be compatible with that map editor. Thus the new swamp tileset had to work like the other tilesets of the game (forest, ice, and... other swamp) so you could switch between all four on the fly in the editor. The graphics were secondary to the play loop, just giving you something different to look at depending on the world.

As far as the campaigns are concerned, they're okay. The orcish one is better than the humans, with a longer story just due to how much building and warring you have to accomplish. If you know what you're doing, the orc side will take you at least two-and-a-half hours to get through, while the human missions only take an hour-and-a-half. Primarily that's because the human side has more rescue missions and short kinds of stages like that. In fact, the last three missions for the humans are all recon and rescue missions, making for a very short, and very underwhelming adventure.

The big "feature" advertised as part of the game was the inclusion of heroes. These were elite versions of the normal units, given more health and power, that you would get as the missions progressed. You'd just start with them, and wouldn't have to build them, so they were yours to use on any mission they appeared. In concept this was cool as you got super-powered units. In practice, though, they didn't really work. They had the same skills as normal units, making them function just the same in the heat of battle. Plus, if any of them died, usually the mission was over and you had to play again. You were better off just making a bunch of normal units while you kept the heroes tucked away, unused.

As for the normal units, everything you had in the original game is here in the expansion. Nothing new was added for basic play, meaning that as far as "expanding" the game play here, the game didn't bother. This was clearly a set of missions built on the exact same engine as the original game, just remixing the pieces around to crank out a new set of maps for the players to go through. It's entirely a "so you played the original game and want more? Well, here's exactly that and nothing more," kind of expansion. And hey, if that's what you wanted, then you got it. I wanted more.

At the time the reviews for the expansion were very kind. And make no mistake, this expansion sold well, both on its own and then in the combo "Battle Chest" that came out with both the main game and the original Warcraft as well. It was an expansion to a hugely popular title, giving players arguably more to do for a time, and thus they ate it up. In the long run, though, I don't think it really had the saying power it should have. It's just more of Warcraft II, not a leaps and bounds refinement of the original game. That game, of course, is fantastic and I love playing it. Sometimes I poke at Beyond the Dark Portal, or use its map tiles in my custom games. But I don't love it like I love Warcraft II. It's... fine.