The Start of the War

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans

Discussing the evolution of RTS games from Blizzard (eventually to become 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.), The focus tends to be on the differences between Warcraft II and Warcraft III, or if Starcraft II really improved in the right ways over the original Starcraft. Left out of the discussion, by and large, is the original Warcraft. Despite essentially kicking off the whole "Craft" franchise for Blizzard, fans generally don't go back and really focus on that game at all.

The reason, once you go back to the original Warcraft and play it, is pretty clear: the game lacks a lot of the polish, a lot of what you frankly expect, from any game in Blizzard's RTS franchise. It's not a bad game for its time, and it does show where the series could head. But, more than any game I've played in a franchise's history, this first Warcraft title feels like a pilot for what could come. It's a road map, not a final iteration, in a sense.

The basics of the game are much like you expect from the franchise: you pick up a team of either Orcs or Humans and do battle across the terrain of Azeroth. The Orcs and Humans player remarkably like each other -- peons and peasants, grunts and footmen, spearmen and archers, on up through wargriders and knights, sorcerers and necromancers. If one side can have it the other side will have some kind of equivalent. That does mean that, whatever side you choose, you'll be able to pick up similar strategies and use them for the other, once you've learned what the units and buildings look like on the other team.

Going through both campaigns in the first Warcraft, there were a few curious things I found that, thankfully, were excised from the later games in the franchise. For starters: roads. In Warcraft II (released just a year after the original game), if you wanted to move on to a new gold mine and start up a new base, all you had to do was send a peon over and, boom, construction started on a new base. It doesn't work that way in the original game because of roads. Roads are built between your buildings and every structure you put up has to connect to your road network. That means that you can't just move off and start a new base unless you have road stretching all the way over.

This is, to put it mildly, stupid. I get trying to limit the size of the base in various ways -- other RTS games do this via power, saying you have to have so much power generated to run your buildings, and you have buildings built within a certain range of other buildings to conduct your power -- but roads (which cost money to build, mind you) are so limited. It's one tiny square per road and you have to build a lot of them to stretch out your base. The consequence is that, generally, you don't expand your base and keep everything tight and, thus, more likely to be destroyed by one good rush from your opponent. It's hobbling to stuck in one area of the map without being able to easily expand. I'm glad roads didn't make it past this first game.

And then there are the dungeon missions. Most of the games in the franchise feature a few missions where you have limited units and have to travel to some goal and complete it. Go rescue this people, kill this target, sit on this magic spot. Those come from the dungeon missions in Warcraft, but they aren't very well designed here. Invariably you have to go into a dungeon (which, to the game's credit, does have its own tile set and its own unique monsters) wander through all its linear twists and turns, find someone, save them, and then have that one person walk all the way back to the entrance to finish the mission. They're slow and tedious and really needed to be refined before they continued on (which, thankfully, they were in later games).

Outside those qualms, though, there is a fun little game here. Now, the emphasis should be on little as Warcraft is neither expansive nor deep. You'll play through a couple of campaigns that will provide up to a couple of hours of adventure each. The war missions all amount to the same thing: build your army, attack the other side, and win. The dungeon maps are the only part that breaks that up, but I would rather play the war maps. They're small but they do provide their own charms.

The combat in the game is satisfying and you can tell they didn't feel the need to screw around with much in the engine itself for the sequel. While the graphics were redone (shaking the old PC style for something that was then more modern) and the sound library expanded, the basics of the game remained the same. Gold and wood and food are your primary resources, you build your army, get new upgrades, and build again. Your army moves quickly, your units all clearly have their assigned duties, and everything just works. Blizzard had the right formula here, they just needed to refine it more (which is why the sequel was so good).

There were some units that I'm glad they ditched for later improvements. The wargriders are a cool idea, very on brand for the Orcs, but they look just like knights. Swapping them out for ogres in the sequel made sense as you could easily tell Orc from Human with that variety. Then there were the sorcerers. The primary job of these guys was to summon demons (for the Orcs) or elementals (for the humans), but they were both functionally the same: big monsters that were summoned via magic. The end game with sorcerers was, "get a couple, summon elements, train more sorcerers, summon more elementals, and then keep doing this over and over until your opponent is dead." There's no real strategy once sorcerers are unlocked, and in fact the rest of your army is meaningless once the sorcerers are up and running.

Playing through the game, you can absolutely understand why Blizzard changed things just enough in the sequel. Getting rid of a few units made sense because they broke the end game (too powerful without any drawbacks, unlike later wizards and death knights, gryphons and dragons). Adding in sea combat and air also added more variety within war missions, giving players more creative ways to handle their tasks. The sequel takes the bones on display here and adds all the meat the series needed to carry on into the future, and it worked.

Still, you can appreciate the pure simplicity of the original Warcraft. It's not a big game, and it lacks the expansive qualities was expect from this franchise. And yet, there's charm to this little title, and fun to be had as well. It's far from perfect, and needed a lot of work, but as a game you go back to once or twice to appreciate where the series came from, it's hard to be mad at Warcraft.