Now a darker shadow has fallen over the world, threatening to extinguish all life - all hope. The drums of war play upon the winds once again - rising urgently towards the inevitable hour when the skies will rain fire - and the world will tremble before the coming of the Burning Legion.
Let me get this straight about Warcraft III - I don't want to be writing this review. I'm tired, I haven't slept, and I'd really rather be playing the game than writing about it. It's addictive, it's epic - hell, even the voice acting is OK. Is that good enough?
The game starts off with a cut scene that is of hugely high quality - just like the ones that pepper the game. It's stirring stuff, which brings to life the world of Orcs and the Undead in a way that reveals to a non-fan like me what RPG and Tolkien fans have been fervently imagining all along. If my mind's eye worked as well as these cut scenes, I'd be off to get an armful of Dragonlance, Terry Brookes and Tolkien right now.
The story of Warcraft III begins with a bad dream. A Shrek-alike (actually Thrall, young War Chief of the Orcish horde) is having a nightmare about a pitched battle. So begins the prologue, and also training campaign. Even seasoned players shouldn't skip this one, as you'll miss out on the beginning of the story.
A great catastrophe is coming, and a mysterious prophet is warning that the Orcs should evacuate the land as soon as possible. It's time to round up the clans, including those kidnapped by those pesky humans - and so the game begins.
It's basically a real time strategy - and will be instantly playable for anyone familiar with Age of Empires, or obviously the earlier Warcrafts. It also mixes RPG elements - your 'hero' characters have abilities and items that can be used in battle, with experience adding to their 'level'. Let me say this to any console gamers who might be reading - if you can handle Final Fantasy, you will love this game. Now don't sniff PC readers, they have to be encouraged somehow!
Each campaign (Orc, Human, Undead and Night Elves) follows a wider plot - and the way you see the events from each side is genius. You don't simply play through the plot from each group's perspective, but explore different aspects and timelines of the storyline - as well as get different experiences. For example, you can explore your dark side as the undead, building meat wagons and refreshing your troops with the corpses of the recently slain.
Each campaign constitutes missions, which can change and be added to as the game continues. This doesn't stop play - either characters will tell you what's required, or a short movie will make your new objectives clear. Either way, you're never lost - nor spoon-fed either. Optional side-missions are available, these are recommended for the experience your character will earn, or the items they will pick up.
It's fantastic RPG fun without all that nuisance about dice, paper, imagination and painting those damn pewter figures. As such, it will appeal to a wider audience, whilst delighting existing RPG / Strategy / Fantasy buffs.
The feel of the game is damn appealing too - it mixes cartoony style chunky characters with tongue-in-cheek voices. Games like Circus Maximus on the Xbox and PS2 have mixed in modern parlance or attitude with historical style characters and come a cropper, but the tone here is great. 'Breaking the sound barrier now' respond your bearded, Scottish Gyrocopter pilots - just one of the Heath Robinson units you'll be controlling. 'Take that, yer little sod', growl other dwarfen Scots. These comedy responses are mixed in with more dramatic ones, and although your heroes' utterances (especially Prince Athras') will get grinding as you explore a map, generally the sound helps maintain the sublime and atmospheric tone.
The selected, or talking character, is represented by a detailed version of their face at the bottom left of the screen, which adds to your impression of their personality. The game is lush. Orgasmic. Can I go and play it again please?
New to the Warcraft series, unless I was dimly missing it last time, is a new view option. Twiddle away with your scroll wheel on your mouse, and the camera swoops in to reveal a 3D, almost-front-on perspective. Although this looks fantastic, it's not really practical for anything other than occasionally marvelling at the graphics (especially when you combine it with 'insert' or 'delete' to swoop in and spin at the same time).
As with other real time strategies, bases need to be set up. But that's all it is - there's no empire to be built, or civilisation to drag up from the mud and stone. It's more Command and Conquer than technology-tree based expansion or progression. There are three major leaps to cutting edge technology - with your town centre becoming Keep, then Castle (if you're a human). Throw in some blacksmiths and workshops - then finally aviaries, and you're away.
The units seem well balanced, and you'll have to have your 'resource managing' head on to a degree if your mighty war machine isn't to trundle to a halt. Starting with basic foot soldiers, you'll soon find yourself riding, trundling, then flying into battle. Weaponry, machinery, building, technology, all is carefully balanced and designed - without such a heavy reliance as with Civilisation or Age of Empires - and you'll soon be marvelling at your new army.
Quite often, the mission will be a standard exploration mission, where reinforcements either don't exist (so it becomes a classic 'don't lose all your lives' affair) or have to be bought in the shape of mercenaries. In that case, it's all slaughter and no resource management at all.
Stand out missions include the defence of a city - for a full half hour. Last minute surges from the undead surrounding the city means that you could conceivably have to restart twenty-seven minutes in. This flood of the undead merely gives more sense of urgency - and frantic unit production - than the first go. Amazingly, I wasn't frustrated once. Only determined to do better next time. If you fail, it's clear that it's your fault, not the games - one of the mental checklists for game bliss I ticked off along the way.
Multiplayer is genius. I wish I'd have had more time to concentrate on it, but things like sleep and relationships kept getting in the way, as they crumbled into non-existence. Whether it's online or LAN, it will steal your time, and could wreck friendships as you crush your mate's town centres. 'I spent ages building that you bugger!' I screamed to no avail as one of our Warcraft-savvy developers marauded through my base, reducing my chances of creating the units for a fierce rear guard action to zero.
Fog of war is in place, and the frantic building, patrolling and grabbing of such resources as gold mines are made more pressing by the nagging fear about what your fellow players are up to, just out of sight. Also trying to defend all your new resources, keep the population fed and attempting to be the first to attack, mean that you'll have to have hands like lightening, and a mind like a razor, to stay competitive online with Warcraft III.
Fortunately, in both single and multiplayer versions, the game doesn't add any major control issues to trouble you when commanding your army. Handy keyboard shortcuts are a blessing - and it's advisable to learn them all. You may find separating types of units out for an ordered 'get the mortars at the back, send in the knights first' attack may be difficult in the heat of battle, but I should imagine an ordered regroup when giant spiders are spurting webbing all over your gryphon-riding dwarves would be hectic in real life too.
The overall tone of the game is fun, mixed with effective fantasy trickery, plots and characters. It seems devoted to bringing such things to a mainstream audience without turning off the faithful - not the easiest thing to do - and Warcraft II pulls it off with aplomb. The Orcs may be a bit Klingon at times, and the Human prince hero occasionally comes across as obnoxious ('can it', he says at one point), and his particular character's journey from the light isn't always convincing, but it is gripping to see. Unlike most games, you won't necessarily see where this one is heading, and there are some surprises in the single player mission that will draw you ever deeper into the game.
Play through the single campaign and your experiences as the Undead, Orcs and Night elves will help you understand how to battle them online, and the same is true of the humans. Expect a community to grow around the game, and long, long discussions with much beard stroking about which units are best, and the most sucessful tactics for using them.
If all that wasn't enough, a more than competent mission builder has been included, so you can create your own adventures, maps and missions. I personally can't wait to see what fresh mayhem springs from this particular addition.
Are you still reading this? Go buy, go play. For honour, for the light!