Warcraft: Orcs and Humans MS-DOS Developed by Blizzard Released in 1994
The Warcraft franchise has a long and admirable history to it, even when you ignore the fact it brought the MMORPG scene to the mainstream, resulting in one of the most profitable online games ever made. Indeed, World of Warcraft is a beast to be reckoned with and slaughtered many of its would-be contenders in the MMO arena, but it’s easy to forget that a series of humble RTS games preceded the RPG, partly because Blizzard has been doing their best to make people forget about them. To counter-act their effort, I decided to take it upon myself to relive the history of Azeroth, the fantasy realm that absolutely dominated my teenage years.
The Green Menace
On the surface, this first installment in the series tells a relatively simple story of a war between humans and orcs. While each mission is preceded by a scroll of text that provides context for the coming battle, it is within the manual that players discover the actual lore behind the conflict.
Presented as two separate accounts, one provided by a Human soldier and one by an intelligent Orc, the manual tells the story of Azeroth and Outland. The Human portion of the manuals tells of Prince Llane and the sorcerer Medivh. The latter, who was born from a romance between a mysterious traveler and the court mage, one day fell into a coma after a 100 clerics had to pacify him during an outpouring of magic energy. He awoke years later, when prince Llane came of age, and gifted the young prince an hourglass with sand that seemed to run endlessly. For as long as the sand did not run out, the kingdom would be at peace.
As the years passed and the land fell into turmoil, the sand finally ran out and an army of monstrous Orcs slaughtered the king and sacked the city of Stormwind. Llane became king and fought back the Orcs, starting a campaign that you, the player, become a part of. Meanwhile, the Orc booklet serves to explain how Orc society works and details how a portal came to be created that the Orcs used to travel to Azeroth. After their initial defeat at the hands of the Humans, they united under a new warlord and decided to fight back with renewed enthusiasm.
All in all it’s a fine and simple fantasy story that reads a bit complicated due to being split up, but is wholly optional once in the game. If I had to raise one criticism, it would be that little effort is made to make the Orcs seem at all decent. While in later games their story became more sympathetic and the Orcs were presented as actual characters, here they are just generic fantasy bad guys with no relatable qualities.
Story score: 8/10
An army of four
Orcs and Humans is a small-scale RTS where armies consist of a handful of soldiers, rather than entire units. Your basic resources are gold and wood, which must be gathered from the finite amounts of mines and trees respectively by your peasants, who can then construct buildings to train troops from or research new technologies at. You’ll also need houses that increase the maximum size of your army.
Each battle has an objective, with each campaign having twelve missions to it. The objectives usually involve wiping out the enemy, but sometimes you will be tasked with something else, like the missions where you are in small, maze-like cave and have to find your way through without the ability to raise any reinforcements.
Each army has a similar line-up of troops with infantry, archers, mounted warriors, sorcerers, and siege engines, so in that regard the game is well-balanced while still offering some diversity, namely in the type of spells at your disposal. Where this decent set-up for an RTS falls apart is in its controls, which make the game obnoxious to play, if not wholly unplayable. The first problem you are likely to notice starting this game is that it’s absurdly slow. It takes forever to do anything, from gathering resources and building, to acts as simple as navigating. Every soldier and peasant will always go out of their way to take the most long-winded paths possible and they can’t move through each other, which lead to a lot of chaos as multiple peasants tried to deliver goods to the same town center.
To add to this, you can only select up to four characters at once using a drag-to-select system. So, imagine you have a large force ready and want to attack the enemy base. You drag your box, the game arbitrarily picks four soldiers for you to control and you give them an order. You then wait for these soldiers to untangle themselves from the rest of your force to do it all over again until you finally got your entire army on the move. It’s tedious, slow, and makes every mission a drag as you keep losing groups of soldiers to overwhelming enemy blockades while you try to get the next group to move.
The game is slow, filled with terrible pathfinding, and players are at a huge disadvantage because they can never just get a big army together and execute a plan. Even playing at my fastest, making full use of the minimap and hotkeys, things always devolve into disaster as troops just do whatever, get stuck in the trees or randomly fail to automatically attack enemies.
I’ll admit that it’s technically playable, but it takes the patience of a saint and obscene amounts of micro-managing to make it happen.
Gameplay score: 1/10
Tusks are sexy
Visually, this first entry in the series is not that impressive. The various units are pixelated and, sometimes, hard to read at a glance, especially when many of them stand close to each other. Sure, a catapult is easy enough to separate from a peasant, but when your basic melee, ranged, and magic units stand around in a big cluster, the differences are less obvious.
The buildings and environments aren’t that impressive either, even when compared to other strategy games from the same year (UFO: Enemy Unknown, Jagged Alliance, and Panzer General to name a few). To compensate for the lacking in-game graphics, the art for portraits and cutscenes is actually quite nice, even if a lot of it is constantly re-used. And while you enjoy the pretty art you get to listen to Bill Roper’s cheesy voice acting, who single-handedly narrates the mission briefings for both factions, as well as several of the units.
It could be better, but for Blizzard’s first foray into the RTS genre it sure ain’t bad.
Presentation score: 6/10
I think Orcs and Humans is long overdue for a remake. As the game that first brought us to the vast fantasy world of Azeroth it is a significant piece of gaming history, yet its gameplay mechanics have aged horribly. To be fair, I couldn’t see myself enjoying the game back in 1994 either, so a significant overhaul would be needed to make this game worth the bother.