The drums of war thunder once again as I set out to replay the Warcraft series of strategy games and take a peek at how the MMORPG was doing. For the original two games it was a first for me, but I was seriously looking forward to replaying Warcraft 3, which I remembered fondly as one of my favorite strategy games ever.
What is Warcraft
With the groundwork for real-time strategy games established by Westwood Studios with Dune II, Blizzard saw an opportunity to take part in this blossoming genre while Westwood went on to tinker away at Command & Conquer for 3 years. While the California based developer was new to RTS, they did know a fair bit about fantasy, having released the comedy puzzle game The Lost Vikings in 1993 and the somewhat less conventional Blackthorne in the same year Warcraft: Orcs and Humans would come out.
The first three Warcraft games were all real-time strategy games set in the fantasy world of Azeroth. This Tolkienesque world was home to many thriving kingdoms, until one day a portal opened and hordes of brutish Orcs invaded the lands, leading to a conflict that would continue for generations.
Every release ended up being a hit among strategy fans and the second and third games in the series would end up receiving a single expansion pack each. After The Frozen Throne released in 2003 Blizzard released World of Warcraft the following year, a game that needs no introduction and which continues to dominate the MMORPG market to this day, despite the shrinking user base. With a grand total of six expansion packs under its belt, the MMORPG juggernaut has since seen some spin-offs in the form of the card game Hearthstone and it plays a role in Blizzard’s own take on the MOBA genre in Heroes of the Storm.
There is no denying Warcraft‘s legacy, as it heavily influenced the direction RTS games would evolve in and WoW has single-handedly boosted the MMORPG market to mainstream status. It was the modding community of Warcraft 3 that first created DOTA, which would in time give birth to the MOBA genre that led to an unimaginable boom in interest for Esports. League of Legends, DOTA 2, even Blizzard’s own Heroes of the Storm, all of them made possible thanks to some creative modding in Warcraft 3. Unbeknownst to some, Blizzard also tried their hand at a point & click adventure game featuring Thrall and his escape from the Alliance prison camp, but which was cancelled despite being nearly complete because Blizzard feared it might not be innovative enough. I tried to review it for fun, but the visuals kept glitching out on me no matter what I tried.
Blizzard’s guess that people were starved for more RTS games certainly paid off and it helped that all of the Warcraft games were well-developed, even if they don’t hold up well today. What I find most interesting about the series is how well Blizzard handled the storytelling. By all accounts Azeroth has the makings of a dry, Lord of the Rings rip-off plot, featuring a world with human kingdoms, elven forests, dwarven mountains, and where a horde of green-skinned brutes has popped up to put it all to the torch. Even so, Azeroth has a draw that many other fantasy games lack.
Azeroth is a place with so much soul, which can already be seen when reading the detailed manual of Orcs & Humans. Places and people are well thought out, it’s a world with a strong sense of magic and wonder to it, which became more and more realized as technology caught up with ambition. When playing Warcraft 3 you really get a sense of how unique each part of the world is, which made it mindblowing when World of Warcraft came out and you could go to all those places and see them up close. You could run the Deadmines from Orcs & Humans, see the portal the Orcs once poured through, the ruins of the prison camp that once held Thrall. Even years later I haven’t been able to get into any other MMORPG, even ones that were objectively better in terms of gameplay and graphical prowess, simply because they lack this quality that Blizzard has nailed so thoroughly.
Blizzard’s focus on telling an ongoing, epic story is also smart and over the years they have written several beloved characters. Even I admit that when the Legion trailer came out and I saw Varian Wrynn aboard that ship writing a possible farewell letter to his son Anduin, I was immediately convinced I just had to play the MMO again to catch up with story.
For the RTS games it was particularly hard to enjoy the early titles, which were severely limited in terms of technology. A consistent issue is the proximity of the camera that can’t be zoomed out and the limited number of troops you can select. These are games in which you want dozens of troops storming the enemy base at once, but in Orcs & Humans you could select a paltry 4 at a time, and future entries were slow to improve this. The difficulty of these games was also quite high with few options to adjust it outside of cheating.
And while I praise Blizzard for writing such a long story, that itself is not without its stumbles. Not releasing that point & click game left the lore with a big gap for one of its most important characters and with Cataclysm Blizzard has pretty much erased the bulk of World of Warcraft‘s contribution to it, leaving wikipedia and piracy the only ways to experience these stories. They have also certainly had their issues, with plot holes, retcons, character derailments and storylines that are just lame or unfinished. The constant need to keep the war going and find new characters to serve as raid bosses is put before consistency way too often.
It also brings up the question if maybe Blizzard has exhausted its supply of ideas for the series, which is reflected in the increasingly poor reception of its expansion packs. For all the hype that Cataclysm would revitalize the original 1-60 experience, it was released in an unfinished state with many zones left untouched and concluded with a lackluster showdown against the expansion’s villain. Warlords of Draenor also only received two patches before the next expansion hit, and the game in general is marred by years of rampant inflation and old content breaking under the weight of years of patching; a mentality whereby only the current end-game content matters and everything else is treated as unwanted legacy.
While at one point Blizzard was known for various good games, in recent years their brand has been increasingly focused on just the trio Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft, with those first two receiving notably less attention than the one with the MMORPG cash cow attached to it. World of Warcraft is such a massive source of income that I feel (or rather, fear) that Blizzard will sooner run it into the ground than end it at the appropriate time, if such a time hasn’t already passed.
And I don’t feel that in it’s current state World of Warcraft has another ten years in it unless Blizzard is willing to take a gamble and massively rework the entire game. A Warcraft 4 doesn’t seem to be in the stars either, but the game’s legacy will live on in Esports titles like Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. I just wonder if those games and by extent Blizzard can survive without the massive popularity of the RTS trilogy and World of Warcraft, though recent hits like the continued popularity of Diablo 3 and Overwatch are good news.