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Warcraft 3: Reforged only works if you missed the original

Newcomers should take a look, but the dedicated community expected much more than this

Someone has missed the point of Warcraft III: Reforged. As the community’s reaction pours in, it’s clear that at least some of the game’s most dedicated players are bitterly disappointed by this remastered version of a piece of RTS history. Why is this, and does it mean everyone else should get angry at developer Blizzard, too?

I fell in love with strategy, and RTS specifically, with Command & Conquer and Age of Empires. Blizzard’s bright and shiny aesthetic always struck me as a bit twee, even in the ‘90s (my review of Bambi at six years old: “contrived”). A friend got me into World of Warcraft in 2005, but I’d been happy to let Blizzard’s RTS games pass me by.

Years later, as a games writer, I’ve recognised the necessity of filling this gap in my knowledge with Warcraft III: Reforged, and even looked forward to it. How cool would it be, I thought, to finally try the game that redefined RTS and spawned the MOBA? Or to actually experience moments like the Culling of Stratholme, which have since become some of the most talked-about gaming stories?

Approached with a mindset like that, Reforged makes a great deal of sense. For $29.99 (£24.99), you get the original Warcraft III and its equally acclaimed Frozen Throne expansion. That means seven full-length campaigns and two mini-campaigns – roughly 30 hours of single-player content, much of it essential for anyone with an interest in strategy storytelling or the evolution of the RTS.

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The campaigns only went live yesterday, so I’ve squeezed in about five hours’ play – enough to witness the Culling of Stratholme (a little anticlimactic, if I’m honest) and nearly finish the human campaign. So far, Warcraft III’s missions are smaller in scope and more directed than those of contemporaries that I did play, such as Age of Mythology, C&C Generals, and Red Alert 2.

Some missions are literally linear, with a hero leading troops on a winding path around the map. Most will feature secrets hidden in far corners, secondary objectives, or side quests to stumble upon, and while these add more flavour than most RTS games of the time could boast, they aren’t as deep as they first appear and usually boil down to ‘kill a monster in exchange for an item’. There’s plenty of base building, though, which rekindles the idiosyncratic ’90s joy I felt in climbing the tech tree from mission to mission and unlocking new, more powerful toys to play with.

Your population has a hard cap based on your housing capacity, and a soft cap in three escalating tiers of upkeep, the first of which kicks in at 50 units. Command groups are also capped at just 12, so if you want a larger army, you need to juggle multiple groups. Combine this with the need to drop their many abilities in the right place at the right time, and you can see where the micromanagement for which Blizzard RTS games are famed comes in. Grouping your units sensibly helps with this, but it’s beyond the remit of the game’s tutorials.

Not that you should worry too much. Playing on Normal, the game is so far extremely easy, rendering precise controls and the new autosaves merely nice to have rather than essential, but then I guess single-player has never been the place to look if you want a challenge in an RTS.

From this side of Dota and League of Legends, shaping your heroes through ten levels, and dropping spells on hordes of minions at the press of a hotkey, feels like finally watching the whole movie when you’d only seen the ending. It’s a lovely effervescence of popping light bulb moments and makes the game seem uncannily prescient. Blizzard itself had nothing to do with inventing the MOBA, however, so there’s a bitter irony to this champagne sweetness too, in light of Reforged’s approach to user content.

Blizzard has changed the user policy regarding custom games and user-created content such that you cannot use copyrighted material, and it instantly, and wholly, owns anything you make. ‘Defense of the Ancients’ began as a Warcraft III custom game and we all know where that led, so Blizzard’s agenda here is obvious, nor is such a restrictive policy all that unusual these days. None of this has helped the sudden change go down any better with the community.

And it wasn’t the only nasty surprise. As of now, there’s no sign of ladders, automated tournaments, clans, or player profiles within Reforged’s multiplayer; there’s no way to create new custom campaigns, and old ones are unsupported. Reforged’s new client has also replaced that of the original game, so the features the old client offered have been forcibly removed even if you didn’t buy Reforged, which is infuriating.

There have also been numerous complaints of bugs and stuttering performance online, but aside from a few annoying pathfinding headaches this hasn’t been my experience. I’ve had no bugs or crashes, and have been enjoying a very smooth frame rate at 1080p on the highest settings (with 16GB RAM, a GTX 980, and an i7-4790K CPU at 4 GHz).

The visual overhaul also looks great and makes the game totally accessible by modern standards. Colours are simple and bright in Blizzard’s twee traditions – the grass of the Arathi Highlands is like irradiated Mountain Dew – and the new animations have made characters far more emotive than they were back in 2002 (I’ve compared the in-engine cutscenes via YouTube – never let it be said we don’t do our research).

When Prince Arthas reunites with sorceress Jaina Proudmoore, for instance, you can hear the mutual attraction in their voices, but now Arthas will give a little toss of his hair inside his character portait. It’s a neat, well-considered touch that makes the romantic subtext between the two clear, even to first-time players (I’ve picked up a bit of Warcraft lore here and there, but I didn’t know these two had history).

That said, one wonders if these touches have gone as far as Blizzard promised. Here’s the BlizzCon 2018 sizzle reel of the cutscene just before the Culling of Stratholme. Here’s how it actually looks in Reforged. The lore changes are a similar oddity – having once promised Reforged would retcon Warcraft III’s story to fit with that of World of Warcraft, Blizzard then changed its mind.

 

Given all the features missing at launch and the scaled-back changes to lore and – perhaps – cutscenes, I have to wonder if Blizzard fully knew what it wanted to achieve with Reforged, or if the scope of this remaster was dialed down during development. Whatever the truth, it’s clear that the community expected much more than this, and not unreasonably.

Reforged’s launch has been marred by too many nasty surprises. Blizzard will surely address them at some point, but whether it will be able to satisfy the community is anyone’s guess. If you share these concerns, you should hold off on Reforged until we learn how Blizzard plans to allay them. Otherwise, I’d say it’s worth a look if you’re nostalgic for Warcraft III’s single-player, or if you missed it first time round and are curious to play one of the most influential RTS games ever. I fall into the latter camp and have been having a pretty good time.

As a bright new coat of paint for the core experience, Reforged succeeds. As a fully featured, community-focused relaunch with a long-term plan to support multiplayer and user-generated content, it’s off to the worst possible start.

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