Written by: Stoo

Date posted: September 1, 2007

Naval combat: a welcome feature, sadly absent from the third game.

Recently I’ve fallen victim to the insidious charms of the famous World of Warcraft. A massively-multiplayer online RPG of, er, massive proportions, it’s known for consuming vast portions of its users lives. With my own Troll hunter, I’ve racked up more days total time spent on questing, instances, farming and grinding than I care to admit. If those keywords don’t mean anything to you (no farming doesn’t involve growing potatoes) then don’t worry, they basically just mean “various means Blizzard has of keeping you away from the real world”. However this project has always been about trying to put our gaming tendencies to constructive use, so here’s a good opportunity to get some writing done. The Warcraft series did of course begin in the realm of realtime strategy, and it goes right back to the early days of the genre, so I thought it was about time it got a mention on this site.

Now the obvious place to start would be, er, at the start. Warcraft: Orcs and Humansin 1994 came soon after Westwood’s original genre definer Dune 2, and followed the same template. Viewing a patch of land from above, you send little workers to gather resources and build structures. These structures churn out various kinds of soldier, which you send charging off across the map to defeat the enemy’s soldiers, and destroy his own base of operations. However where Dune 2 was in a futuristic setting Warcraft swapped tanks and guns for orks, wizards and swords.

However, I haven’t written a review for Warcraft.  Here’s why: it’s a pain in the ass to play. The controls are awkward, as several of the features we take for granted these days simply hadn’t yet been developed. Firstly you cannot have more than four units selected at the same time. There’s no drag-a-box to do the selecting, so they must be picked one at a time. There’s also no assigning and re-selecting of groups. Finally, to give orders you must click the order from the menu, then pick a destination; there’s no intelligent selection of order (walk\attack\work) based on what’s under the pointer when you click. The end result is that getting a dozen troopers across the map and into battle becomes a tedious process; they tend to arrive piecemeal rather than attacking together in force.

Now, I could probably get used to this with practice. But, I confess, I just can’t be bothered. Should I hang up my retro-gamer hat in disgrace? I don’t think that’s necessary. We’ve never claimed to be interested in every oldie ever created; even if we enjoy early-90s titles we do acknowledge that eventually games reach a point where they get too dated to have any interest beyond historical value. Also, it’s our opinion that some kinds of game age better than others. There are several games of this vintage that are worthwhile in our book – Monkey Island, TIE Fighter, UFO. In the case of Realtime Strategy though, <i>Command and Conquer took some big steps forward in terms of interface and controls, making them much more intuitive and straightforward. The first ancestors, before that, are by comparison just too clunky.

Orcs smashing stuff up, the utter vandals.

So anyway, with the original abandoned the next logical step is onto Warcraft 2.  Which, being (narrowly) post C&C, fixes some of the control issues I mentioned. It still has some frustrations – no build queues on for your barracks and similar structures, no hotkeyed groups. However, drag-a-box is now available and you can have up to nine soldiers selected at once. So that’s a welcome improvement, especially in a crisis with enemies at the gates.

Story-wise WC2 continues directly from the original which actually ended rather badly for the humans, with the southern kingdoms of Azeroth left smashed. Now the Orcs are on the move again, heading for the northern lands. What’s more, they’ve enlisted help from a whole stack of ugly vicious types: Trolls, Ogres, Goblins and Undead. To counter this a new alliance of the good-guys has formed, lead by the humans of Lordareon but also featuring Dwarves, Elves and Gnomes. If this sounds very Games Workshop-esque generic-fantasy to you then, well, yeah it is. Also, don’t expect tight integration of character-driven stories and action that was seen in Warcraft 3. There’s not so much a complex narrative as brief explanations for a series of battles. Still, if you’re a fan of those later Warcraft games, then you might be interested to see some of the earlier history of that world. If you’ve spent hours questing around Stromgarde keep, and wondered how it ended up in ruins, you’ll find the answer here.

If you opt for the campaign mode, the difficulty curve is quite gentle. The first few maps on each side are basically a tutorial, and on many beyond that you’ll only come under weak enemy attack, making preparation for your own assault pretty straightforward. Not that I’m complaining; hardcore types might like to sweat over the same mission for days on end but sometimes I just want to destroy elves. Meanwhile there’s a skirmish mode, and multiplayer options of null-modem, direct dial and LAN gaming. Tides of Darkness originally predated modern internet multiplayer, but was re-released in 1997 to make use of Blizzard’s battle.net servers – not bad going for a game that was already 3 years old.

To go with the sword-waving soldiers of the original, Tides of Darkness adds naval and airborne units to the mix. So the elves contribute destroyers as well as archers, whilst in the skies Dwarven griffon riders chase Goblin zeppelins. Carrying over from the first game you also get a couple of “wizard” type units. These are relatively weak fighters but have special abilities, that can be “cast” costing points from a slowly-regenerating individual energy supply. As an extra touch, you can spend resources on upgrade certain units for greater resilience or damage dealt, or even transform them into an improved version.

Also, you can be sure this is a game with character; it might be a 2D affair but the sprites are quite bold and colourful in design. There’s a slightly cartoony look to them, which is another theme Warcraft would stick with over the years when it made the transition to 3D. Keeping to this theme are the little voice clips you hear when units acknowledge orders or come under attack. All the races have their own voice styles; human footmen are bold and heroic (“yes sire?”) while orcs are cheerful in a brutish manner (“zug-zug!”). When an orcish base comes under attack the downtrodden workers wail “They’re destroying our city!” in an endearing manner. Ogres are big and dopey, and ship captains declare “Aye Matey?” The Trolls haven’t yet gotten their Jamaican accents though.

Juggernauts are good for bombardment.

Meanwhile this game introduced the running Blizzard joke of units making amusing comments if clicked rapidly (“stop poking me!” “me not that kind of ork!”). To be fair the novelty kind of wore out by WC3, what with trying to think of ways for about a hundred types of unit to be funny. But overall having a sense of humour, even if it gets a little self-congratulatory at times, is another little feature that has kept the Warcraft series appealing.

What is slightly disappointing though is that aside from cosmetic factors, the two armies are actually completely identical. Assuming equal upgrade levels, a human footman has the exact same speed, hitpoints and attack strength as an orcish grunt. Same goes for a dragon rider and griffon rider. The only differences are in terms of the spells available to casting units – human Paladins get a healing power whilst Ogre Mages can send allies into a strength-enhancing frenzy. I guess it’s one way of guaranteeing the two sides are balanced, but it still feels a bit lazy. C&C had quite distinctive armies, and even old Dune 2 managed to give each army a couple of unique units.

Anyway, once the game is underway it’s all straightforward RTS stuff – this was still early days in the genre after all. Most maps come down to the same thing: establish a base that can fend off the constant waves of fairly weak attacks. Build up a hopefully overwhelming force of soldiers. Send them over to smash the enemy base. Or possibly clear the seas with a navy, then build up soldiers, put them in boats, deposit them on the enemy shores, and smash their base.

You’ll want to use some of the more specialized types effectively – as in, catapaults and wizards shouldn’t be getting pummeled at the front line – but Total War this is not. It is, however, still entertaining in a “charging horde smashes stuff up” way. Missions do give a little bit of variety – you might for example have to capture enemy territory with limited forces before starting your base. Or make your way across the map to a destination with a set number of units. Still, for the most part it’s build, attack, smash.

I didn't seem to get pics of battles so much as just orcs knocking buildings down.

Interestingly tho, this was amongst the first of the RTS games to feature the “fog of war”. The map starts blacked out, and is revealed by your units as they explore. However any parts of the map beyond a certain distance from any of your units are then re-covered in a grey transparent shroud, and enemies within cannot be seen. Although quite common today, the re-shrouding is a feature that Westwood didn’t seem interested in themselves, so maybe we have Blizzard to thank for establishing the feature.

As this is an oldie, tho, you might find the AI a little frustrating at times. If you tell units to move a long distance across the map, over a route scattered with (impassable) rocks and forest they may well get stuck walking into a barrier sooner or later. Also, when telling a group of ranged units to attack something, I sometimes had to manually maneuver one or two of them into a spot where they were in range – otherwise they just decided they couldn’t help out and sat there aimlessly. Then there’s the old case of troops thinking a path (like a bridge) is blocked because other units are currently crossing it, and wondering off instead of waiting their turn. Top for yelling curses at your own men, though, is when they happily ignore a friend who’s being attacked about half a screen away.

What you might also notice is a fairly slow start to some missions. The bottlenecks tends to be farms – you need one of these for every four soldiers. Often you’re stuck with little resources, just a couple of workers and no farm “space” left to build anyone else. So those two peasants have to toil away for a while just to get a farm set up, just to allow more peasants to get a proper infrastructure set up. It’s not exactly a problem – we’re only talking a few minutes delay – just a warning for those impatient types who might demand instant battles.

Summary time: to be clear, Warcraft 3 is a superior game to this one in just about every way (except perhaps for omitting the naval side), not just the graphics. The genre has evolved somewhat over the years after all, even if it’s been a slow process. That said, many games do still hold those core gameplay principles close to heart. So here’s the part where I could sell Tides of Darkness as being the ideal game if you fancy returning to an old-skool 2D application of those principles. A simpler, purer time before 3d spinny-rotating-engines, realstic physics, and advanced features like morale or elevation.To be honest though, my own pic for the top game in that category would be Blizzard stablemate and spiritual successor, Starcraft.

However, Tides of Darkness still manages to fall on the right side of what I’d call playable, and is certainly very easy to pick up. There’s still an uncomplicated appeal in sending a bunch of slightly cartoony orcs smashing into girly elves with a cry of FOR THE HORDE! I won’t pretend this one will keep you hooked for weeks, but it could keep retro-gamers entertained for a few evenings. Also, if you count yourself a fan of the more recent Warcraft installments, you might simply like to see what Blizzard’s fantasy world looked like ten years ago.