Why I'm playing WarCraft 3

(Not just because it beats working.)

Publication date: 12 July 2002.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


As the title might suggest, this isn't really a WarCraft 3 review. You can't turn round on the Web at the moment without stepping on someone's full review of the game, though. If you only have the energy to read one review, check out GameSpot's effort.

No screen shots here, either. GameSpot have 459 of them, for heaven's sake. Go gorge yourself.

WarCraft 3 is not an obscure, little-known game. Zillions of people are buying it just because, well, it's WarCraft 3. Of course you have to buy it. All the cool kids are going to be playing it. Including the entire population of Seoul. Just like WarCraft 2, and StarCraft.

Well, I didn't care much for the earlier WarCrafts, and I didn't like StarCraft any more. I like Real Time Strategy (RTS) games, but I didn't like Blizzard's. Too much micromanagement, too few power interface features. You couldn't get units to follow a plan without babysitting them all the time, and the magic-using units (referred to as "psionics", among other euphemisms, in StarCraft) need to be hand-managed in every fight. If you don't build magic units, or don't use them right, you lose spectacularly to someone who does.

WarCraft 3 still has some of these problems, but they're not as bad as they used to be. And the new stuff, though there aren't any amazing revolutionary I Thought I Knew All That A Game Could Be But Now I Stand In Awe kind of features, is fun.

Plus, I was finally getting bored of Tribes 2.

I used to play a lot of good old Total Annihilation. I still do play it, whenever I can sucker some friends into a match. TA is almost five years old now, and it can't hold a candle to a "modern" 3D RTS like WC3 in the prettiness stakes, and it's only got two sides you can play, and they're different only in detail. But it's got features - queuing of all kinds of orders, flexible unit behaviour, combined arms strategy - that plenty of RTSes since haven't had.

(Oh - and TA flies on current hardware. Seriously. Light speed, baby.)

Yes, the finest TA players micromanage like billy-o and build giant boring lag-inducing armies of level 1 units, but that's not how the game's meant to be played. A gentleman's agreement before the game that ground-shaking armadas of missile trucks in the early game and hordes of micromanaged stealth fighters in the late game are to be avoided will still leave you with a fun game to play. Agree not to micromanage before playing a Blizzard game, and you've strangled all the fun out of it.

WarCraft 3 lets you queue attack orders ("kill this guy, then this guy, then this guy..."), and move orders ("go here, then here, then here, so as not to gallop right through that Enemy Tower Festival that's directly between you and your destination right now...") but that's about it.

Tell your peasant to build a farm and then build another farm, and he won't. You can shift-click all you like; as soon as you click down Farm 2, Joe Peon will give up building Farm 1 and trundle off to build the other one. And you can forget about queuing up the essential technology research items in the buildings that do that sort of thing; you've got to go back (or, at least, press the number key you've assigned to the building...) and click again, every time a piece of research finishes and you want to start another one.

In TA, you could tell a construction unit to build 23 towers, then walk around the enemy baselet, then reclaim an enemy metal extractor, then build one of his own, then come back and guard the aircraft factory to speed up construction. And you could tell the aircraft factory that everything it made was to be set to Roam, and fly here, and then patrol along this path around the edge of the base.

Easy. Did it all the time.

Stuff like that ain't gonna happen in WarCraft 3.

And if you like huge armies, WC3 isn't going to give them to you.

Which is actually a good thing.

TA, and many other RTSes, are built around big forces. Screens full of missile units are taking it a bit far, but big armies are still what you've got to build if you want to make progress. People who try to build small numbers of super-powerful units strike the basic problem that when your Ultimate Doom Machine is 75% complete, so is your enemy's army of 100 tanks. Guess which one of these is dangerous already.

WC3 has the standard Blizzard small-groups interface. You can't put more than 12 units in an army group.

Now, though, an "army" of 12 can actually be an army - a serious fighting force, not just one platoon.

Yes, you'll still often be controlling more than one group in a big battle, but you won't be trying to hurl hordes of weedy units at the enemy. The Undead Scourge in WC3 are the closest thing the game has to a big-armies side, with combat peons and summonable skeletons, but nobody's got a Zergling-equivalent.

Which is just as well, because WC3 puts quite serious limits on how many units you can field. There's a cap of 90 on the amount of food you can produce, for a start; bigger units use more food than smaller ones, and you absolutely can't have more than 90 food worth of troops in the field.

You probably won't get that far, though, because the new "upkeep" concept makes large forces inefficient anyway. From 71 to 90 food worth of troops, you only get 40% of the gold your peons mine. Given that WC3 has Blizzard's standard limited-gold-mines design, there's something to be said for stopping mining altogether while your huge assault force smashes itself into the enemy fortifications. Start digging again when the fodder's been consumed.

And abandon any thoughts you may have of porcing your way to victory in the multiplayer game.

WC3 makes heterogenous armies - groups containing two or more kinds of unit - easy to manage. The default formation-movement system puts the melee fighters in front of the missile attackers, for a start; if you're not filtering the group through a choke point, they'll generally stay in place very well. You can also tab and shift-tab through different kinds of units in one group, so you can quite easily select different spellcasters and get them to do their thing without clicking on units' portraits in the group display, or manually chopping your group up into subgroups and then making like a concert organist with the number keys every time you get in a fight.

Oh, and when you tab through to your four (say) identical spellcasters, and then tell them to cast a spell, only one of them will cast at a time. Since many spells don't have a cumulative effect when they're cast on top of each other, this is a very good thing. It reduces micromanagement, and battle panic, considerably.

Key-twiddling and click-frenzies have also been reduced by things like autocast spells; turn on autocast by right-clicking the icon for the Shaman's Bloodlust or the Priest's Heal, for instance, and the unit will cast that spell when it's needed, automatically. Most spells aren't autocastable, to stop units wasting mana. But the really "menial" ones, to use Blizzard's term, are.

There are other convenience features. An icon on the bottom left of the game view tells you when peons are just standing around scratching themselves, and has a number that tells you how many are standing idle. Click the icon to cycle through the layabouts. You can group buildings and issue them orders simultaneously, which makes it easier to train up big armies. You can tie rally points from unit-producing buildings to a unit, so that everything they make automatically joins up with your main force.

And, in case you hadn't noticed, there are four sides you can play, and they're quite different from each other, and they seem to be pretty much balanced.

Getting RTS games to work when the sides are very different is hard. And the more sides you have, the harder it gets, because the number of unit combinations (in fights, and in teams) increases exponentially with the number of sides. Both sides the same, game design difficulty 1. Two different sides, game design difficulty 4. Three sides, 8. Four sides, 16.

Blizzard games have always had scissors-paper-stone unit interactions - Unit A will whip Unit B, which will beat Unit C, which can easily defeat Unit A - but that's just encouraging you to combine your arms. I rather liked TA's approach, where practically everything will at least have a go at shooting practically everything else, resulting in the occasional superheavy battle tank successfully whacking a 24 inch shell through a passing scout plane. But Guys With Swords cannot plausibly attack Flying Monsters, unless they throw rocks or something, and it's a good game design decision to prevent units that have next to no chance of hitting a given enemy from even trying to, lest they get distracted by unhittable foes and then backstabbed by hittable ones that show up later.

So I'm OK with the basic unit philosophies behind WC3. And, thus far, the side balance seems to be pretty good. Cheesy strategies will, of course, be discovered, but none are obvious.

Plain old grunt rushes can work, especially if you make a career of it and just keep flinging groups at the foe over and over without pause. That's pretty much what the computer opponent does, in Skirmish mode. As has become traditional in Blizzard games, the computer is quite seriously dangerous; it can do several things at once (town building, army building, hero levelling, and rushing you...), it can see everything on the map at all times, and it micromanages very well.

A human trying rush tactics against a vaguely competent foe, however, has an excellent chance of being butchered. This is good.

Night Elves can make themselves vast armies of Ancient Protectors if they've got the income, since Protectors are technically buildings, and don't consume food. Protectors are the Night Elf defensive tower, but like most Elf buildings they can uproot themselves and walk around, making them useful for attack as well as defense. But they're not cheap, and they're not fast, and they're not really great value for money. A big crowd of them will obliterate pretty much anything; if you're playing against Night Elves, it's therefore a good idea to do something nasty to them before they can make a big crowd of Protectors.

More practically, Night Elves can build zillions of Huntresses, and back them with Archers for air cover; that's not really a straight mob tactic, but it can certainly look like one. Generally, though, big mobs of one unit type don't work well.

Heroes are cool. Unlike the dragons in TA: Kingdoms, they're not Major Projects to get, each side has three to choose from (and can get all three in a multiplayer game, if they like), and they don't start off weak as a baby. They do need to be levelled up, preferably by beating on the unaffiliated-hostile "creeps" that inhabit multiplayer maps, before you can use them as combat mainstays (you get experience for killing opponents as well, of course). But creep-hunting is fun in itself; all creeps drop money when you mulch them, and major creeps drop nifty Hero-enhancing items. And the Hero just has to be near the fight to get the experience; he or she doesn't have to strike any killing blows him or herself.

Heroes aren't super-units that can hew their way through dozens of enemies solo, even when they're fully levelled up; there are regular units that can give them pause. Play against a Night Elf enemy for any length of time and you will end up fighting a Tree Of Eternity; it's the Elf town hall uprooted into a huge shambling melee unit, and it can at the very least stop a fully levelled-up Hero for a while.

So Heroes need to be part of an army, which Blizzard encourage, by giving Heroes "Auras", which passively boost the abilities of the units around them. And by the abovementioned ability to attach rally points to units - you can tell your barracks-buildings to send their troops direct to the Hero, wherever he or she is.

But you do have to keep an eye on your Heroes' hit points, if you don't want to drop quite a lot of gold and time (up to 700 gold and 150 seconds, depending on the Hero's beefiness) to resurrect them back at your base. Town Portal scrolls let Heroes, and up to nine units in their entourage, hop easily to any Town Hall on your side, which is a handy emergency-retreat strategy.

Heroes are also necessary if you want to use the neutral buildings scattered around the multiplayer maps; these buildings do nothing if there isn't a Hero nearby.

Neutral buildings are important. As an example, one of them is the Goblin Laboratory, which is the only place where you can get an air transport. No side can build their own. Blockade the Laboratory and you know nobody else will be buying Zeppelins.

This means that dropping armies in unexpected places is harder to do. Mass drops are still possible, since there's an unlimited supply of Zeppelins to be had if you hang around long enough and have enough money, but your foe will easily be able to figure out what's coming. You can't just stealthily generate 25 regiments of Orcish paratroopers in the back of your base.

And then, of course, there's the eye candy. Even with all of the pretty-settings wound up to maximum, WC3's units are all pretty low on polygons, but they look fine in the normal game view. They could have a few more funny things to say, if you ask me, but lack of conversational variety from my troops isn't something that ruins a game for me.

In the game-engine cutscenes where characters are talking to each other in a closer view, you notice their low-poly lumpiness more. Though their overall chunky, pointy, Warhammer-ish look is still cool.

For me, the major distraction in the cutscenes isn't the chunkiness of the models (or the completely nonexistent lip-sync); it's the fact that every character has the usual 3D-game exaggerated breathing animation when they're standing around. So peaceful conversations around the campfire give the impression that everyone involved has either just run ten miles, or is on the top of a 30,000-foot mountain.

This is, of course, nitpicking. Generally, the game looks and sounds great, and Blizzard haven't overdone the 3D stuff. You can zoom in if you want but there's not much point doing it; you can also spin the view a bit to the left or the right, but it snaps back to the standard north-is-up view when you release the spin keys. 3D allows units to turn smoothly and move realistically on uneven terrain, and also gives you a better idea of the shape of the landscape. That's about all Blizzard have used it for. Which is sensible.


So, I'm playing WarCraft 3. I can't say I'm nuts about the continuing Blizzard Game Features - micromanaged magic units, limited gold mines that can lead to everybody's-out-of-money stalemates - but the micro's not as bad as it was, and the dynamics of WC3 reduce the likelihood of out-of-resources entropy-games.

I may or may not get heavily into online WC3, depending on whether or not it follows the well-established pattern for such games. Tribes 2 managed not to attract too many dorks, and it severely limits how dorky they can actually be to other people, anyway. RTS games have far fewer players and far longer games, which makes encounters with special people much more annoying.

Not that annoying tactics aren't some of my favourite things, you understand. But still.

In the almost three years since WC3 was announced, it's mutated from some kind of RPG-ish thing, through a brief flirtation with pandas, to being just another step in the WhateverCraft franchise. It's pretty, it plays well, it doesn't have horrible bugs or balance issues, its single player campaign seems quite good, and I'm enjoying it quite a lot. Which is not something I could say about the earlier 'Craft games.

If you like the 'Crafts, there's no reason why you shouldn't love WarCraft 3. If you hated them with a white-hot passion, this one probably won't turn you on either. But if, like me, you just didn't totally get your crank turned by the earlier 'Crafts, check WC3 out. It may surprise you.

Getting a leg up

If you'd like to find out how to play WC3 competently without doing it the Three Wins, 283 Losses way, Blizzard's own strategy guide site is surprisingly good, and comes complete with a few dirty tricks.

But, at the moment, the place to go for frequently updated news and tips and strategies and educational game replays is WarcraftIII.Net. The replays are in the forums, here.

To make them available in the game, just put them in the "replay" subdirectory in your WarCraft III directory.


Where to buy

Australian shoppers looking to purchase WarCraft 3 without, you know, going outside or doing any of that other scary human-interaction stuff, could do worse than check out Games Market.

No, they are not paying me to say this.

Games Market's prices aren't incredible, but they ship promptly, and they have a "free shipping" option in which you pay the normal price for the game and nothing for shipping, and they send you the contents of the game box, without the box itself. Which is fine with me; there are enough boxes full of air in my life already.

This is possible, by the way, because computer games are not shipped to distributors as boxed products. The box contents come separately from the flat-packed boxes. So a reseller can just buy more contents than boxes, and pass the savings on. Fair enough.

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)