Game Name:  Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness
Developer:  Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher:  Blizzard Entertainment
PC Release Year:  1995
Review Date:  February 2, 2015

It was only a matter of time before I returned to Azeroth.  World of Warcraft has long since etched itself into my gaming DNA, and while I am willing to let my subscription lapse for months on end, its siren song always calls me back.  Generally, reactivation is an excuse to catch up with some long-distance friends who I do not otherwise talk to, but this time is different.  Gone are the Asian-inspired panda lands of the last expansion, and in their place is the brutal planet of Draenor.  New content is always exciting in the world’s largest MMO, but there is a sense of magic and fun to the whole affair that has been missing since players were tasked with ending the reign of the evil Lich King.  Part of this success is driven by a return to the franchise’s roots.  Thanks to a time-traveling plotline that is not unlike the journey of classic Spock in the rebooted Star Trek films, players find themselves squaring off against villains from the earliest Warcraft titles.  Having already been introduced to these warlords with my retrospective on the series’ initial release, I figured the sequel would help flesh out my knoweldge of Gul’dan and Orgrim Doomhammer.  In my quest to better understand this lore, I discovered that Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness is both a gem in the pool of ‘90s RTS titles, and a worthy successor to the original game.  In fact, I would say that it is the best traditional RTS that I have ever played from that era.  If anyone is going to outdo Blizzard, though, it is going to be Blizzard, and they have since proved that fact with the StarCraft series.  Considering both franchises share much of the same DNA, it is hard to recommend Warcraft II when StarCraft II had 15 years to improve upon the standard RTS formula.

Most of the evolutionary elements that Warcraft II lacks are gameplay related.  Some just serve to slow down and frustrate the gamer, like the inability to queue multiple units for production out of one building, the lack of an idle worker button to find lumberjacks who are uselessly loitering after clearcutting a forest, and a hard cap of nine on how many soldiers can be selected and moved at once.  In all fairness on that last point, this is a marked improvement over the original’s command limit of four units, but modern players demand more control than that.  These problems are worse for folks like me, who happen to have the earlier DOS version of the game.  Unlike the Windows 98 rerelease, there is no way to bind a control group to a hotkey, and a player’s food supply is not shown alongside the other resources where it can do some good.  A broader frustration is that mission design really only comes in two flavors that get pretty stale by the time the credits roll.  Either the player is asked to escort a major character, like Uther the Lightbringer, from one point of the map to another, or they receive a generic order to destroy the opposing faction or some subset of their buildings.  Forget about protecting computer-controlled allies, finding a powerful artifact, surviving a holdout, or being tasked with collecting an insane amount of resources, because these genre staples are nowhere to be found. 

Mechanical annoyances like these are bad enough, but Warcraft II’s age is more apparent as the game’s exposition unfolds.  The instruction booklet is proof-positive that Blizzard had begun to take the lore of Azeroth seriously by 1995, with detailed and engaging tales about how a human sorcerer named Medivh brought the Horde into the world of man.  However, epic storytelling gets lost in translation between rudimentary cinematics and narrated mission briefings which are a disappointing holdover from the original game.  Without the benefit of scripted game events to change objectives on the fly, or in-game dialogue to bring the action down to the level of individual heroes and villains, players are ushered from one level to the next with a synopsis that is about as dry as an encyclopedia entry.  Beyond that, the game world just seems small.  Anyone who has played World of Warcraft up to level 12 knows how big and expansive places like Lordaeron and Silvermoon should be.  They are regional seats of power with homes, banks, shops, guild halls, and the like.  When the Second War winds its way to the front gates of these capitals, I wanted to see the type of urban fighting that players experience in StarCraft II when Jim Raynor’s team rampages across the metropolitan world of Korhal IV.  However, there are simply not enough art assets in the game to do this, so the farms, churches, and other buildings get recycled repeatedly to try and give some semblance of a city, which ultimately fails to hit the mark. 

Despite these flaws, it was surprising to find that Warcraft II is arguably the purest incarnation of what makes the franchise so special.  It starts with amazing production value, which is still evident today.  Fans of Hearthstone and World of Warcraft’s battle pet system are sure to recognize the soundtrack.  In a testament to its saying power, Blizzard co-opted this music directly for use in these modern games.  Graphically, I have not played another title from the mid ‘90s which looks this good.  Gone is the gritty realism that was attempted in the series debut, and its place is a softer set of imagery which harkens back to a Saturday morning cartoon.  Not only does this stylized design keep the game relevant today, but it firmly reinforces the idea that there is an inherent silliness in the works of Tolkien that Blizzard is not above poking fun at it.  In fact, they upped the ante in many ways by canonizing the orc storyline of the first game.  With Stormwind in ruins and the refugees fleeing north to previously unseen lands, players get the opportunity to meet a host of new creatures like elves, dwarves, gnomes, ogres, trolls and goblins.  Keeping with tradition, they all say goofy things when they are clicked on.

Warcraft II has just as much substance as style though, and the underlying RTS structure is probably the title’s greatest strength.  Going bravely where few developers are willing to go, even today, Blizzard allowed players to duke it out on land, sea, and air.  This takes the rock-paper-scissors element of the genre to a higher plateau, by expanding the fighting to a third front.  Suddenly, elven archers and guard towers have a place and a purpose.  Sure, they get torn apart by the beefy land units, but who else is going to hold the line when the enemy brings out dragons to rain death from above?  Adding oil as a new resource that can only be farmed from offshore platforms also pushes players away from a strategy that ignores the sea.  On top of this, players better stake their claim to these resources quickly because there is only so much to go around.  While it has since become a passé design element to constrain maps with a finite resource pool, there is a lot of fun tension to be had in planning out an attack that is needed to secure a new gold mine.

Gamers who love Warcraft need to play this title, because there is unlikely to be another release from Blizzard quite like this one.  World of Warcraft has firmly moved the series into the MMO realm, and even if a development team did try to tackle a return to the franchise’s RTS roots, it would need to do what Warcraft III did.  From a playstyle perspective, this means fundamentally departing from genre conventions to avoid cannibalizing StarCraft’s fan base.  The fact that this is a legitimate concern is the sole reason I cannot recommend Tides of Darkness to the broader pool of gamers.  Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm are the true successors to the Warcraft legacy, and 15 years of graphics, gameplay, and narrative improvements are too much to ignore.  Where else can you can you find a traditional RTS which allows players to deal with the crazy scenarios like having to mine resources in a lava flood plain between eruptions?  Nowhere is the answer, and that stuff is too cool to give up for a trip down memory lane.

Verdict:  Not Recommended