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Game Name:  Warcraft: Orcs and Humans
Developer:  Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher:  Blizzard Entertainment
PC Release Year:  1994
Review Date:  June 12, 2013

I was first introduced to the Warcraft franchise in high school, when a friend invited a bunch of guys over to check out the latest and greatest gaming experience that he had the beta for.  Encountering Warcraft 3 in that dark basement, I was immediately impressed by the vibrant visuals and funny dialogue.  Seeing my friends developing heated opinions of the game’s new hero mechanics made me realize this series was more than just good presentation though, so I quickly snatched up a copy on release day.  From that point until the end of college, the world of Azeroth was my playground as I led my human armies to war in Reign of Chaos and my dwarf priest into battle in World of Warcraft.  Considering this series is among a handful that defined me as a gamer, it made sense to explore its origins with Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (henceforth known as Warcraft).  While I can safely say I enjoyed the playthrough given my history with the franchise, the title is far too dated and clunky for anyone but a serious fan to boot this up.

The Warcraft series takes place in a fantasy world in which humans, orcs, and other creatures vie for dominance.  This game specifically tells the tale of how the orcs came to the world of Azeroth through a portal from another dimension, and how they ultimately destroyed the human kingdom of Stormwind in what would later be called the First War.  Throughout the faction specific campaigns, you get an up-close look at major events from franchise lore, like the showdown with Medivh and the coup against Warchief Blackhand.  While for me, this is the game’s greatest strength and I had a blast leading my soldiers through the Deadmines and Northshire Abbey, I come with preexisting knowledge so these places have meaning for me.  The reality is, if you treat Warcraft as a completely standalone affair, there is no compelling story to push the game along.   What little narrative you receive comes from the short cut-scenes between levels, and they give you only the barest context of ongoing events before dumping you into the next scrum. 

On presentation, Warcraft really has a hard time standing up to modern games.  Near 20 years old, age is most apparent in the graphics, which show off a pixelated mess of fuzzy sprites.  The title’s native resolution is passable, but if you want to play the game on more than a tiny fraction of your screen’s real estate, be prepared to take a quality hit.  The sound is slightly better.  The midi soundtrack carries themes that fit the Warcraft vibe and the effects generally capture the essence of the action; when swords clash and arrows fly, you can audibly tell what is going on.  Unfortunately, there is little variety in that there are few music tracks and only one paltry sound effect per action.  Once you get about halfway through a campaign, the repetitive audio begins wearing on the nerves.  The voice acting suffers from this as well, since all orc units share one set of recordings and all human units share another.  In both cases, the tone is way too serious for the subject matter and while you get to hear your fair share of “zug zug” and “my liege” as you command your troops, you get none of the witty comments that are unique to units later in the series.

Fortunately, the overall gameplay of Warcraft is strong and remains a pillar for the modern RTS.  The objective is simple enough; develop an economy and use it to assemble an army and destroy the enemy base.  You start by building farms to provide food to your men, which otherwise acts as a cap on the size of your population.  Then you can raise an army, research technology, and construct buildings with some combination of lumber and gold.  These are obtained by sending your gatherers out to collect them from the trees and gold mines scattered around the map.  This creates a very fun balancing act in that the further your gatherers travel, the more protection they need, but a bigger army is contingent upon the resources they carry.  When combat occurs, Warcraft also provides an enjoyable unit counter system without resorting to the damage bonuses seen in a newer genre titles.  If fighting archers and catapults, you want to send in mounted knights or raiders to close the distance quickly.  If being run down by these units, you want to build a meat wall of footmen or grunts to act as a melee buffer.  If staring down a balanced army, you want to bring out your casters which, depending on the faction being played, have useable spell abilities like heal, invisibility, and summon demon to turn the tide in battle and give your army an edge.  The number of unit types never felt overwhelming, but always provided enough tactical options to keep the fights interesting.

Despite the pros, there are some major sticking points.  One of the biggest complaints I have heard is that Warcraft is terribly slow.  I consider this an unfair assessment, causing one to miss the bigger issue of imbalanced unit speed.  You can easily turn up the game speed and finish most levels within a half hour if you know what you are doing.  The problem with this is that combat speed increases at the same rate as economic speed, where the only real slow point is the resource generation.  If you run the game as fast as possible to quickly collect gold and lumber, when the enemy attacks, you will lose some of your defensive force before you have the chance to react.

The next problem is the overall ease with which the game is beaten.  It feels like the campaigns are only in there as training for the multiplayer, and my rationale for this is how each level slowly unlocks one new unit or caster ability.  Upon their introduction, they are typically the key to victory and if you focus on them in your buildup, you are good to roll into the enemy base.  Much has been made of the maps that play out more like dungeon crawlers than standard RTS fare, in that you have one army and no reinforcements to get you through the level.  While these do help the campaign pacing by changing up your objectives, my perspective on their inclusion is fairly cynical.  Pay attention and you will notice these levels appear only after those where a nonessential soldier or spell is introduced.  Coincidentally, they are always part of your static force, making it seem like the designers are forcing you to try everything before venturing into the online arena.  The sad part about this setup is you are not given command of a fully functioning army until the second to last level in each campaign.  Not surprisingly, these are the only two levels in each storyline that provide any real challenge.

The final issue is one of me being spoiled by modern games.  To put it simply, Warcraft needs an easier control scheme than what it offers.  There are no right-click commands like you will find in newer RTS games.  Instead, everything is done with left-clicks, so you are either forced to learn the keyboard commands for move, attack, and harvest or you have to left click a unit, left click the command button, and left-click the destination before an action occurs.  Equally frustrating is the lack of an idle villager button to find the peasant or peon that is doing nothing after being attacked.  The worst part of all, however, is the fact that you cannot select more than four units at a given point in time.  If you have a very large army built, this means moving it becomes a bigger endeavor than destroying the other faction.

It must sound like I truly disliked Warcraft, although I can absolutely say that is not the case.  My love of the franchise outweighed all of the negatives and ultimately provided me with a great gaming experience.  To those out there who know and understand the lore, I suggest you give it a try as you are capable of truly appreciating this journey through Azeroth.  Unfortunately, I cannot recommend a game based solely on having the required background knowledge; especially one with so many flaws.  The underlying gameplay may stand up well to time, but that is the only plus most gamers will find.  Given that, I have to honestly say that there is no good reason for the average gamer to have this on their PC.

Verdict:  Not Recommended