Warcraft is a franchise that’s grown very close to my heart over the decades.
Blizzard’s original RTS wasn’t quite my first videogame ever but it wasn’t far off. Hyped and hankering for more after being introduced to like strategy games like Age of Empires and Age of Mythology, the original Warcraft quickly became one of my favorites.
It took a little longer for my fondness towards Starcraft to set in but when it came to Blizzard’s fantasy RTS, it was pretty much love at first sight.
Dark prophecies, grimdark character designs, gorey action and truckloads of fantasy flavor? Sign me the hell up. The original Warcraft took a style of game I was already acquainted with and paired it up with a richer, nerdy-as-hell setting that played right into my teenage appetite for trashy-as-hell genre fiction. It was one of those games that hit me at just the right time in my life.
A few years down the track, Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos impressed me all over again. In the years since, it’s long held the crown as the game I’d with me to a desert island. An RTS classic I can come back to.
Part of this was down to the graphical upgrade the third installment in the series delivered - which bumped things up from sprite-based 2D to fully-featured 3D models and environments. Part of this was down to the rich storytelling and the introduction of RPG-influenced mechanics - which made for a more engrossing setting and more engaging gameplay loop. Part of this was down to the extremely powerful custom map editor - which kept me coming back long after I had finished Warcraft 3’s manifold single player campaigns.
Unfortunately, jumping into Warcraft 3: Reforged, it feels like Blizzard have given the classic RTS a new coat of paint and little else.
I mean, don’t get me wrong - it’s a nice coat of paint. The updated character models in Reforged have a genuinely staggering amount of detail in them compared to their 2002 counterparts. Anyone can see that.
But the more cinematic cutscenes, refreshed UI and revised voice acting teased at Blizzcon 2018? They don’t appear to have made the cut and it’s not really clear why. Although ultimately superfluous to the gameplay, these omissions come across as somewhat-disheartening and - if I’m being cynical - borderline-deceptive.
Back when Reign of Chaos and Frozen Throne were first released, Warcraft was one of the more-developed fantasy settings of the time. The story didn’t just follow one legendary hero. You had dozens across decades and centuries of lore to learn and lose yourself in.
In the time since, however, Blizzard have built on that foundation over countless novels, comics and fifteen years of World of Warcraft. As that’s happened, the foundation represented by Warcraft 3 has looked worse and worse for wear. Even at its best, the writing in Warcraft 3 feels like it's cut from a different cloth than the rest of the modern Warcraft universe.
Reforged represented an opportunity to amend that, and it feels like Blizzard have let it pass by. Sure, a willingness to retcon or revise aspects of this narrative to better gel with the larger lore of the setting might have angered some fans but it would have given plenty more a great reason to revisit the fall of Arthas and the rise of Thrall.
As it stands, the scope of Warcraft 3: Reforged feels distinctly limited in imagination. The fact that Blizzard chose to take development of this project internal rather than rope in GOG as they did with previous Diablo and Warcraft remasters implies - or at least inspires - a sense that there’s more going on here than there actually is.
Initially billed as “a stunning reimagining of the revolutionary real-time strategy game that laid the foundation for Azeroth’s most epic stories” and “a remake in the truest sense”, the final product that’s arrived feels like little more than a cursory remaster. Warcraft 3: Reforged is as by-the-numbers as these things get and the rationale for why feels paper thin.
And, as a longtime fan of the series and the studio involved, that’s pretty frustrating to see. In addition to a reputation that attracts some of the best talent in the industry, Blizzard have had plenty of time to think about what the right and wrong approach to remastering old games looks like. Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel like they’ve done much with that opportunity. When examples like Age of Empire 2: Definitive Edition and Age of Mythology: Extended Edition have set such a high bar for this kind of remaster, you'd expect that to inform what Warcraft 3: Reforged brings to the table.
Even if it’s no Resident Evil 2, Warcraft 3 is still a great game. If you were too young or missed it the first time around, you’re probably going to have a blast. However, as someone approaching the remaster with something almost-approaching reverence, Reforged can’t help but feel like something of an obligatory cash-in.
Then there’s the weird interplay between Reforged and players who still want to cling to the original Warcraft 3. With the launch of the remaster, Blizzard has essentially merged the clients and online infrastructure for the two games. Open up the settings and you can toggle the graphical upgrades of Reforged at will.
If you’re coming at things fresh, the ability to do this is a novelty. However, if you were already a die-hard of the original Warcraft 3, the merging of these two worlds is nothing short of cataclysmic.
Original Warcraft 3 players now have to log-in through the Battle.Net to play - even if they’re planning on LANning it up. Things like clans, player profiles, automated tournaments and ladder play essentially no longer exist for these players in the way that they have for over a decade. That’s kinda crazy when you think about it.
Blizzard haven’t just remastered what Warcraft 3 was. They’ve retconned it.
Still, none of this is a dealbreaker for me. It only took a few seconds for muscle memory to kick in. A heartbeat before my hands began to slide towards the game's familiar set of hotkeys. The punchy gameplay and cinematic mission design in Warcraft 3 - though arguably eclipsed by Starcraft 2 in the years since- still slaps.
All the same, I honestly wish they had reforged either Warcraft or Warcraft 2 instead. Where every beat of Warcraft 3’s grandiose story feels etched in the back of my brain, the events of Warcraft and Warcraft 2 are a bit fuzzier.
Sure, the broad strokes are there - Khadgar, The Dark Portal, Ner'Zhul - but it feels like there’s a lot more room for Blizzard to experiment and reimagine that story and those missions than there is with Warcraft 3.
Show me what those missions look like in the Warcraft 3: Reforged engine. Add the features and quality of life improvements that early Warcraft games lacked. Maybe even throw in some new factions or missions exploring parts of the series’ lore that weren’t fully-developed at the time but have been in the decades since.
I’m only a few missions into Warcraft 3: Reforged and, despite this being a game that I still remember fondly, this remaster isn’t doing much to recapture that magic and remind me why so much as it is drawing attention to just how much Blizzard has changed since then.