Release Date: January 28, 2020Platform: PCDeveloper: BlizzardPublisher: BlizzardGenre: Real-time Strategy
There’s a question at the heart of every Warcraft 3: Reforged discussion that makes the seemingly simple process of reviewing it so much more complicated than it needs to be: “How much credit does Blizzard deserve in 2020 for releasing a truly great game in 2002?”
At the time of Warcraft 3’s release, games like Blizzard’s own StarCraft and the ambitious Total Annihilation had raised the RTS bar in ways that made the original Warcraft games feel outdated, even if they were still amusing in their own right. The simple way forward would have been for Blizzard to essentially just reskin StarCraft and bask in the revenue and glory of having made what would have likely still been a very good game.
Instead, the Blizzard of 2002 (relatively speaking) rejected the easy path. The studio decided to take the well-made (but familiar) Warcraft strategy franchise and turn it into more of an RTS/RPG hybrid that took a few design cues from the Heroes of Might and Magic series and others but was otherwise ambitious and fairly unique.
Blizzard’s approach begins with the revolutionary addition of hero units, which were units you controlled that were not only far more powerful and wielded unique sets of abilities but were characters who changed and grew throughout the game. You could even equip them with items found throughout your adventures. They were full-fledged RPG characters in a genre that was typically dominated by generic units.
In fact, the hero approach extends to Warcraft 3’s “generic” units. While you don’t control as many units in Warcraft 3 as you might in StarCraftand similar genre titles, most units are designed to offer unique abilities that make you really think about your squad compositions. For instance, knights are generally better than footmen, but footmen possess unique abilities that help them excel against large groups of ranged units. Support units are certainly useful, but the fact that you’re forced to manage smaller groups means that you’ll need to carefully consider what they’ll contribute in various situations.
Not only did those changes make Warcraft 3 much more strategically satisfying, but they meant that every battle benefited from the fact that you genuinely cared about the outcome for reasons beyond progression’s sake. That influx of personality allowed people who usually overlooked the RTS genre to suddenly care about the outcome of every encounter, the weight of every upgrade, and the impact of every unit built. Those who enjoyed the genre for the pursuit of honing an “optimal” strategy still found that in Warcraft 3 but in a different way.
Yet, Warcraft 3’s greatest contribution to the genre, the franchise, the studio, and gaming, in general, was its story. Games like StarCraft actually benefited from good stories, but no RTS made before Warcraft 3 put its plot front and center quite as that game did. From the rise and tragic fall of Arthas to a greater understanding of who the Horde are and what they fight for, Warcraft 3 offered a deep and engaging narrative that had you begging to see what would come next. (It’s also fascinating to look back on the game now and see all the world-building and narrative seeds that were planted and grew into 15+ years worth of World of Warcraft storytelling.)
On top of all of that, Warcraft 3 featured a custom mode creator that was so robust it led to the creation of the MOBA genre, an array of competitive mode options that captured the attention of competitive gamers everywhere, and an eventual expansion that may just be one of the best expansions ever made. In an age of seemingly endless hyperbole, it’s hard to find the words to properly summarize the game’s quality and impact. Let’s just say that almost 18 years of advancements and changes have done little to diminish the impact of the core Warcraft 3experience.
In fact, the only game to come along in all that time that diminishes the legacy of Warcraft 3 has been Warcraft 3: Reforged.
It starts with the graphics. Yes, Reforged does slightly improve the visuals of Warcraft 3 as you would expect from a remaster of an 18-year-old game. Put Reforged and Reign of Chaos side by side, and you’ll have no trouble identifying which is which. There are even some old maps that have been slightly reimagined and expanded upon in fascinating ways.
Yet, there are those fans who can’t help but recall preview videos of the remaster released just a couple of years ago which looked substantially better than what’s included in the final package. Even if you can overlook those previews and accept that things change over the course of development, you’re left with issues like an unresponsive UI and sometimes awful unit animations that seem to have been caused by the few visual upgrades we did get.
Speaking of upgrades, we respect the idea of preserving the integrity of an original experience via a remaster, but considering that Reforged does feature alterations to the original game, such as the addition of an easier difficulty level, we’ve got to wonder why certain other quality of life upgrades are simply missing. For instance, you’re not able to rebind keys natively via the settings. This was true of the original game, but even back then, that was seen by some as a design oversight. You’re also not able to properly scale the UI, which is quite odd considering how often the standard UI clashes with modern resolutions
All of that is frustrating, but those problems are nothing compared to what Reforged does to Warcraft 3’s competitive and custom game modes. Multiplayer features such as tournaments, leaderboards, and clans are not available in Warcraft 3: Reforged at the time of this review. Blizzard has stated it will add those features to the game in a later patch, but the studio has until now failed to explain why it bothered to release the remaster without those features in the first place.
The real shame here is the fact that such features were not only present in the original version of Warcraft 3 but the release of Reforged means they are no longer accessible in the original release either. At launch, Warcraft 3: Reforged objectively not only offers less than the original version of the game but is the rare remaster that also negatively affects how you are able to experience its predecessor.
Then you have custom games. Blizzard (or, let’s be honest, Activision) has decided that any Warcraft 3 maps created in the game’s custom mode are the “sole and exclusive property of Blizzard.” This could be a response to Blizzard “missing out” on the MOBA scene that was born from a Warcraft 3 mod. While it remains to be seen if this impacts the game’s custom creations in a meaningful way, it’s a policy that inherently corrupts the creative spirit of the mod scene and is also quite bizarre when you consider that companies like Valve have successfully worked with the creators of mods like Counter-Strike in the past. For that matter, Valve is the studio that bothered to hire the creator of the DOTA Warcraft 3 mod that Blizzard is seemingly still sore over.
And that’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about the failures of Warcraft 3: Reforged. In the early 2000s, Blizzard decided it could do more with Warcraft 3 than simply offer more of the same. The studio tested its own creative abilities by releasing a bold title that changed everything. For years, games like Warcraft 3 are what we thought of when we thought of Blizzard.
In 2020, Blizzard can’t even bother to release a full remaster of one of its most revolutionary titles. Like Arthas, Blizzard wears the skin of a proud hero, but some fans are beginning to fear that the company is actually a demon in disguise. There’s no good reason for this game to have been released in this state. Even if patches eventually correct many of the problems outlined above, it’s the betrayal of trust that remains Warcraft 3: Reforged‘s biggest failure.
Warcraft 3 will always be a great game. If this is how you must experience it, then we suppose Reforged still holds some value because of the spirit of that game’s greatness. Yet, a few minor improvements will never justify the fact that we’re no longer even able to enjoy everything we loved about the original game without resorting to unnecessary and often unreasonable means.
How much credit does Blizzard deserve in 2020 for releasing a truly great game in 2002? About as much as George Lucas deserves for the ‘90s Star Wars special edition re-releases.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.