Review - WarCraft: Orcs & Humans (DOS, 1994)

About a year and a half ago I wandered into Ye Olde Locale Software Shoppe looking for a new strategy game and a pair of Hannibal Lecter boxer shorts. (They couldn't help me with the shorts, and threatened to call the police if I didn't drop the matter immediately.) After too long a time taking shelf inventory over and over, I bought a copy of Dune 2 with a noticeable amount of reservation. I'd heard nary a good thing about the first Dune game, so picking up the sequel made me a little nervous. To my surprise, I fell instantly in love with Dune 2. So did my two roommates, our five cats, and various strangers wandering in off the street. Here was a game the likes of which I'd never seen before – a real-time strategy war game with elements of SimCity. Dune 2 went on to become one of my favorite games of all time. In an industry full of knock-offs, it was a game I truly hoped would be imitated. No one really has, until now.

Warcraft: Orcs and Humans is a new game from Blizzard. To say that it is derivative of Dune 2 may sound like criticism, but not coming from me. Quite the contrary. From me that's high praise. Warcraft is about an ongoing struggle between orc and human societies for control of the land of Azeroth. You may play as either the orcs or the humans, with the overall goal of wiping out the other side. (A sensible goal for a war game, don't you think?) As in Dune 2, all play occurs in real time, a technique a few games have tried recently, but very few have pulled off with any form of style or grace. Warcraft has oodles of style and grace, which is obvious from the moment the game starts.

You start out with the bare essentials: a town hall, a farm, and a couple peasants and base level fighters. The town hall lets you train (create) peasants; they can't fight, but they perform the mundane tasks like erecting buildings, harvesting wood from the forests, and mining gold. Lumber and gold are needed to create new units and buildings, and as such are two resources you won't be able to win (or even play) without. The farms produce food for your armies, so the number of farms you have regulates the number of units you can train.

Once you have explored your immediate area and have a steady income of lumber and gold, you set about creating additional buildings and training units. To create new fighters you'll have to build a barracks. The barracks alone can only create human footmen and orcish grunts, the lowest fighters in the food chain, but its abilities can be augmented by other buildings. Erecting a lumber mill lets you produce archers or spearmen, whose ranged attacks are vital for winning any major battle. The stables gives you powerful knights and raiders. Adding a blacksmith will allow you to produce the ultimate war machine – the catapult – a slow but extremely powerful unit, and a lot of fun in enemy cities.

There are also two types of magical structures you can build, which in turn allow you to train two types of magical units. Churches and towers yield human clerics and conjurers, while the orcish towers and temples spawn evil necrolytes and warlocks. Each of these units starts out with one spell, but by investing gold in research other more powerful incantations (like raise dead, summon elemental, and poison cloud) can be learned. The magical forces are physically weak, but if guarded from attack can be frighteningly powerful in battle.

Since the game is played in real time, you'll have your hands full – especially once things start heating up. The folks at Blizzard have been inspired by Dune 2's interface, and have improved upon it. Clicking on a unit highlights it and pops up its order icons. Directing your forces is very simple, and easy to manage even when there's a lot going on. Units can also be grouped together by holding down the shift key as you click on them, allowing you to issue common orders to up to four of your units, which is extremely handy in battle. The mouse-driven interface is very simple, yet it gives you complete control over your forces. Someone should make a note of that; other games may want to implement it some time.

The graphics in Warcraft are very attractive. Although small, each unit type is easily identifiable, and the pre-mission map that shows you where in Azeroth you will be fighting is a nice addition. The sounds are superb. Since Warcraft is a CD-only game, Blizzard has been able to endow the units with snippets of digitized speech for when you select a unit and give it orders. The civilized humans acknowledge you with remarks like "Sire?" and "Yes, my liege!", while the brutish orcs tend more toward monosyllabic grunts and the occasional "WHAT?"

Warcraft is one of the best games I've played in a long, long time. It's actually a little better than Dune 2, offering more variety in the scenarios and a more fine-tuned interface. Just like it's sci-fi predecessor, I expect Warcraft to remain one of the most active games in my collection for many seasons. It's a terrific, alarmingly addictive blend of building, resource management, and war. If you're a strategy fan, you should put Warcraft at the top of your "must have" list. If you're not, you should try it anyway. It just might convert you. As for me, I've got some annoyingly haughty humans that need my attention; I'm going to show them how to redecorate their town square by adding a rank of catapults and a few warlock-summoned demons.

Play the demo for this game directly in your browser