I’ve been going on a bit of a retro RTS kick lately, and one of the first stops on that tour had to be the game that — alongside C&C Red Alert — was one of the most instrumental in sucking me into this genre.
Released in 1995, Warcraft II helped to establish Blizzard as a powerhouse studio rather than a firm that did the random console title. Everyone, just everyone, played this game. It was far more polished and full featured than 1992’s Dune II, one of the first popular real-time strategy games. Even my wife confessed to playing this a lot as a teenager, which gave her a shock when she saw that I had purchased this through GOG and installed it on my computer.
So with years of World of Warcraft under my belt and over two decades since playing this game, how does Warcraft II hold up in 2019? What is it like, looking at it backwards through the lens of WoW? I was dying to find out.
While Warcraft II didn’t really do much new — it had multiplayer LAN, it had a long solo campaign, it spawned an expansion — it soared due to its art style, polished play, and personality. Really, those three factors are Blizzard’s defining qualities, and it’s interesting to see it even back then. It’s also interesting in how some of the buildings and troops look familiar to the WoW style (even as sprites) while others are far more fantasy-generic or alien to WoW entirely.
The first thing I noticed when playing through the Orc campaign was that Warcraft II hails from an earlier era of RTS where all of the controls were on the left side of the screen, which left a much reduced play field over on the right. It’s usable but restrictive. In fact, almost everything here is more primitive and clunky — moreso than expected. There are no tooltips. No ways to tell troops coming out of buildings to assemble at a certain point. Not a lot of in-game explanations about how buildings help certain units or provide other bonuses until after you make them.
It wasn’t hard to figure out how it all worked, just a little frustrating how old it felt. I was actually surprised that I could make battle groups with CTRL+number keys, and a little let down by how slow and stilted the animations and fighting looked. I mean, again, it’s all functional. Just not as smooth as you’d expect.
That said, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s still a good time to build up a base and establish dominance over a portion of the world. There’s a *ton* of personality, from the art of the buildings to the fluffy sheep to the vocal quotes of each unit (“zug zug” always gets me).
I think what was the hardest to adjust to was how painfully slow a match progressed. It simply took forever to get a town and army built up, and more often than not I was standing there waiting for enough resources to stack up to fund the next project. After about six missions, I felt that I had gotten out of this game whatever experience I wanted. It didn’t leave me desperate for more, is what I’m saying.
Other than design due to its age, the only criticism I have of Warcraft II is how Blizzard felt that adding ships and naval combat was an important twist on the Warcraft formula. I didn’t like this back then and I certainly do not now. Ships aren’t fun nor feel as immersive as fantasy ground units, and yet so many of the missions forced me to deal with them. It’s annoying as all get out to have to build up a shipyard, pump oil, construct a transport ship, then load up units just to move them from one portion of the map to another.
It was fine to play this for curiosity’s sake, but in retrospect, my $12 or so could’ve been spent better elsewhere. At the very least it highlighted how much of a jump the 3D realm was for Warcraft III and all of the successive design decisions that the new decade brought.