Title: Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Date Published: Christmas 1995
Platforms: MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS

Blizzard started their journey into the difficult realm of real-time strategy games with Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. The game had a wonderful, quite traditional fantasy world, but the game had a few shortcomings: The user interface was a little bit clumsy and there was only a two-player multi-player mode available. Yet, I thought the game was very good for its time. Then, of course, came Westwood (the original inventors of the RTS genre) and pushed out Command & Conquer. The bright people at Blizzard saw it good to work on a sequel.

And what a sequel it was! A true classic of real-time strategies that, in my opinion, has not been dethroned by many games, even the latest of the late from Blizzard themselves.

Story

Okay, in the last part, King Llane, the ruler of the kingdom of Azeroth, was killed, and similarly beheaded was the head of orcs, Blackhand. Azerothians left the lands when the orcs danced on the table. Now, they're allied with Elves and Dwarves and a few human kingdoms, and intend to take back what's theirs. Sir Anduin Lothar is the new ruler of the Kingdom of Azeroth. The Orcs are doing rather well with the slayer of Blackhand, Orgrim Doomhammer - but, of course, the real force behind the curtain is Gul'dan, a powerful warlock.

Do we need more excuses to get on the battlefield? In grander scheme of things, the name of the game is simple: You can be the great leader of either of the two armies. Choose wisely: Do you want to be a good, noble Human, or a nasty, head-bonking Orc? If you play as humans, your task is to push the Orcs back whence they came from, if you play as orcs, your task is to kill humans. There is a plot behind this, of course, with its own twists and turns and strange alliances and strange foes, but this is about as complicated as it gets in general terms. =)

Technical advances and the improved UI

The game was amazing in every arena. The graphics had gone much better. A leap from VGA was the first step: WC2 ran on 256-color 640x480 SVGA mode. Cutscenes had become a lot better, now actually having cool animated characters and things instead of just boring camera runs. This was, as far as I know, also the first Blizzard game that was not available on floppies - The CD-ROM version cutscenes were not very good in Warcraft, but here, they actually make the increased game size count.

The music was vastly better, and now for the first time the music was on the CD as normal Red Book audio tracks (WC1 only supported MIDI). Glenn Stafford did a masterful soundtrack for WC1, and really made something zillion times better for WC2! Human soundtrack was overflowingly heroic and epic, and Orc soundtrack was truly savage to extreme. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest game soundtracks ever made.

The voice acting had got a bit more interesting and, indeed, it was pretty good. There were new and more actors (no need for poor little Bill to do all of the voices =)

So much for the eye candy. The changes in the actual game were very large, and overall, the game was much more interesting than WC1 - even when WC2 had some minor imbalances in it (of which more later).

The UI had improved. There now was a default action on right mouse button (Attack, move, etc), and units could be selected with "rubber band selection" (draw a box around the units and whoop, they're selected). Also, the maximum number of units selectable at time grew from 4 to 9. New Patrol, Stand Ground and Attack Ground commads were added.

Also, the Fog of War was a welcome addition. In WC1, once you explored the area, you could see any units moving there, but in WC2, you could only see hostile units if there was someone to see them - everything that was not in the visual range of your units was grayed out.

The game engine was so good that Blizzard even considered improving it a little bit, giving the game a Sci-Fi theme and calling it logically "Starcraft". The critique they got did inspire them to wholly reimplement the engine and pay much more attention to the storyline and scenario varieties before Starcraft was released - actually, I think it took a few tries to get it past their own strict perfectionist quality control. And it was somewhat worth it, as everyone knows.

Units

There were many more unit and building types, and as well as one whole new resource to be gathered. Since the game now introduced sea battles, you needed oil to operate ships. (This is slightly unusual in fantasy genre...)

There are now two kinds of units for the so-called mundane tasks: the peasants (or orc peons) build stuff and gather gold and wood on land, and oil tankers gather oil.

On Human side, footmen are still there (with Bill Roper still doing the voice acting even more amazingly this time), the archers are now elves, and able to become Rangers. Orcs have grunts, and trolls (with a berserk variety) armed with endless supply of throwing axes are always a fun way to cheer people up.

On Human side, Knights provide fast-moving death. Magic is handled by Paladins (upgraded from Knights) and Mages. Orcs have two-headed ogres (amusing stupid big hulks) and death knights. Ogres are upgraded to Ogre-Mages.

The magic is the only clumsy thing that makes orcs superior compared to humans - Humans have good "positive" spells, but orcs have much better "negative" spells. Ogre-Mage spell Bloodlust is a classic example of thing that can be highly destructive: Bloodlust makes a few units far more dangerous. Produce a crapload of Ogre-Mages, make them zap each other with Bloodlust, and send them to the enemy town. Have a coffee. Admire the Victory screen. Death Knight Death Coil spell can be pretty devastating, Decay and Whirlwind spells likewise. Then again, Humans do have a couple of advantages on magical side as well: Orcs have Eye of Kilrogg which produces a levitating eye that can only see a bit of terrain and can be shot down, while human Holy Vision sees a large area with one small shot (slightly faster recon). Mages have Invisibility and Polymorph (turn units to sheeps...) spells which are very useful, and the Blizzard spell unsurprisingly much more devastating than the orc spells of mass destruction - and also slightly more costy. (Decay clouds can't be controlled once cast, and Blizzard is fairly surgical compared to that, but comparision would still be fairly unfair...)

Human Ballistas are the war machines of the choice, and Orcs have Catapults. There's not much difference on these. Both say "click" when commanded to do things.

As a fun addition, dwarven demolition squads handle explosives with much less care than their Myth counterparts. Orcs employ goblin sappers on equally insane destructive missions. Both have pretty funny sounds.

The Human air units consist of gnomish flying machines that act as recon aircrafts, and gryphons for death from above. Orcs have goblin zeppelins for recon, and dragons as the air attack units. (Dragons are very cute in this game. Too bad they're being exploited by the orcs...) The naval forces consist of elven/troll destroyers, unit transports, battleships/juggernauts and gnomish submarines/giant turtles. The air and sea units are in fairly good balance in my opinion.

As an additional advantage, Orc unit upgrades are slightly cheaper than respective Human counterparts.

Buildings

On building side there are not too many functional differences. Both have buildings for training different units, performing upgrades, acting as a resource gathering points, farms that are required to maintain certain number of units, and guard towers. It is also possible to build walls.

There are some odd things about the buildings, though. The most famous ones are the facts that when the buildings reach certain level of damage, they seem to catch fire - but this is just a graphical effect and buildings that are on fire will not get any extra damage. Also, people found it very strange that farms can always withstand more damage than guard towers and stone walls! Since building farms is absolutely necessary to maintain a large army, it's just feasible to build city walls of farms.

Also, there were some odd things in the descriptions - the mage tower, for example, is a mystical place hewn from living rock, blah blah blah, but an ignorant peasant, barely able to read, is the one that builds it. =)

Tactics

Let's face it: Warcraft II's AI was still not particularly clever. The player's own units just didn't care if people near them died horribly. Nor, of course, did the computer units care. The computer didn't develop any intricate strategies apart of "build stuff and walk to them the straightest path and kill them."

Also, most of the gripes I can say about RTSes that integrate war game and economical simulation into one experience apply to Warcraft II. Interestingly the best strategies for games always involved strict order of building things and millimeter-precise planning on economy side - this was also a problem in Starcraft. Basically, if the victory depends on how far of the gold mine you build your town hall and how many seconds before your enemies you complete its building, you know the game is fairly easy to exploit and thus less fun.

This is the game where the term "grunt rush" comes from. Basically, you optimally build a town, a couple of grunts, and send them to your opponent's base. Or, you can always build a gigantic army, wait until you and your opponent runs out of resources, build everything you can, and then see who's clicking faster. Basically, we're talking of an economy simulation here, not really a war game. The war game part of the game is "move your units next to the enemy units by any means necessary".

Yet, even as such, the game can be played tactically, and the game does allow creation of maps with only preset armies and buildings. It's just that no one was playing it that way and I doubt anyone will...

Net play

Warcraft II's Great New Thing was, of course, the fact that now the game supported 8 player head to head game over IPX network. Whole eight players! What a great joy! Unfortunately, the only game mode was "kill everyone else", but who cares - this is fun. =)

Shortly before Warcraft II become game of the choice, this "Internet" thing was spreading to homes across the globe, and slowly people were realizing the endless gaming possibilities offered by a global network. The problem was, Warcraft II was a DOS game and, as said, only understood IPX and not TCP/IP.

The major breakthrough was a shareware application called Kali that emulated IPX over TCP/IP. This was the first cool thing to play Warcraft II on net with. The game was actually shipped with Kali and there was a Kali-optimized executable.

Then, Microsoft came up with Zone, nowadays called MSN Zone (http://www.zone.com/), a free gaming service that showcased the amazing new net games and showed that TCP/IP was the Future - and also allowed people to play IPX games over TCP/IP. Since this was a free service, it was the first thing I played the game online with. I'm guessing they're no longer offering this emulation thing, but back in the day, it worked beautifully.

Nowadays, there's a free program called Kahn that offers the same IPX emulation as Kali did back in the day, but apparently recently Kahn has banned all Blizzard games (due to that big humorless company, it seems), but on the other hand, Kali is now free. Blizzard has released a new version of Warcraft II that supports Battle.net - see below.

Okay, admittedly the multi-player age of WC2 is passing, regrettably, due to the latest offerings. But still...

Moddability

"Grandpa, where were you when Blizzard became a nasty evil company?"

Well, Blizzard has always been a nice company that has understood that mod-makers are Good Guys. It's just that some time before Starcraft's release they were eaten by Vivendi Universal, a very very humorless and cruel big media giant. Maybe I'm just naive, but I think that is where all the recent boneheadedness comes from.

First of all, Warcraft II was exceptional in that it could be edited, to some extent, with the tools that came with the program! Other companies had always said "screw the modders, we'll sell Expansion CDs", but Blizzard said "modding is good, but yeah, Expansion CDs rock too." =)

Warcraft II came with two nice tools: The sound editor (that ran in Win9x) could be used to play, extract and change every sound effect that the game had. You could use that to play all of those odd "annoy" sounds.

Also included was a map editor. While the editor only supported creation of "kill everyone else that isn't allied with you" scenarios, it was still a very welcome addition. The files were called .puds, and were traded very openly and in perfect harmony.

Daniel Lemberg was the first one to reverse-engineer the .pud file format. I heard he was offered a job at Blizzard for this great achievement.

After this there were many interesting tools available. One of the most interesting was called WarDraft that allowed people to extract, view and change data in WC2 data archives - in other words, mess with the game itself. People started working on stuff like "Warcraft II Star Wars Total Conversions" (that regrettably froze and wasn't really released). Yep, it was that major tool.

There were a lot of interesting tools like .pud browsers, expanded unit editors, improved map editors (I think mr. Lemberg made one of the best ones)... And it might be worth noting that a .pud file examiner was one of the first "big" Perl programs I've written, and the only one I've done that uses format/write commands. =)

There were even a few cheat tools. People playing privately and knowingly in LANs probably liked them, but even at that date, people who played on net weren't particularly thrilled about cheaters, as you can imagine.

Humor

Blizzard did include some interesting humor in the game.

  • The game had one custom map that looked pretty odd in the mini-map: On the lower left corner, on an otherwise inaccessible area, was Pac-Man and a ghost, and on the right top corner was a ship from Asteroids and some blown rocks...
  • As in WC1, You could click all units multiple times, and they'd say funny things when they got annoyed by the constant clicking...
  • ...all "critters" (sheep, seals etc) would blow up if you'd keep clicking them long enough. (No damage, though, so you couldn't use them to remotely detonate orc villages...)
  • The expansion set, Beyond the Dark Portal, had an extra song remix on the CD called I'm a Medieval Man (Music and samples from Warcraft I). It can be listened with a CD player, or during the game using the "disco" cheat.
  • Some of the characters, particularly the orc character in the expansion set, were pretty funny, in that they often said just what you could expect from them. Some examples: Grom Hellscream: "WHAT?" "YEES!"... (Imagine my disappointment in Warcraft III when Grom didn't scream!!) Kargath Bladefist (who has a sickle replacing the left hand): "Need a hand?" Deathwing (a dragon): "Do you like fire? I'm full of it!"...

Expansion CD

There was an expansion CD for Warcraft II, called Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal. The game features new campaigns, set in time after the second war in Azeroth. After humans destroyed the magic portal that lead to the home place of the orcs, it turned out while the portal was destroyed, the rift in it was not destroyed, so the portal was usable after all. Welcome to Draenor, the Red World! Which of course meant there is a new tileset to build maps with. Aside of the campaign, there's also a lot of new hero units (including Alleria, an elf archer - I guess she was the first female character in the series? Zerotime reminded that Garona of WC1 was there first, oh well... okay, Alleria was the first hot female NPC. That was what mattered to me when I was a teenager. =)) and lots of amusing orc characters. Also included was a bunch of .pud maps and a patch for the game. The expansion was produced by Blizzard and Cyberlore Studios, Inc.

Warcraft II Alpha Version!

Now this was something interesting! There was a two-level alpha version available - someone found this alpha a lot later (1997, I think), apparently something given to journalists earlier. The website seems to be gone and my copy is somewhere on the Jaz disk, not sure if it's recoverable. =/ (My SCSI controller and cable is here, the disk drive there, the disks here... etc etc...)

The alpha was buggy, of course, and very unbalanced; I played it and the ships shot stuff kilometers away. Boom, dead orcs. =) Some units, only available through editor, had graphics taken from Warcraft I (not even scaled), there was an "ore" mineral (collected by harvesting mountains), and so on...

Quite a lot more interesting experience than some stinken Doom III alphas, especially when this was found after the game was released and didn't require a new computer to try out...

Availability of Warcraft II

Warcraft II may still be available from retailers; I have seen it being part of some collections.

Blizzard has also release a special version under title Warcraft II Battle.net Edition. It runs under Win9x and connects to Blizzard's free Internet multi-player service Battle.net. Regrettably, there's no free upgrade for DOS version owners, but still, it's a very inexpensive game (even compared to Kali's former price), and not really likely to hurt your personal economy.

There's also a project called FreeCraft (nowadays called Stratagus) that implements a generic Warcraft II-like engine that apparently also reads and uses Warcraft II data files and allows people to play WC2 with even less problems and better UI - but the focus appears to be on making their own, copyright-unencumbered data files.


Thanks to MightyMooquack, Zarkonnen, yerricde, Zerotime and althorrat for a few corrections and improvement suggestions.

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