Orcs and humans have been in conflict since the dawn of time, or at least since 1954-55, when Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings novels introduced the word "orc" into the fantasy lexicon. Given the prominent place of the orc-human conflict in the modern fantasy consciousness, it's not surprising that it has been central to Blizzard's fantasy-themed real-time strategy (RTS) series, WarCraft. What is surprising is in the unorthodox and totally fresh spin that WarCraft III puts on the relationship between these age-old enemies.
The RTS concept is something that Blizzard pioneered with the original WarCraft. As the name implies, it is a style of strategic warfare where actions are performed with the clock perpetually ticking. There are no turn-based battles, and no "stoppages of play," to borrow a sports term; everything must be controlled on the fly, which often means multi-tasking and juggling two or three separate tasks at one time. These tasks range from mundane resource-gathering (mining gold and harvesting lumber), to building defensive structures and raising military units for combat, and organizing troops into a cohesive attack force to complete the game's missions. Meanwhile, enemies are doing the same.
The first two WarCraft games featured orcs and humans pitted against each other in the usual state of conflict. The games offered both human and orc campaigns, which let the player experience the war from both sides. Yet besides doubling the size of the game, being able to play as both factions did very little to provide an understanding of each sides' motivations. The inherent stereotypes of "good" humans and "bad" orcs wasn't even played up, beyond the pristine and polished appearance of the human heroes contrasted with the primitive, barbaric looking orcs. In other words, there wasn't a whole lot of difference between the orc and human campaigns beyond aesthetics; they fought each other because fantasy traditions dictated that they do so.
In WarCraft III, there is finally a deep story and strong characterizations of each of the races on a scale worthy of any role-playing game (RPG). The story revolves around special hero characters, who gain experience points and advance in level as most RPG heroes would. It is the heroes, therefore, who dictate the flow of the plot while the gamer who controls the movements of the troops is dragged along behind, forced to carry out missions in a way that is not always comfortable.
The human hero, Prince Arthas, is a deeply flawed individual, and in a way that goes far beyond the ultimately harmless teenage angst of certain contemporary RPGs. The first half of the game chronicles Arthas' gradual fall from grace as he comes under the spell of the cursed sword Frostmorn. Yet Arthas is not redeemed at the 11th hour in some heroic moment of remorse or self-recognition. Nor is it a simple case of his becoming evil due to the influence of an evil object. It is apparent right from the start of the campaign that something just isn't right with Prince Arthas. And the player is forced to bear with him as he makes questionable decisions, deliberately slays some of his allies, betrays a friend, and is finally overcome by total insanity.
In role-playing, this is referred to as power-emoting; being forced by another player to perform certain actions against one's will. Though while this nagging sense of losing control over the game persists for the first half of it, it is something that I could ultimately reconcile myself with. It's certainly a powerful and unique approach on the part of Blizzard to launch the player immediately down the path of darkness, and while Arthas' fate is irrevocably sealed, a greater redemption does eventually occur. What's deliciously ironic about it is that this ultimate redemption is initiated not by the humans, but from the orcs and their impeccably honorable leader, Thrall.
Beyond an eminently satisfying story arc is that fact that WarCraft III, like its predecessors, is simply a rock-solid game. It builds off of everything that has come before it while adding some new features like 3-D terrain, time-specific missions, an ato-casting feature for certain spells, and two new playable factions: the Undead and Night Elves. There is a rather conspicuous absence of ships and sea-based missions, but other than that anyone familiar with the old games will be able to jump right in to WarCraft III without any problem. The four factions are similar enough so as not to require a separate learning curve each time a new campaign is started, yet they also differ enough from each other so that the player really does get the sense of four distinct campaigns as opposed to four armies of palette-swapped troops and buildings.
WarCraft III is also fairly newbie friendly, which as far as I'm concerned is a good thing in a genre like the RTS, which has its share of bewilderingly complex games that come with 100+ page instruction tomes and require incredible time investments to fully understand and master.
Thankfully, Blizzard hasn't bought into the idea that each subsequent release of a series has to have more micromanagement options, units, rules, and other superfluous bells and whistles. While some might view this is a stagnation of some sort, I disagree. Certainly WarCraft III has improved exponentially from its predecessor in the areas of story and character development, which in turn results in a game of massive size that, in terms of sheer gameplay hours, will prove as fulfilling as any RPG.