With Reforged I’ve enjoyed dipping back into the world of Warcraft 3, its real-time strategy gameplay eternally rewarding. But I can’t help but feel Blizzard has completely fluffed its release – and, worse of all, taken away what people already owned in a bid to funnel players towards this disappointing remake.
At its core Warcraft 3 Reforged offers pretty much the exact same experience as the 2002 RTS classic, save some balance changes, cutscene tweaks and mission re-jigging only the hardcore will notice. It’s funny how even 18-year-old habits come back to you. Gryphon Riders are effective but squishy, so throw in a few Flying Machines to back them up, preferably with Flying Machine Bombs researched so they can attack ground units. Oh yeah! Night Elf Wisps don’t cut down trees like the environmentally unfriendly humans and orcs do. Instead they sort of sap lumber from trees, and they don’t need to traipse back to a Lumber Mill to drop lumber off, either. There’s an initial thrill to playing Reforged, a joy in the rekindling of teenage memories. So much of Reforged is so similar to the original Warcraft 3 that it’s easy to forget you’re playing a remaster at all. Perhaps this is the biggest problem with the game.
Blizzard has upgraded Warcraft 3’s visuals for Reforged. There are new and more detailed units. As you’d expect, the most work has been done for the hero characters, such as the doomed Prince Arthas and Horde leader Thrall. Reforged uses the faces of these new models as the new hero portraits (this was one of the first things I noticed was different, so seared into my memory are the original portraits). The ground, buildings and environments are more detailed, too. But this visual upgrade washes over you after a while. Warcraft 3 lets you zoom in for a closer look, but it’s almost impossible to play the game effectively this way. Instead it’s best to play with the camera zoomed out as far as possible, letting you take in as much of the battlefield as you can. But the farther away the camera, the less Warcraft 3’s lick of paint matters. It doesn’t take long before you forget Blizzard has upgraded the graphics at all.
And then the new visuals tend to work against Warcraft 3 when you are up close, typically during cutscenes. The new hero unit models have fancier hair and more intricate armour, but this sharper style makes the characters jar against the background. They don’t feel grounded at all. I think there’s something to be said of Warcraft 3’s original, fuzzier look, which better suits Warcraft’s hyper-stylised, outrageously proportioned art style. Warcraft 3 looks like a fantasy cartoon, and as soon as you start to go more detailed and more realistic with its characters, you create a schism.
Elsewhere, Reforged is a puzzling effort from Blizzard. Some work we had expected appears not to have been done. Other work we had expected wasn’t done in the way we’d hoped. And other parts of the game haven’t changed at all.
Blizzard has remade Warcraft 3’s opening cinematic, but as far as I can tell it hasn’t remade any of the others. These cinematics were stunning back in 2002 (Blizzard’s cinematics team was the best in the business back then and it still is), and I think they hold up pretty well. But I had hoped for all of Warcraft 3’s 40 minutes of cinematics to have been remade. What we have instead is the curious situation where the unnamed orc who’s fighting the knight in Warcraft 3’s opening cinematic has a brand new – and much more detailed – face, but Thrall, one of the most important and popular characters in the Warcraft universe, still has his 2002 face in cinematics.
Work has been done to change the campaign missions themselves, although the extent of these changes falls short of expectations. Blizzard has added three orc missions previously only accessible on a demo disc then later in the custom campaign feature to the prologue campaign, which works brilliantly. (The orc mission in which Thrall’s ship is stranded on an island and you meet troll leader Sen’jin is a lot of fun). Blizzard has tweaked some of the campaign missions that depict cities, such as Stratholme, Dalaran and Silvermoon, with a smattering of new objectives, side quests and boss fights. But while these maps have been retooled to reflect their World of Warcraft incarnations, unless you’re heavily invested in Warcraft, it’s hard to notice the changes and I’m not sure they improve the game significantly. Some of the in-game cutscenes haven’t ended up as we thought they would based on pre-release marketing material. We have a brand new cutscene for the fight between Illidan and Arthas, but the new cutscene Blizzard revealed at BlizzCon 2018 that depicts Arthas’ terrible decision to cull plague-ridden Stratholme, much to the disgust of the legendary paladin Uther Lightbringer, did not make the cut. In its place is a more basic cutscene with a mostly static camera. It feels as if something happened during development that caused Blizzard’s cinematic ambition here to be pared back – and you can’t help but feel that’s the story of Reforged all over.
Elsewhere, little if any work has been done to Warcraft 3’s archaic user interface or main menu. Some features available in the original Warcraft 3 are missing. And perhaps most annoying of all, Blizzard has scrubbed the original Warcraft 3 client from Battle.net, pushing an update to convert to Reforged, which then lets you toggle to the original visuals. But this means features in the original client that are mysteriously absent from Reforged, such as custom campaign access and support for a competitive ladder, are now unavailable to all. It’s a pretty unsavoury move from Blizzard, which now faces a torrent of criticism from an online community already cross with the company over its handling of the Blitzchung affair, among other issues in recent years. Reforged has arrived and it has, effectively, taken away a product people have already paid for.
Taken at face value, Warcraft 3 Reforged houses a superb RTS, perhaps the greatest of all time. In gameplay terms there’s a huge amount to love here: the evocative races, the variety of units and the sheer amount of campaign time (all the campaigns from Warcraft 3 and expansion The Frozen Throne are included). Playing it now, in 2020, you realise just how influential it was, too. Its tighter knit, hero-focused RTS gameplay – compared to the vast sci-fi armies of Blizzard’s own StarCraft – paved the way for not only World of Warcraft but the MOBA genre. Without Warcraft 3 and its astonishingly talented community of modders, there would be no Dota 2 or League of Legends, no auto chess, and perhaps even no Hearthstone.
But Warcraft 3 Reforged brought with it expectations of more than a nostalgia trip. Buoyed by Blizzard’s pre-release marketing, we’d hoped for more new, elaborate cutscenes, more revamped campaign missions and a visual upgrade to knock our socks off. As it stands, Reforged feels like more of a port than a remaster.