Warcraft III – In Search of the Pre-History of WoW

My relationship with Blizzard and its games is odd in that Warcraft has never been all that interesting to me.

Well, I suppose that, in and of itself isn’t odd.  Warcraft doesn’t interest a lot of people I am sure.

But that fact that World of Warcraft has ended up being my MMORPG of choice for most of the last decade is what makes it strange.  It means that I haven’t really felt as connected to the game through its lore as I have in other similar games.

I certainly care about the lore in Lord of the Rings Online.  As many interesting little features as Turbine has in LOTRO, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have played it a tenth as much as I have if it wasn’t grounded in the works of Tolkien.

I also came to care about the lore in EverQuest.  While it was something new, the games connection to TorilMUD (itself rooted in Forgotten Realms, which gives me a lore erection just saying the name), along with its newness and nature at launch, set my expectations and ideas about Norrath.  I have a pretty solid notion of what Norrath should be like based on that, something that has not always served me well.  Part of my problem with EverQuest II early on was the movement away from the lore of the original in the first couple of expansions.  And the whole crazy mounts thing irks to this day in EQII in a way that doesn’t bother me at all in WoW.

The setup to a "frog in a blender" joke

The setup to a “frog in a blender” joke

Hover disks in Norrath annoy me because that isn’t 1999.  In Azeroth they don’t even register because didn’t they always have stupid techno gadgets in their games?

Basically, in WoW, in Azeroth, my take on the lore is pretty much whatever has been handed to me piecemeal over the years, without me having ever managed to get invested in it.

Which brings us back to strange.

Strange because I have actually owned all of the Warcraft RTS games, the source of the lore for WoW.

I have just never gone through the single player campaigns on any of them.  Ever.

This was because I never had any enthusiasm for them other than as games to play with friends.  To my mind they were in the RTS genre to be played against other people, not single player games to be explored.  And even then, of Blizzard games, StarCraft and the Diablo games were far more popular in my group of friends.  I only picked up the Warcraft games over the years because they were the game of the moment for people at the office.  I think Warcraft II may have literally only been installed at the office and not at home.

So, before WoW, I played the Warcraft series for a few minor moments in between Total Annihilation, StarCraft, and Age of Empires (I and II, but not III).  Somehow that little bit inoculated me against caring about the lore.

Not that I haven’t had my moments with the lore in Azeroth now and again.  I was involved with the story surrounding Wrath of the Lich King, and have played through as much of Mists of Pandaria as I have in part to finish stories.  In fact, the return to the end of WotLK got me thinking about story and lore and what came before WoW, so I decided to dig out my Warcraft III CD.

Well, my Warcraft III CD case.  I have no idea where the actual CD is at this point.  But the case had the serial number on it, which was enough to activate it in Battle.net so I could download the game.  So I was set to get myself updated on some Warcraft lore.

Time to play the Warcraft III campaign!

How that played out after the cut where, if you played through and remember well the Warcraft III single player campaign, the punchline you are probably expecting, given what I have said above, does arrive.  We ask that you please hold your “Well, duh!” moments until the end of the performance.

So there I was.

Warcraft III actually started up and I was pleased to find that the current patch version appeared to support my screen resolution.  That has been one of the annoyances about going back to play StarCraft, which is hard coded to be 640×480, or Diablo II, capped out at 800×600.  Those resolutions, standard for the mid and late 1990s respectively, don’t really come across well on a 1600×1200 screen.  And I have to imagine that a 16:9 ratio screen, so common today, would make things even worse.

The campaign starts with a tutorial featuring Thrall and Grom Hellscream, Garrosh’s dad if I have the lineage straight. (And we’ve seen how the son turns out.)

Grom and Thrall talking

Grom and Thrall talking

Thrall has a visitation from a druid who tells him to head to Kalimdor.  There is a bit of running about, saving Grom, and getting packed up and on the road, at which point the tutorial ends and the first campaign becomes available.

The first campaign features Arthas, who is sent off by Uther the Lightbringer to investigate strange things in Lordaeron.

Arthas and Uther

Arthas and Uther

The campaign follows a course through the map of a fairly familiar region.

Following the Campaign Path

Following the Campaign Path

Along the way we ran into Jaina Proudmoore, who starts off in a cut-scene in the city of Dalaran, still in its original location.  The join up and move through the map, slaying the occasional orc, bandit, or murloc and interacting with the locals.

Arthas and Jaina and dead murlocs

Arthas and Jaina and dead murlocs

And then the whole thing started in on undead and the scourge and Kel’Thuzad and plague tainted grain and I was suddenly very aware that I had already been through this storyline.

Yes, dammit, it is the grain!

Yes, dammit, it’s the goddam grain!

This was pretty much the lead-in for Wrath of the Lich King, which was told in pretty fine detail through cut scenes, flash backs, and Chromie sending us all back to relive the story via the Caverns of Time.

My exploration of the lore seemed to be, for the moment at least, a summing up of events already pretty well covered during the one WoW expansion where I was really paying attention to the lore.

Ah well.

So I turned my focus to the jump between Warcraft III and World of Warcraft.  There was an assertion the other day, in a post players being upset about games changing genre, that the move from RTS to MMORPG didn’t seem to cause much of a fuss when it came to the Warcraft franchise.

And while my mental image of an RTS… which tends to default to StarCraft or Age of Empires… is much different than my mental image of an MMORPG… cue EverQuest and World of Warcraft… those baselines seem to exaggerate the change that actually happened between Warcraft III and WoW.

With hindsight fully in place, the Warcraft III campaign seems to be just baby steps from WoW.  It is practically a low polygon version of WoW in many regards.  I don’t think anybody playing WoW would be confused as to what this scene portends.

Look, a Quest!

Look, a Quest!

And while you control multiple characters in the usual RTS fashion… fighting, building, harvesting… You do control a hero character who levels up, has stats, inventory, and spells.

Arthas as a level 4 Paladin

Arthas as a level 4 Paladin

Even the icons feel so very familiar.  Not that I would expect Blizzard to discard them for a new game, but it does make the jump between games… backwards in my case… feel like less of a distance to cross.  Warcraft did not so much jump between genres and slip almost seamlessly between them.

Or such is my impression.  Hindsight is clearly in play here.  So I’ll ask anybody who played through Warcraft III and then went to WoW… where is SynCaine, I think he fits that description… if it felt that way back in 2004?  Were the two games close enough that the genre change was not that big of a deal?

Meanwhile, I made it as far as Hearthglen in the human campaign, where I stopped because I didn’t want to stay up just for a 30 minute RTS base defense event.  I am pretty sure I could manage it… my RTS skills are not that rusty.  But the question is, should I continue the single player campaign?  I know there are undead, orc, and night elf campaign segments to play through as well.  Are they worth it from a lore discovery point of view?  And how about the Frozen Throne expansion?

As an additional thought, I have to wonder if the garrison idea that is coming with Warlords of Draenor was at all influenced by the RTS roots of Warcraft.  Building a base and upgrading it certainly seems to hearken back to an earlier age.

Finally, in my usual tourist mode, a few more screen shots from my time with Arthas in Warcraft III.

14 thoughts on “Warcraft III – In Search of the Pre-History of WoW

  1. Ming

    In WC3 and Frozen Throne, Blizzard was creating new lore, and in WoW they built off that lore, so it’s entirely possible that you already know most of what happens in WC3 just from putting together quest text piecemeal throughout WoW. At the very least, I recall the undead campaign is even more Arthas, so you might already know most of that through WotLK, too!

    That said, I don’t know how much of the lore you were paying attention to in WoW, so it might still be educational, and personally I think they’re pretty fun anyway, so I guess it’s up to you how much you already know or want to care about things like why Arthas crushed Silvermoon City, or the whole deal about Grom, Mannoroth and Cenarius, or how the whole Mt. Hyjal battle happened or why Illidan, Kael’thas and Lady Vashj were even in Outland to begin with.


  2. motstandet

    I’m pretty sure there were cross-promotion materials (like in all Blizzard boxes) for World of Warcraft in The Frozen Throne box. WoW was definitely a thing being developed while Warcraft III was also in active development. I remember unit names (like Wyverns/Wind Riders) being changed “to reflect what they will be in WoW”.

    You are right that WC3 does have a lot of RPG mechanics, and very specifically lends some ideas to WoW. But WoW also heavily borrowed from Diablo 2: talent trees and random affixes on items for stats.

    However, vanilla WoW felt very distinct from WC3, almost a branched universe. The initial lore with MC and Blackrock Orcs was a background setting in WC3 that was elevated to full featured story in WoW. There was one warlock in WC3, yet they were a full on class in WoW. Hunters were this mash-up of the Sniper unit and the Beastmaster hero. It _felt_ similar, but they weren’t the same.

    I was actually really surprised that Blizzard tapped Illidan for their first expansion, and even more shocked that they played Arthas (what I perceived to be an Ace in the Hole) for the second expansion. Burning Crusade and WotLK bought WoW back to its WC3 version of Warcraft, I feel. Before that they seemed like separate universes that had some common backstory.


  3. Jenks

    As a Warcraft 1-3 player I loved vanilla WoW, which had a lot of fan service for Warcraft fans while respecting the RTS series. It felt like they would one day return to it.

    Starting with the first expansion they systematically butchered the existing narrative. If they were to create another Warcraft RTS at this point they would have to either retcon all of WoW post 2006, or reboot/start from scratch in the future. Almost every important major and minor character has been killed by random adventurers. Not exactly a compelling prologue for Warcraft 4.


  4. Tesh

    I’d say that there’s some gold to be mined by playing through the whole game and the Frozen Throne. Also, if it gets onerous to play the missions, you can use the cheat codes, just to get to the narrative.


  5. SynCaine

    Second Tesh on playing the solo campaign, I remember it being very solid.

    As for the RTS->MMO transition, certainly the art and sound were a huge part of it. WoW in beta felt almost like playing only the hero unit in the RTS from a different camera perspective, which was a MAJOR plus.

    Credit to Blizzard there, they nailed the transition IMO.


  6. Matt

    If I recall correctly, Warcraft 3 was not meant initially to be as much of an RTS as it ended up being. If you play the orcs in the Frozen Throne expansion, it plays more like how they intended it, which is basically a zoomed out MMO. I guess they couldn’t make that work so they transitioned to a straight RTS, but then went and made WoW to fulfill the vision..


  7. Izlain

    There is a portion (I can’t remember if it’s after you beat the original WCIII base game or if it was included in the expansion) that is essentially a WoW beta. You control a single character and perform various missions. This is also mostly likely where some of the MOBA ideas branched off of (including DOTA, which was a mod for this very game, which I’m sure you all already knew).


  8. Bob

    The only warcraft 3 campaign I really liked was the orc one. The interaction between thrall, the alliance, and hellscream was pretty awesome.


  9. Asmiroth

    I put int too many hours to W3. Way too many. The entire Warcraft franchise was originally an examination of fantasy tropes (a-la Dungeon Keeper) and W3 is no exception. The concept of heroes was “new” in that the campaigns wer fully integrated into the story. I don’t mean Nod vs GDI, two sides of the coin. I mean, fully fledged, parallel storied across all factions. I do give credit to Metzen for sticking to a particular story and fully transitioning that story to WoW.

    So when I started WoW, as a Dwarf rogue, I thought “hey, I know this place. I know that guy”, which made integration a whole lot easier. The art was identical (if from a different angle), the skills were the same (up til level 10 or so) and the lore was an extension of the RTS.

    Finishing W3 will give you the context for Vanilla/BC and Frozen Throne for WotLK. The (horribad) books gave us Cataclysm. An April Fool’s joke gave us MoP. I am unsure as to the inspiration for WoD, perhaps it is a return to roots.


  10. Carson

    @Matt – yeah, it was a long time ago that I played Warcraft 3, but I certainly remember thinking at the time that it was a _very_ RPG-ish RTS. The hero, the levelling, the gear, etc. – I definitely thought it was an RTS which was designed to pull in elements of single-player RPGs.


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