The Games That Made Us Gamers: Warcraft II – Tides of Darkness

In 1995, I was 7 years old.  I’d had my Sega Genesis for a couple of years, frequented arcades when I could scratch up enough coins, and played a few games on my computer. It was late in the year – almost 1996, when I was wandering through the aisles at my local Best Buy, Christmas money burning a hole in my pocket. And thus, I picked up Warcraft II. I’d heard good things about the first Warcraft (Orcs and Humans) and had a budding interest in fantasy. Seemed like it would be cool enough. I really had no idea of the jazz that awaited me.

And I was like…

Long before Warcraft was a soulless and broken cashcow used to purchase Blizzard’s monthly quota of Ferraris and underwear made of ground Tyranosaur fossils, it was simply an endlessly addictive and well-designed real-time strategy game that happened to hit at the beginning of the mid-’90s RTS boom. This was the first game I played that really demanded that SVGA card for its high-res 640×480 graphics. It demanded that high-end sound card for its CD-quality score. And it demanded I sit down and play it from beginning to end, both campaigns, leading the humans, elves and dwarves to victory and then trying from the other side, bringing the battle with the barbarian orcs.

Warcraft II: before the Orcs were retconned into hippies.

This was one of the first games I played that really felt like it was from “the future”. Full-motion video? Voice acting? Plenty of units and magic spells? And crisp, colorful, BIG graphics to boot? Coming from the Genesis to this, I had this definite feeling of “when did all this happen?” Of course, the Saturn and PlayStation were out, but no one I knew could afford them yet, and the N64 had yet to rear its head. And it didn’t matter. They didn’t have to. Warcraft II was a game that expanded my ideas of what a game could be. It was epic in scope, with huge battles and a very detailed storyline. The first mission briefing alone probably had more text than I’d seen in entire games on the Genesis.

All this and I’ve yet to mention what makes the game so truly timeless: its gameplay. The thing that set Warcraft (and its chief rival, Westwood’s Command & Conquer) apart from the traditional turn-based strategy games was their more action-oriented approach. Constructing a base, collecting resources, and patrolling all had to be done concurrently. The game was well balanced for it (some would say too well), with both sides featuring similar units. For every orc grunt there’s a human footman, to the elven archer there’s a troll axethrower, and to the griffons there are dragons. However, even with the seemingly evenly matched sides, each side does have its own feel, and the structures and spells contribute a lot to that. Where the human paladins can heal their comrades and turn the undead, the ogre mages can set magic traps and inspire bloodlust. Even down to the buildings – the orc equivalent structure to the human church is a circle of standing stones with a blood-spattered pentagram in the middle. Remember, this is when Warcraft was still pretty dark and bloody (if quite humorous) and Warhammer-esque, rather than the generic fantasy kitchen sink it would become later.

The manual and briefing screens were chock full of sweet concept art.

It’s also notable for the use of air and sea units (a sentiment Westwood Studios shared in Red Alert). In the mid-’90s, that’s how you escalated in a sequel. “We’ve got this water on the maps – let’s give the players Battleships!” And the gaming public looked upon their work, and saw that it was good.

Victory through sea power!

On top of the technical and gameplay feats, there’s also the fact that Tides of Darkness was the first game I ever played over a network. The discs came with the feature to “spawn” – that is, put a multiplayer-only copy on a computer – and thus my friends and I had Warcraft II on every machine in the computer lab. Ah, the glory days of my youth, having my dragons raining vengeance down on my friends whilst I was supposed to be researching Wisconsin (or something) in the Grolier’s Encyclopedia. It’s much harder to ragequit when you’ve got your friends to face. Inspired by this experience, we pulled the same thing with various Quake mods in middle school.

Warcraft II was kind of the game that forever cemented me as a PC gamer. As much as I loved (and still do) love consoles, as much as I consider myself more of a fan of the Command & Conquer RTS franchise…Warcraft II will always hold a special place in my heart.  That place of course, is the part of my heart that likes to send a boatful of grunts and ogres out to pillage a human town. It’s pretty telling that Warcraft II is probably the game I’ve re-purchased most for the largest number of systems (I currently have the original MS-DOS/Mac, the Battle.Net edition, and PlayStation versions, and I’ve passed other copies onto friends [it has come to my attention that I also purchased Tomb Raider for the same systems but never had to replace any copies]). Warcraft II also had Beyond the Dark Portal, which is one of the best expansions I’ve ever played for any game. It did what any good expansion should do – provided many hours of new fun.

Beyond The Dark Portal showed us what expansion packs were supposed to be.

While Blizzard has gained in fame and stature over the years, the fact is that their main studio (not counting Diablo dev Blizzard North) never made anything again that had, to me, the magic that Warcraft II did. Starcraft was a fun game with a far too serious multiplayer population, and Warcraft III tacked on unwelcome RPG elements and a groanworthy, cliche storyline that never let the player taste victory. As for World of Warcraft, the magic of Azeroth is completely diminished for me. In a weird way it’s almost a game you had to be there for. And something I’ll always remember fondly (and occasionally replay).

Warcraft II. Now that was a good fight!

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