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Warcraft 3: Reforged - Prince Arthas, the main character of the game. Image: Blizzard Entertainment

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Warcraft 3: Reforged review: a relic ruined by upgrades

Bringing 2002 into 2020 didn’t go so well

Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

The teams working on remastered games always have a difficult choice to make. Is the goal of a remaster to capture as much as possible about an earlier piece of work, and simply give it a fresh coat of paint for a new era? Or should developers dig deep into the guts of the game and truly modernize it, creating what is essentially a new game starting with the skeleton of a classic?

Blizzard Entertainment attempts to take the middle road between these two options with Warcraft 3: Reforged, and so far it has been a disaster.

Despite describing Reforged as a “reimagining” at BlizzCon 2018, the developers later said they planned to preserve the story due to fan feedback. They’ve preserved that story seemingly too well. Campaign trailers suggested that fans would be receiving a different style of visual storytelling compared to the original game, but as with so many other promised parts of Warcraft 3: Reforged, Blizzard ditched that idea at some point in the development process. Instead, Reforged faithfully sticks to a top-down camera and the same style of dialogue delivery as the original game during the cutscenes.

Add in a host of launch performance problems, major issues for custom games, and the fact that everyone is forced to upgrade to Reforged from the classic client, and it’s easy to see why fans of the original are up in arms. Reforged struggles as a remaster, as a modern competitive game, and as a single-player campaign.

Blizzard wanted this re-release to be many things to many people, and it went back on many of the original promises it made about the game. In doing so, the studio made sure that no one was happy. Reforged feels dated on day one, despite the updates that did make it through, and it fails to capture what made the original game so influential.

An all-time great

Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos and its expansion, The Frozen Throne, left their fingerprints all over gaming history when they were first released in 2002 and 2003, respectively.

Unlike StarCraft, Warcraft’s sci-fi sibling, the fantasy-themed Warcraft 3 focuses on smaller armies made up of fewer, but more powerful, units. For many fans, the smaller scope and stronger heroes were a major draw, and that design directly led to descendants like Dota 2 and League of Legends. The story and campaign were also rich enough to set the stage for the biggest MMORPG of all time, World of Warcraft. Warcraft 3 left an indelible mark in gaming, and we’re still feeling the repercussions of its design and storytelling prowess.

Players assume one of four factions: the human Alliance, the orcish Horde, the sinister Undead, and the mysterious Night Elves. Players build up bases, select powerful heroes, and amass armies. It’s a high-focus, high-skill-ceiling game where players have to control their most powerful units along with a mass of troops, all the while building the infrastructure to upgrade and protect themselves from enemy players.

The characters in the original game were blocky, with bulky anatomy. Reforged cleans them up nicely. One of the main characters, Prince Arthas, was originally a series of flat planes, with enormous eyebrows and a mouth that struggled with his spoken lines. Now he’s a beautifully sculpted man with proper dimensions and proportions. Even common soldiers have gotten the same treatment. The models are, across the board, an improvement, and they’re much clearer in cutscenes.

The good parts of Reforged mostly highlight the missed potential, however. We return to environments that have since been explored in World of Warcraft, like the Sunwell, a font of elven strength that fuels their immortality. This sacred site, upgraded in WoW to look like a golden basin of power, is relegated in Reforged to a shiny pool of water surrounded by rocks. Why doesn’t the visual approach here match with what we know about the area from WoW? I have no idea, but it’s a baffling decision in 2020.

It almost looks as though the environment, the characters, and the buildings were each designed in isolation. The characters stick out like a sore thumb over the flat terrain, which is jarring next to the hyper-detailed armies, and disappointingly similar to other levels. It doesn’t matter whether you’re planning an invasion of an elven kingdom, crash-landing on the distant shores of Kul Tiras, or preparing a defense on the slopes of the ancient World Tree on a lost continent — the environments are all stark and simple, looking more like the bases of homemade Warhammer models than a lush world to explore. The quality of the units themselves only makes this shortcoming more noticeable.

Warcraft 3: Reforged - Humans and undead skirmish on the battlefield. Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Thrall, on his giant wolf, has always been nearly half the size of some of the buildings he stands next to, but when they’re both rendered so realistically, the effect becomes a little comical. Warcraft’s blocky stylization just doesn’t work well with detailed, carefully rendered, realistically proportioned characters, and that presentation issue dings the entire game. It just doesn’t look right, and it doesn’t feel good to play. If the basics aren’t there, nothing else really matters. Granted, I can switch back to the classic graphics at any time, but it’s disappointing to have to resort to such a measure in order to maintain unit clarity.

Lost glory

Warcraft 3’s campaign kicks off in Azeroth, a world defined by a back-and-forth battle between two factions: the Alliance, a coalition of humans, dwarves, and elves, and the Horde. The Horde consists of of alien invaders from another planet, empowered and manipulated by demonic forces. Over the course of the previous two games in the series, the Horde collapsed from inside, lost the war, and rejected their masters. Now, the remaining veterans and Azeroth-born orcs are breaking out of internment camps and setting out to find a new destiny.

Meanwhile, the Alliance is undergoing a mysterious plague. Luckily, Prince Arthas, the good-looking poster boy of paladins, is on the case. Before long, what seems like a mundane mystery turns out to be the work of those nefarious demons, coming back to take another swing at global domination with an army of undead fiends. Those who flee the attack stumble across a new continent, and an army of immortal elves who have survived a demonic invasion before. It all culminates in a series of epic battles and big plot twists, setting the stage for an entire world of adventure in World of Warcraft.

All of this still works! The campaign is still a good story, and nothing about it has aged into irrelevance. The question is whether it’s fun or engaging to play. Unfortunately, there are problems that run throughout the game, in both its campaign and competitive modes, that make it very hard to enjoy.

Reforged is designed, laid out, and presented just like its 2002 predecessor. Hitting the Esc key doesn’t bring up the main settings menu. Instead, I had to hunt for it for a couple of seconds — it’s mapped to F10. This isn’t a big deal, but it’s a sign of how the game doesn’t seem to have been tested and improved for a modern user experience, and I ran into a dozen awkward little issues like this. Controlling characters in the thick of battle is just as opaque; each hero has a different set of keybindings for abilities hidden in their own tab on the UI, leading me to hunt and peck.

Warcraft 3: Reforged - Jaina Proudmoore abandons Arthas at Stratholme Image: Blizzard Entertainment

This problem was solved years ago in games inspired by the original Warcraft 3, but now it’s back in Reforged. League of Legends and others like it have made hero gameplay so much smoother and more streamlined; developers have figured out how to display hero abilities and their effects, in a legible HUD that allows players to manage them easily. Blizzard even designed its own version of a MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, and it’s pretty good!

So it’s mystifying why none of the past two decades’ worth of quality-of-life features have been carried back into Reforged. If I pick a Warden as my Night Elf hero, I have to remember the keybinding F for a standard ability, Fan of Knives. With her colleague, the Priestess of the Moon, F triggers her Ultimate ability, Starfall. The Q/W/E/R scheme that modern MOBAs have introduced would be welcome here, and would help make one of Warcraft 3’s best features more accessible — but it’s nowhere to be found.

Reforged was an opportunity. Blizzard could have brought a classic back to life, reintroducing it to the spotlight with a wealth of art and knowledge gleaned from WoW and an additional two decades of game design wisdom. I personally sunk thousands of hours into Warcraft 3 as a teen, chasing multiplayer victories and eventually earning the user icon for 1,000 wins with one faction. By all rights, Reforged should feel like a warm homecoming for those of us who grew up with it.

It’s more like returning to the mall in my hometown instead: I spent a lot of time here as a teen, but as an adult, it feels so ... diminished. Things look prettier, but Reforged is faithful to a fault, and I wish I had seen more of the reimagining that Blizzard originally suggested.

The possibility of the mod scene that grew out of the original game is endangered by Blizzard’s ownership of the content you create with its tools. This change is a sign of the times, but it shows just how much control, and freedom, players have lost since the original Warcraft 3.

Changes are coming to Reforged, but we can only look at the game as it exists today, and right now the game has significant problems that won’t be easy to overcome.

Reforged ultimately feels like a dusty museum exhibit more than a faithful remaster or an update into the modern age. It could have been an excellent way to introduce this story and game to a new generation.

Instead, it’s a halfhearted release that misses the opportunity to bring Warcraft 3 back to its old audience while hopefully finding a new one. Blizzard is aware of the issues, and the offering of an instant refund, no questions asked, to anyone not happy doesn’t seem like a good sign.

Reforged isn’t what was promised, and it isn’t what I wanted. Based on the community’s reaction, I’m not alone in that regard.

Warcraft 3: Reforged is now available on Mac and Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” download code provided by Blizzard Entertainment. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.