The more I look at this week’s launch of WarCraft III: Reforged, the more I shake my head. I’ve grown up playing Blizzard games for a majority of my life, and while I can think of Blizzard game launches with technical issues or critical shoulder-shrugs, I can’t recall a retail launch for a product that, quite simply, wasn’t finished. WC3:R changes that.
What’s more, the uneven and problematic changes to this “reforged” 2002 game come with a bold, new step for Blizzard: the official sunsetting of a classic game’s client. The original code base, which has remained roughly 1.3GB in size after an expansion pack launch and years of patches, has been pushed aside. Anyone who already owned an official WC3 license is prompted by Blizzard’s default game launcher to download the new 26+ GB version to play online, whether or not they pay an additional $30 for its GBs of “reforged” content.
Worse, between a new Terms of Service requirement and a number of features removed from the previous version, it looks like the game’s online ecosystem—the very thing that kept the game afloat for decades and earned a glowing retrospective from us only days ago—may be gone for good. Pardon my English, but, what in the freaking world is going on, Blizzard?
Beautiful new visuals—but not applied evenly
A surface-level review of WC3:R may make you wonder what all the grousing is about, especially if you just want to play the game’s single-player campaign. It’s easy to grab screens of the game’s original 2002 characters, then place them directly next to their updated, higher-polygon versions, and give the “Blizzard Classic” dev team an unadulterated high-five. As a zoomed-out real-time strategy (RTS) game, 2002’s WC3 could get away with some decidedly rough 3D designs, particularly for Blizzard’s first foray into fully rendered 3D characters. But in 2020, we’re well past the original game’s resolution maximum of 1280×1024, and that means Blizzard had serious work to do for one of WC3:R‘s selling points: scaling up to arbitrary monitor resolutions and looking good when doing so.
Alas, the updated EXE launched with a forehead-smack of a failure on that sales pitch: broken ultra-wide monitor support. In the immediate aftermath of the WC3:R patch going live, forum posters cobbled together a makeshift solution to get ultra-wide resolutions working, albeit with unoptimized results. On launch day, Blizzard customer service reps posted statements of disbelief about this ultra-wide issue in the technical support forum, which implies that the company intended to roll the feature out (and may very well fix it).
While fiddling with the new build’s options menus to test arbitrary resolutions, meanwhile, I noticed this curious addition:
As the above captions clarify, the key-remapping interface has not been “reforged” in the slightest.
Anyway, back to the updated graphics. The problem with WC3:R‘s visuals comes less from individually updated assets; it’s all but impossible to compare individual 3D models between the old and new versions and state that the older ones are superior. Rather, the issue boils down to how all of these new assets come together on the battlefield.
The new presentation comes with a flatness that wasn’t present in the original lower-poly game. Color saturation sees the terrain’s soup of green and blue blur together, without any recognizable boost to unit or terrain clarity offered by details such as individual blades of grass. The lower-poly version at least made its roads, cobblestone paths, and other game-world clutter more discrete for the sake of instantly recognizable paths and obstacles. This arguably came because of pre-baked lighting systems, which, for example, added wild light bounces to spell effects so that any nearby enemies and buildings would glimmer in their wake. WC3:R‘s new physically based lighting model sounds good on paper—that’s what modern games do to look realistic, right?—but as a part of the original game’s bright-and-bulky aesthetic, this lighting model honestly falls flat (pun intended).
The old idiom “missing the forest for the trees” keeps coming to mind—as if the Blizzard Classic team split its artists up into separate camps and assigned them various units in isolation. The results, which include impressive mouth-animation systems and entirely new foliage-rendering systems, look like a talented team’s fruits of labor lost in a soup of badly guided production. Contrast differences between units, buildings, and terrain are too mild when seen from a bird’s-eye view (meaning, the majority of your time in an RTS game). Foliage looks pretty in close-up cinema scenes, but its shapes and patterns don’t stand out as well as they did in the game’s original, chunkier version.
You can toggle the game’s “original” graphics in this new version if you want, but the newer version of the old visuals currently includes glitched shadow and spell effects. I confirmed this by installing an older build onto a wholly offline PC (more on that later), which let me compare the two builds. In the game’s early missions, I found that the “fog of war” effect has some issues on WC3:R’s “classic” mode, both in how it awkwardly bubbles up in square-shaped blobs upon leaving and re-entering zones and in the fog’s new unsightly blue-green tint. Even with all “classic” graphic settings cranked to “high,” shadows no longer appear on any enemies, and if they’re attached to player units, they’ve become a (cough) shadow of their former selves.
Whether these old-version graphical issues will be remedied is unclear, but at least as of press time, what worked for over a decade has since been downgraded by this overhaul of the game’s EXE.
You can’t spell BlizzCon without “con,” apparently
Blizzard shared a bunch of tantalizing plans during WC3:R‘s first announcement, made during BlizzCon 2018, only to walk some of them back more quietly during the following year’s BlizzCon. Weirdly, the features advertised in 2018 were never removed from the developer’s official social media and YouTube channels, which may have fueled the sense of buyer’s remorse that littered this week’s forums and social media channels.
These included pledges to touch up the game’s cinematic narrative sequences and modify its original user interface (UI). You can’t type the word “Reforged” into a search engine this week without stumbling upon this fan-made comparison of the results:
Having played a few hours of WC3:R‘s campaign, it looks like the 2018 demo video and the final version align somewhat. Characters are posed in similar places as they speak between missions, and their bodies and mouths all have updated animations (and richly detailed ones, at that). The catch is, Blizzard has chosen to pull its in-game camera back from showcasing any of these changes. Blizzard’s official answer during BlizzCon 2019 was to better resemble the original game. But I can’t help but wonder if this was due to too many required models and environments needed to fill out the rest of these real-time cut scenes’ backgrounds, since they dramatically moved the camera and exposed the game world’s horizon.
Whatever the reason, it’s a crying shame that the narrative sequences’ updates have been so stymied. WC3, after all, saw the studio ramp up its storytelling ambition with full voice acting built into the game world in ways that set the tone for what World of WarCraft would deliver only a few years later. With that in mind, it’s arguably better that Blizzard walked back its original plan to re-record and even rewrite the original game’s dialogue in order to retcon WoW plot elements; of all the things I’d hoped for in a refreshed WC3, newly bolted plot elements weren’t high on my list.
A tidier UI, on the other hand, would have been quite welcome, and I’m still puzzled as to why that system, which was demonstrated in 2018, wasn’t included as an option. In particular, I would have loved for the game’s inventory system, a first in a WarCraft game, to have been shifted to a more mouse-accessible position on the UI’s far-right edge, and for various icons to shrink and shuffle around as might befit a default 1080p presentation.
A public pledge to remake the game’s pre-rendered CGI sequences also fell through. It’s a shame, but one that’s arguably forgivable, since most of the game’s narrative portions are built into the engine. That being said, the developer went to the trouble of remaking one of the original pre-rendered sequences, and… well… it’s a spoiler if you’ve never played the campaign, but I’ve embedded it below. Watch it, if you dare.
Somehow, this looks cheaper and cheesier than the original in-game cinematic sequence, perhaps owing to the surprisingly low-budget look of this “new” pre-rendered video. Blizzard’s reputation for high-end pre-rendered sequences takes a serious shot with this one.
No, these are not patch notes
The rest of the game’s changes, downgrades, and issues are perhaps easiest to parse as a few bulleted lists.
- Previously, the separate “Reign of Chaos” and “Frozen Throne” campaigns could be launched as solo players saw fit. Now, the entire Frozen Throne campaign is locked until you beat the entirety of Reign of Chaos. I was hoping we’d at least have campaign-launching parity compared to the last version, if not a full unlock of every lengthy chapter as a nice “Reforged” tweak.
- Every element of the Reign of Chaos campaign is newly saddled with the Frozen Throne expansion pack’s balance and unit changes, with no option to revert.
- Whatever graphics setting you toggle, it comes with its own save file. Meaning, you can’t freely switch from old visuals to new, or vice versa; you currently have to beat each campaign mission twice to fully compare the two versions (despite the graphics modes having apparent gameplay parity). Until someone builds a guide for manually editing the new game’s save files, at least—though that may never happen, since campaign progress is now linked to unlockable portrait icons in multiplayer lobbies.
- I can’t measure this for certain, but I’m pretty convinced that AI pathfinding has been hobbled compared to the original game. Getting my units to move together takes even more babysitting than it used to.
Online and lobby weirdness
- Speaking of lobbies: Every launch of the game boots players into a live public chat room, with no option to disable this. Upon my first boot of the game, I was greeted with walls of repeating text from a single user who referenced Nazism, Islamophobia, and an ASCII rendering of male genitalia. (Meaning, content that flew right past the game’s included “profanity filter.”) There is currently no way to report or mute individuals in this default chat feed, or any other.
- Should you load a custom map, its chat interface combines with the aforementioned default open-chat channel, and you cannot mute or stop the general slew of messages that interrupts your attempts to coordinate play with friends or strangers.
- The original WC3 chat interface, which would only load when players began searching for automatic matchmaking or manual custom-map sessions, is long gone. Your ability to join a variety of IRC-styled chat channels, grouped by interests, has been removed, and so has the ability to type IRC-style commands (/help, /set-email, etc.).
- If the game fails to connect to Blizzard’s servers for any reason, you’re still allowed to boot into the single-player campaign… but your progress is not saved, despite the game clearly writing your single-player progress to local, editable text files.
- My attempts to scan and refresh the public “custom games” list of multiplayer sessions regularly fail without an error message. I simply see an empty list, as if nobody else is online. This requires a full reboot of the game client to correct.
- Custom campaigns can no longer be loaded—thus wiping out access to a ton of player-made content over the past 17+ years.
- The custom map browser (different from custom campaigns) no longer includes players from outside regions.
- Players can no longer expect prior beloved custom maps to load by default, whether because of asset conflicts or other unexplained reasons.
- Clan support has been removed.
- Competitive, ranked-matchmaking ladders have been removed.
- Player profiles have been removed (with the exception of custom player icons, which have to be earned by winning matches in the new random-connection matchmaking system).
- Native LAN support has been removed.
And as we’ve already reported, WC3‘s custom-map mode—its wildest-west zone of community-generated larks, and a hard one to explain to newcomers—has been stymied with a new, aggressive ToS. But that’s not the only problem. This slew of content is the reason people still talk about WC3 to this day, yet WC3:R neither tutorializes the content for curious newcomers, nor uses the refreshed build as an opportunity to reinvite the Internet’s weirdest, most passionate community of creators to cozy up with the Blizz once again. Call me crazy, but maybe—just maybe—the goodwill generated by a community-first WC3:R attitude would outweigh the slim chance that another DotA slips out of Blizzard’s profit-generating hands. (Remember, 99.9% of WC3‘s community-generated content is confusing and opaque stuff.)
Is there any hope?
I’d like to express optimism that quirks will be fixed and features will be brought back online. But I’m not used to typing such lengthy “this is missing, weird, or broken” lists about a Blizzard game launch—and my list is missing complaints that I’ve yet to personally verify, including a possibly inaccurate German translation and a bug that makes campaign missions instantly fail.
The new build’s visuals, both in classic and reforged states, could very well be brought back to working shape. While I doubt the newer visuals will receive significant changes to their polygons or animations, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a color- and lighting-balance patch arrive to address issues with color saturation and apparent flatness. And the older graphics’ bugs read like issues you’d find in an alpha testing build of a game—an embarrassment to launch in a retail state, obviously, but still addressable.
As far as the rest of the changes we’d like to see, or a return of the 1.3GB-sized executable of old… well, that’s a massive boat of speculation, and it’s uneasily sailing west to the lands of Kalimdor. We held this report an extra day in hopes that Blizzard would answer or address my questions about the aforementioned bugs and missing features, but as of press time, the Blizzard reps who connected us to the game’s launch have yet to respond.
Until then, there’s one glimmer of hope for anyone clinging to the game’s original community of maps, campaigns, and modes: sneaky ways to get the original files running. I have managed to get a non-Reforged build of the game working and connecting online with at least one method that didn’t require hacks or skipping authentication. I’m leaving the details out, though, just in case that omission preserves the original working version for a little while longer.
For now, the game’s previous versions have been wiped from Blizzard’s Battle.net interface, and all online-connected owners of the original game are currently being redirected to WC3:R‘s failings and problems. That’s in addition to the people who paid $30 expecting more in their new version of WarCraft III, not less. We don’t know what Blizzard’s next steps are at this point, but we sure hope it addresses at least one of these rightfully angry pools of customers, and soon.