It wasn't a good weekend for Blizzard. BlizzCon was overshadowed by protests over its response to the Hong Kong protests. Fans complained that Overwatch 2 looked more like an expansion pack than a full-blown sequel. An attempted apology for its handling of the Blitzchung ban was roundly derided.
Amid all of these controversies, it's hard to find any good news for Blizzard. But there is this: Warcraft 3: Reforged entered beta over the weekend, and so far it's everything I could have hoped for.
I played a few rounds over the weekend, mainly with Eric for USgamer's Extra Life drive. What's there is pretty limited: you can play 1v1 or 2v2, and you can choose between Orc or Human. You can't play competitively against friends, and single-player is locked out. But even this small sliver of Warcraft 3 was enough to bring me back to 2002, when I passed a feverish summer playing round after round with the Orcs.
While I loved StarCraft, Warcraft 3 was my jam. It was a kind of hybrid RPG and RTS; proof that Blizzard was moving away from strategy games even at that early date. Its main conceit was heroes that would be leveled up over the course of a match, steadily accruing items and new abilities. Many StarCraft diehards expressed frustration with Warcraft's micromanagement heavy gameplay, which focused on small parties and heroes, and it ultimately wasn't as successful. But I loved it.
Playing Warcraft 3: Reforged over the weekend brought that love flooding back after a long absence. Compared to StarCraft's 4K Remaster, which I didn't particularly like, Warcraft 3's 3D graphics feel much more at home in high-definition. The character portraits have been redone, as have many of the units. It's not quite a complete remake, but it's certainly a notch better than your standard remaster. The full version promises to include numerous additions, including retconned story elements that bring it in line with World of Warcraft.
All of this is interesting, but what's most important to me is that the gameplay still holds up. Its world is teeming with dangerous monsters, and there are interesting shops and other nooks to explore. Leveling up is an intense form of competitive grinding reminiscent of what you'll find in League of Legends and Dota 2; indeed, the MOBA genre got its start as a custom map in the original Warcraft 3.
It all brings me back to a very different period in Blizzard history, before World of Warcraft, MOBAs, and Hearthstone controversies; a period when Blizzard North still existed and StarCraft was still a viable franchise. I wouldn't go as far as to call it a more "innocent" time—Blizzard was very much a juggernaut thanks to Diablo 2 and StarCraft—but it wasn't quite the mainstream success that it is today. That would come later.
The Blizzard of 2002 wasn't as burdened by its own success as the Blizzard of 2019. It was a hit maker, but it wasn't expected to continually produce generational successes like World of Warcraft. Blizzard in those days was a little more free to be a game developer rather than an all-consuming force in pop culture.
Fifteen years of outsized, historic success has boxed Blizzard in. International success has made it afraid to offer any but the most tepid of responses, as we saw with its apology over the weekend. Some of the old guard still remain, but today's Blizzard is more monolithic, more impersonal. Its big sequels to Diablo and Overwatch, finally announced this past weekend, can't help feeling a bit more soulless in kind.
Warcraft 3 hearkens back to the days when Blizzard was still evolving. You can see the outlines of the company that would go on to make Hearthstone and Overwatch, but you can also see all the ways it reflects its strategy roots. It sits at the inflection point between the old Blizzard and the new.
I still have a good deal of affection for the Blizzard that made Warcraft 3, which made playing it over the weekend a bittersweet experience. This is the nostalgia engendered by a studio just past its prime; a bit of fading glory amid a slow but inevitable decline. Blizzard isn't going anywhere, and it may yet produce more latter day hits on the scale of Overwatch and Hearthstone. But Warcraft 3: Reforged, like World of Warcraft: Classic before it, is perhaps a reminder that Blizzard's best days are behind it.
Major Game Releases: November 4 to November 8
Here are the major releases for the week of November 4 to November 8. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.
- Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 [November 5 for Switch]: It's time for Mario, Sonic, Wario, and Dr. Eggman to engage in Olympic sport. The summer games are due up, which means a wild mix of karate, rhythmic gymnastics, and rock wall climbing. It also has a rad throwback mode, if you're looking to relive those '64 Stadium Events memories.
- Red Dead Redemption 2 [November 5 for PC]: The Wild West moseys onto gaming PCs, where users will promptly throttle their machines with nitrous oxide Fast and the Furious-style to push its graphics to the limits. I eagerly await the results.
- Death Stranding [November 8 for PS4]: Kojima is back, and he's got a game about ghosts, babies, and rabid former Amazon carriers addicted to the act of delivering packages. It is the boldest and most perplexing game of 2019, so keep an eye on USG as we roll out more coverage this week.
- Need For Speed Heat [November 8 for PS4, Xbox One, and PC]: Once a top-billing racing series, the latest Need For Speed hasn't had much fanfare leading up to its launch this Friday. Its reveal even came with a footnote that it wouldn't be appearing at EA Play. Look for our review closer to launch.
This Week's News and Notes
- Alternative subject for this week's column: Have you ever gotten hooked on a game that you don't actually like that much? That's me and FIFA 20 right now. I fear I will never escape.
- Kojima Productions is getting into the film business, which makes sense. Kojima once said his body was 70 percent made of movies, and now that he's free from Konami, he can fill up the other 30.
- Your hot take for the week:
- Nadia played Digital Eclipse's remakes of two 16-bit Disney games, The Lion King and Aladdin. Turns out "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" is still just as infuriating today.
- We hosted an Extra Life stream over the weekend, and beat our goal! Thanks to everyone who tuned in and experienced the journey of aspiring wrestler Mack Cannon with us.
- ICYMI: Blizzard revealed both Diablo 4 and the PvE sequel to Overwatch. The former's returning to its grim and grisly roots, while the latter is doubling down on the emotional attachment we have to its fictional heroes.
- The new Guilty Gear is looking absolutely gorgeous, but some UI changes and mechanical changes have some wary of this new direction. No matter how easy Guilty Gear may appear, chances are you'll still get rocked by your local Faust main.
- Axe of the Blood God: Kat and Nadia talk Saturn RPGs, and they're joined by Digital Foundry's own John Linneman! The Saturn had many obscure games that have fallen by the wayside over the years, from Panzer Dragoon Saga to... (checks notes)... Linkle Liver Story. They also talk Death Stranding reviews and BlizzCon. Subscribe and listen here!
Well Kingdom Hearts was never particularly good in the first place https://t.co/lhczzofgaV— Kat Bailey (@The_Katbot) November 1, 2019