Warcraft has been a pretty defining series for Blizzard Entertainment. While the original Warcraft: Orcs & Humans was a legendary game in its own right it was Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness which really cemented the series as a benchmark for real time strategy games. While, to a modern eye, other RTSs of the era come across as clunky, Warcraft II still feels pretty damn smooth. It's the sort of game that's still intuitive enough to be fun and looks good enough to prevent offending the senses.
Warcraft II manages to throw a bit more narrative into the mix than its predecessor. The great war ended in the last game with the defeat of the human side. Now both teams decided they enjoying so much they'd like another stab at each other. The campaign again splits into two separate pieces and you have to complete both to get the full picture.
One of Warcraft II's strongest points is probably its personality. Each unit has different quotes when you click on them, as well as when you give orders. Repeated clicking also gives different results, which is good considering how annoying repeating the same line could have gotten. The slightly cartoony, humorous quotes help to actually give character to the little bundles of pixels you command.
There are some noticeable updates to Warcraft II's gameplay which help it to keep up in a modern gaming world. Firstly it's actually possible to select up to 9 units at a time, making attacking en mass much easier. Not only that but it's also possible to organize the units into quick-select squads which you can swap between with the number keys.
Overall these changes help the gameplay to feel so smooth. It's really easy to train up a force which feels more like an army instead of a rabble. It's also then possible to coordinate an attack, sending in the right unit for each situation. Having a plan is certainly a step up from the old way to play. At least for me, that was 'attacking with everything and hoping for the best'.
The units in Warcraft II are pretty much identical no matter which side you control. Other than spells used by certain units both sides function the exact same, with mainly cosmetic reskins. The spell casting units on the orc side tend to focus on aggression and impact, while the human side can be a bit more tactical. Both sides have balance but there are some slight advantages to the human side, or at least it seems that way.
The human spell-casting unit, the mage, has access to a spell called polymorph. This spell basically turns any enemy into a harmless critter. The polymorph spell is insanely powerful when used correctly. It can basically turn an entire enemy army into a flock of dopey sheep, ripe for the slaughter. As soon as you unlock spell-casters the human campaign may as well be over.
There are also new units in Warcraft II which add some interesting facets to the gameplay. You can now unlock scouting units which help you to discover the hidden parts of the map. As long as you keep the scout unit near the enemy base you can also see exactly what is going on. There's also demolition units, which are great for blowing up enemy structures. The most impressive new unit is probably the flying units. These are basically winged death machines which can turn the tide in a game for the side which develops them first.
A lot of fun can be had in custom scenarios and multiplayer, not to mention the map builder. The custom scenarios and map builder can be used to basically play the game any way you like, even in ways it may not have been intended to play. You can construct a map where the enemy has no chance of winning, so you can focus on building the best outpost possible. You can make it really even or build a map that looks like a rude drawing, basically, the sky is the limit.
The multiplayer in Warcraft II is a bit clunky compared to modern gaming. You can't just click a server list, there's a whole slew of other steps to take to get connected. Multiplayer games work well once you connect. Playing the game with friends is a lot of fun and much more challenging than playing against the A.I. You actually have to be very careful when planning attack strategies since your opponent can guess at what you're thinking. This is especially true for LAN games if they're in the same room as you.
The only point which is arguably worse than the first game is the graphics. Not overall of course. In general Warcraft 2 looks way smoother and cleaner than the original Warcraft did, helped by the better resolution support. The new unit portraits look amazing after a redesign. The area which seems to suffer is the stuff between quests. The 3D Map render is missing and the between-mission scenes are pretty bland.
Overall Warcraft II comes out as a hell of an experience. It is still playable after twenty years and still retains its stellar game feel. The new additions bring the game to a level of playability that we expect from RTS games today. While the online multiplayer is a bit fiddly to set up it's still worth doing to have human opponents. It truly is a milestone game in the genre.
TechRaptor reviewed Warcraft II: Battle.net Edition on PC with a code provided by GOG.
Disclosure: GOG works with TechRaptor for affiliate partnership, and TechRaptor earns a small commission off purchases made from some links in this article.