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Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness & Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat

More than mere carnage

 by Chris Bray

If you like such games as Civilization and SimCity, but still have a craving for battle and strategy, you might try either Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness by Blizzard Entertainment, or Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat by Mindscape. Both of these games require strategy, patience, and a desire to crush your enemies.

The Craft of War…

Anyone who has played Dune II or the original Warcraft will be right at home with Warcraft II. This is the same type of game - build your base, defend it, then build up your forces and sack the enemy's town.

Your first mission is to build several farms and a barracks to get you accustomed to the way the game is played. You also have to send peasants to mine gold and harvest lumber to keep up your resources, while training a few other peasants to construct your base. By then, the King or the Orc Chief (depending on which side you choose to play) is so impressed with you that he sends you marauding through the enemy's defenses.

Although conceptually there's little new about the game, it has much better graphics and sound than the original. Yes, even the soldiers' gripes about "being poked" are improved from the first Warcraft. The game even comes with Windows 95 utilities to let you listen to the voices and sound effects (and to save them or put your own sounds in place of them), and another to let you create custom maps and scenarios.

One thing we found particularly ingenious is how Warcraft II handles multiplayer games. Rather than playing from the CD, it installs itself on the hard drive so it doesn't actually need the CD at all. Don't think it'll let you copy it to all your friends' machines, though, because it still looks for the CD before you can play. But since it can play from the hard drive, you only need one copy of the CD for up to three computers to play in a multiplayer game, be it over a network, by serial-link or by modem (you can have more than 3 players in a network game, but you need more than one CD).

The program will let you start a multiplayer game whether you have the CD in your drive or not, but once it has all the players connected, it checks to make sure that at least one of them has the CD (otherwise it will tell you that you need to have a CD in somebody's drive).

Last but not least is the look and feel of the game. The first Warcraft was a great game, but it lacked something that you couldn't quite put your finger on. The programmers at Blizzard seem to have put their fingers on it! The graphics are stunning, colourful, and 3D. The animation is smooth and well blended.

And if you've ever wished that, in the thick of the battle, there was a better way to move your troops than by mouse menus or the keyboard, then wish no more! Borrowing a bit from Windows 95, your currently selected unit can be commanded by right clicking on an appropriate target. For example, if you right click on open ground, your unit moves to that spot; right click on an enemy, and your unit attacks it! And if you want to repair a building under siege, just select a peasant and right click on the building!

Best of all, though, is the music. Most games in the past "synthesized" the notes in their musical numbers, meaning that however good the score was, it still didn't sound right (just play the intro to X-Wing and then watch the Star Wars movies). Warcraft II, however, can be set to play its music from the CD (many games are beginning to do this now) so the music sounds like it's being played by an orchestra instead of a synthesizer keyboard. Warcraft II's soundtrack is simultaneously heroic, medieval, and glorious, capturing the rush of battle, the thrill of a good fantasy novel, and the pride of victory, all at once. A real masterpiece.

All said, if you're even somewhat intrigued by fantasy or war, or just want to thrash an enemy's city, you'll love Warcraft II. In fact with only one copy, we're constantly fighting over who gets to play it next, but that's probably what they were thinking of when they came up with the way their multiplayer games work!

Once you’ve destroyed the gate into Azeroth you’re ready for the WarCraft II expansion set "Beyond the Dark Portal" (sold separately, of course). This continues the adventure - taking you to the Orcs’ side of the portal to root ‘em out and dispatch ‘em before they can do any more damage.

It’s a fitting "sequel," but it’s tough! The first level is harder than the original’s last level; I had to use cheat codes to get past Square One, and I’m so ashamed.

Getting Hammered…

The boxes of Warcraft II and Warhammer make it look as if Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat by Mindscape is basically a Windows 95 version of Warcraft. This is definitely not the case! It's true that both games have fantasy settings that pit humans and orcs in a fight to the death, but they are actually quite different.

While Warcraft emphasizes action and adventure in a comic book type of fantasy setting, Warhammer turns more toward the strategy side of battle, using fantasy-based characters in a more medieval setting in which you play the leader of a mercenary band - fighting for justice and peace, but getting paid for it.

Your first mission is to defend a village from a pillaging band of foes. If you succeed you are well paid, but if you fail you don't get a dime - and you have expenses to boot: you need to hire troops to replace those who died in battle, pay for food and weapons, etc.

Later missions include patrolling a trade route to make sure it is free from evil highwaymen, which of course it isn't. You must then battle hordes of enemies as they ambush you in battle after battle.

When you start a mission, you can look around to see what's happening before you begin to fight; there's a button in the lower left corner of the screen that starts the fighting when you choose, which is nice because it gives you time to look around and plan your strategy. If you don't like where you've started, you can even move your troops around - by dragging their icon on the map - before the battle begins.

Warhammer is a Windows 95 game, which is both good and bad. On the plus side, you don't have to set it up for your hardware (no more having to pick your sound card, its DMA, IRQ, etc.), which is a great relief both to the seasoned computer user who gets tired of doing this, as well as the novice who doesn't want to keep track of all those numbers. All you have to do is tell the install program where on your hard drive you want the game to reside and it does the rest, automatically.

Warhammer also makes good use of many of Windows 95's gaming features, such as DirectX, which lets a game play much more quickly and smoothly than would otherwise be possible, and AutoPlay - just insert the CD and up pops a little menu with a button marked "play!"

The game has incredible 3D graphics and can use General Midi (which means that the "synthesized music" sounds like a symphony instead of a 70's rock and roll synthesizer), if your sound card supports it.

The perspective is a bird's eye view of the battlefield (you see it from high up, not from directly above). You can move around the battlefield by right clicking on the screen, and the angle and distance between the centre of the screen and your cursor determine the speed and direction in which the perspective moves, effectively flying over the battlefield. If you want to see something, but a tree or building is in the way, you can rotate the battlefield until you have a clear view. You can also zoom in and out as you choose.

Control of your troops is excellent, if not intuitive. Aside from controlling where and when they move, you can set in how many ranks they march, what angle they face, etc. You can tell them to attack, retreat, regroup, and you can even pump them up with the frenzy of battle, increasing their strength and ferocity, but the layout of the controls is rather confusing, especially when controlling dozens of regiments..

The only real drawbacks to the game are related to it being Windows 95-based. The stunning graphics, sound, and use of the operating system's features come at a cost: speed. In order to get the full benefit of the graphics, you can effectively rule out a 486 (unless you have 16 Meg of RAM) and probably the slower Pentiums, too. We recommend at least a P90 to play Warhammer properly, and to be honest, the lower-detail graphics that it uses on a 486 leave much to be desired. That said, if you have at least a P90 (even a slower one may suffice depending on how important the graphics are to you), this game looks and feels great.

While they are very similar, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat are not the same. True, both offer stunning graphics, wonderful sound, and hours of fun in battle in a fantasy setting. But if you want more fantasy and all-out bloodshed, you'll love Warcraft. If, however, you feel kindred to Napoleon and want more pure strategy in your battles, try wielding Warhammer.

Maybe even try both, if you think you can still get any work done!

(Chris Bray is a writer and computer consultant)


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January 31, 2006