Tuesday, 20 September 2016

WARCRAFT ADVENTURES: LORD OF THE CLANS


For eighteen long years, WarCraft Adventures remained the ultimate 'what if' in adventure gaming. It was heavily promoted in coming soon catalogues and magazine previews and then, not long before its release, Blizzard cancelled it. On 9th September, the Holy Grail - a working, almost complete Beta copy of the game - was found and uploaded to the internet for all to play. And play it we must!

Originally planned for a 1998 release, the story would've sat in continuity between 1995's WarCraft 2 and the 2002 third installment. If you've ever played WarCraft III (which, unlike the previous games can be purchased on Blizzard's Battle.net online store) you'll no doubt recognise many of the characters. The most notable is Thrall, your orcish avatar who was secretly taken captive as an infant by the human Lord Blackmore. His plan was to raise the orcling as a warrior, brainwashing him to become their ally and defeat the clans. It doesn't work and upon adulthood Thrall excapes his confines and becomes a major player in the history of the world of WarCraft.

In many ways Thrall's journey to freedom and infamy can be seen as a metaphor for the game itself. In 1998 the adventure game genre was losing the war in sales figures against the diametrically opposed action of the first-person-shooter. Many loyal fans saw the loss of this game as a statement on the industry at that time, leading to an ultimately unsuccessful petition for its release. While the FPS was trying new things with Half-Life and Deus Ex, adventure games were stagnating. Even critically applauded games like Grim Fandango (the lowest grossing game to win a Game of the Year award until PS2's Okami) failed to appeal to action-hungry gamers. Blizzard saw this downward trend and decided to cut their losses and cancel this much anticipated game. Their excuse; it didn't meet their high quality standards.

Having played it now, I can honestly say that that's a load of bunk, even if it does have some faults. While it doesn't showcase 3D graphics which were becoming the norm as technology advanced, it does sport some incredibly nice artwork and animations. It doesn't topple The Curse of Monkey Island, but it can be favourably compared to the likes of Full Throttle or Broken Sword. This is even more impressive when you consider all animation was created by Animation Magic, that Massachusetts company that gave us the god-awfull CDi Zelda cutscenes. They've obviously learned a hell of a lot since then. If you can imagine the TV animated shows of the time like X-Men or the Extreme Ghostbusters then you know the type of quality we're talking about.

I would say this leaked version of the game is about 95% complete. All of the cut-scenes, animations and puzzles are there right up until the very end. There are a few key elements missing which are the only indicator that this is a Beta build. As the game begins, you'll notice that the opening cinematic is cut very weirdly. The voices aren't in sync with the action and most of the music and sound effects are missing. It gives you a good idea of what the final product could've been like while also filling us in on the story that would leave us confused had it not been there. They're the worst thing about the overall package but all things considered, we're lucky they're there at all.

Some of the speech in-game is missing too, replaced with an often uncomprehensible robotic voice as a temporary measure. The subtitles for the speech are also occasionally knocked off mid sentence, especially if a characters goes on a particularly long tangent. This means that in order to understand everything in the game, you'll need both the speech and subtitles on at all times. Again, not ideal but fair considering this is not a final release.

As you get further into the game, you'll notice more and more hotspots don't flag up. Normally, when passing over something that you can interact with, a brief description will appear at the bottom of the screen. They can still be interacted with but it does mean you'll have to resort to the occasional trial and error. It's a rare occurance when it comes to important items, but en soyou can point them out easily enough. The cell-animated object stand out nicely from the hand-drawn backgrounds. If you're still a little stuck, pressing F1 will toggle a list of interactible items on the screen. Keep in mind that it will also list objects that happen after a scene change or event so beware of spoilers.

Gameplay wise, WarCraft Adventures sticks closely to the tried and true LucasArts formula. Much like their later SCUMM games, you hold down the left mouse button over the object and highlight the desirable action; look, talk (or eat) and take (or interact with). The puzzles are entirely inventory based and are incredibly easy, athough I wouldn't say a lot of them are particularly obvious. For example using a wolf's empty bladder to collect water to pour on a door which will in turn freeze with a mirror-like surface so a bull-like snow beast can charge at it to smash it down isn't exactly overt. It sounds a bit crazy to figure out but that's really the only option when presented with what you can actually use and interact with.

Blizzard likely knew they had a problem with the puzzle design. They brought in the classic game designer Steve Meretsky (The Space Bar) as a consultant. His primary task was to make them mesh better with the storyline, but considering he created some of the genres most notoriously difficult (though logically cohesive) puzzles, I wouldn't be surprised if they mined his expertise for this too. That being siad, I don't know how much of his input was used in this version of the game. None of the puzzles seemed out of place to me, but then again none really tested the grey matter.

With the exception of a few lines of dialogue, all of the speech is professionally voice acted. Blizzard went all out with the likes of Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption, Highlander), Petter Cullen (Tranformers' Optimus Prime) and Tony Jay (Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame) joining the cast. Considering the story and cast are so strong, it's a shame that the script so often suffers. The jokes fall flat more often than not (it was billed as a black comedy) and Thrall has a very small vocabularly, especially when reacting to inconsequential items. At the beginning of the game theres an intriguing looking guillotine which ultimately does nothing. All our hero can muster when interacting with it is little more than a groaning 'meh'. Despite this, the whole game still shines with character which is mainly conveyed through the animation and the dedication of the voice cast.

The cancellation of this game has been one of my biggest diappointments in my life as a gamer. It sits alongside the likes of Silent Hills and StarCraft: Ghosts as one of the many tantalising could-have-beens. It's fate signalled the end of an era, and a genre that only recently has made an impactful comeback. Despite the flaws, both in its design and its current state, I bristled with excitement on every click. I was transported back to a time where every new adventure game was an event. I felt like I was witnessing an important piece of gaming history - and I undoubtedly was. That in itself makes WarCraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans a must play.


To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber runs natively on modern systems running in Windows XP Service Pack 3 compatibility mode. Tested on Windows 10.

Download


WarCraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans is © Blizzard Entertainment
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me  

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