Warcraft III

Blog 782: The SPRPG Diaries: The Founding of Durotar

Every time I play “the Rexxar campaign”, or as it’s properly called, “OrcX”– uh, I mean, The Founding of Durotar, I want to write about it. It is the about most exquisite implementation of the Warcraft III RPG format you’ll ever see — perhaps not as inventive or bombastic or narratively compelling as anything the community ever produced, but compensating for any deficiencies with production values that are completely off the charts. This is by far the best thing Blizzard ever made, a sumptuous tour-de-force that exercises the full breadth of the engine in a way the base melee game never dares.

Today: The Founding of Durotar, by Blizzard Entertainment

The Founding of Durotar

It’s fun to remember that this campaign did not actually ship with The Frozen Throne — version 1.07, which we all have on our retail CDs, contained only chapter one. It was until much later, with patch 1.13, that the other two parts were finally delivered. This is important because chapter one is markedly different from chapters two and three. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves — I played chapter one to death before the campaign was completed.

There are some good moments nestled in the other campaigns, where they flirted with purer RPG structures than just having storied heroes building traditional bases and leading traditional armies. Arthas and mercenaries destroying the ships in Northrend. The halved Thrall and Cairne dungeon towards the end of the original Orc campaign. Maiev’s Blink-based tomb raiding antics of The Frozen Throne‘s Night Elf campaign (a true highlight).

Rexxar’s outing goes full-on RPG mode. There are no bases here and it is glorious.

It’s true, Rexxar — in every real campaign mission we deforest half the map and wipe out all the native wildlife. At least in an RPG the wildlife tends to come back again.

Rexxar is an interesting choice of hero for a lead. The melee Beastmaster is a summoner who can bring in a tanky bear, a ranged support quilbeast and a scouting hawk. Except because a scouting hawk is utterly useless in a small-party RPG, that’s been replaced with Storm Bolt (Rexxar uses two axes so I wish they’d made an axe version instead of just recycling the hammer).

And because Rexxar is a Character, the bear he summons is his pet Misha — who, once summoned, hangs around forever until slain. This is the one that really perplexes me, because since Misha lasts forever you simply don’t use that ability. You cast it once outside a fight, maybe bring her back once more in a particularly tense encounter, but otherwise it’s a periodic refresh button rather than a fun combat opportunity. The quilbeast is little better: it has a timed life so it’s still used regularly, but since Rexxar is a melee attacker he always ends up summoning it in the middle of battle, where its ranged support tendencies make it easily slain.

Slay the quillboars? What was that about everyone else being a villain for driving the wild things to extinction, Rexxar?

There are other ability subtleties. Rexxar starts at level one with two skill points rather than one, as does Rokhan when you get him five minutes in, so even in the super-early stages of the campaign you have access to more abilities and more options. After all, it’s not much fun casting the same two abilities over and over again, so giving you a boost at the start is a good way to alleviate that. (Yes, this is exactly the problem This Wreckage had. Shame I didn’t really learn anything until much later, huh?)

Rokhan’s abilities are a bit better suited to a small-party game, at least. Hex gets an enemy out of the fight for a bit, while Serpent Ward is ranged and Rokhan is ranged so you can place it outside the scrum Rexxar always finds himself in. Healing Wave is a more annoying choice, because it’s a weak heal that affects many units — again, ideal for supporting an army of small units, but not so great at keeping a small number of heavies alive. I think I’d have swapped it out for Holy Light, or at the very least traded some of its bounces for greater healing. After all, they did swap out his ultimate ability (a way to make an army invulnerable) for a renamed version of the Crypt Lord’s Locust Swarm (a way to deal lots of damage to lots of people around you).

It’s important to get Chen as early as possible, so he doesn’t miss out on the bonus skill point you get for winning the Beast Den.

But enough grumping about abilities. By the time you pick up Chen Stormstout, a melee-standard Brewmaster, you’ve got three heroes to juggle and maybe having a few dud abilities in the mix isn’t so much of a problem. You are free to roam the fantastically large landscape of Durotar and murder your way through its inhabitants.

The campaign gives you ample reason to explore the full breadth of the map, as all good open-RPGs do. There are few story-locked areas, and most areas spawn enemies that will scale to match your power, with a few specifically high-level enclaves that function somewhat as mini-bosses. Enemies respawn and occasionally get stronger to ensure repeated walks don’t get stale as you advance, and more importantly, they spawn in sensible groups and patrol their home areas. It seems like a simple thing, enemy respawning, but my own approach of just randomly plopping a unit down and telling it to wander meant things ended up a random mish-mash rather than having an interesting (and intuitive) structure.

Of course the answer to overly aggressive animals is to SLAY THEM ALL.

Of course it’s not all Durotar, because that 256×256 monster is only the central hub. It was something of a revelation when the campaign told you that you could travel back and forth between other maps by sending you to Thunder Ridge and the goblin tunnels. (I later learned that it’s mostly smoke and mirrors and a whole heap of duplicated code — as in a traditional campaign, only the heroes are truly transported, with the rest of the data packed into primitive variables and rebuilt on the other side. Even so, it was a shocking development in a game that was otherwise so linear, and a testament to robust programming.)

Needless to say, a whole campaign in a single tileset would have been a drag after a while, even with the varied biomes crammed into the barrens of Durotar. These completely separate maps give you a chance to enjoy areas that are totally fresh, even if they are much smaller and more self-contained. To get a truly distinct area in a single map means sacrificing precious tile slots that could be used to make the primary zones more interesting, so it’s always been dangerous game to play.

When chapter one finally lets you visit some Sunken Ruins you’re basically maxed out, so the massive Sea Giant boss feels kinda squishy.

Chapter two marks a strange change of pace, because it feels like it has fewer main quests even though it ostensibly has more maps. It begins sending you to Jaina’s cityscape via the coast, then to the Tauren and Stonemaul Ogres and on to the final battle.

If you were to simply follow these missions and not explore, however, you’d miss four bonus sub-maps. The Den of the Lost is a dank, icy cave with some big monsters in it but no attached quest and not much of a focal point finale. The Magistrates Temple is a dark Sunken Ruin with three lanes and a powerful final boss, but again no quest. The Tomb of Ancients is a completely linear Dungeon with another powerful final boss, but again no quest. The Outland Arena is a series of escalating boss fights that (as far as I’ve ever managed to play) has no end.

These are great little bonus maps, excellent places to gain experience, money and fancy items, but they do feel somehow anemic without any quests around them, and not even main quest paths that will take you nearby. Despite the enemies and items and places being structured just like in chapter one, the feel is markedly different and somehow… lesser.

If you can’t massively over-scale a skeleton to make a boss, what can you do?

Chapter three is another faintly missed opportunity, as it contains a mere two maps. The showdown is a massive assault on Theramore Isle — three huge orc encampments pour troops into the city while you use your heroes to tip the odds and win the day.

Theramore Isle is massive, which is great. It’s full of streets and gardens, little nooks and crannies to explore… except there’s nothing to find in them. There are two shops and two fountains, but most egregiously of all, the map starts completely revealed. There is no joy in even revealing the layout of the streets as you attack; it’s completely laid bare as soon as control is handed off from the opening cinematic.

This is such a shame! The scale of the Theramore assault is grand enough that it could easily have supported a number of side quests in the city streets, or if not explicit quests, then at least mini-bosses and scattered enclaves of special enemies just like they had in the wilds of Durotar.

Since some of the buildings in Theramore are Jaina’s and therefore untouchable, even winning through means the battle keeps spawned troops occupied — ensuring that the final confrontation is almost solely the work of your own hero team.

So yes, though I still love the Rexxar campaign, somewhere in my heart I have to concede that the promise of chapter one wasn’t quite lived up to in chapters two and three. Why did Blizzard hold these two chapters back when they shipped The Frozen Throne? Were they truly unfinished, or were the writers and developers struggling to fill in the gaps?

Bah. Even though it has flaws, it’s still an incredible piece of work. Seamless travel between many exotic and delightful locations, enemy scaling and respawning systems honed to perfection and a series of sumptuous landscapes make The Founding of Durotar one of the seminal Warcraft III RPGs.

Go forth and make singleplayer RPGs! For the horde!

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