Before Overwatch, before World of Warcraft, before Activision, Blizzard Entertainment was known mainly as a developer of real-time strategy games. Sure, they dabbled a little in other genres throughout the 90s, producing hits like Rock n’ Roll Racing and The Lost Vikings, not to mention the genre-defining Diablo. But their meat and potatoes throughout the late 90s were the twin franchises of Warcraft and Starcraft. By the early 2000s, Warcraft had mostly been left behind by its futuristic follow-up — Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness came out back in 1995, and RTS fans had mostly moved onto the hugely-popular Starcraft. But then, on July 3, 2002, Blizzard released Warcraft III.
The game expanded beyond Starcraft‘s three factions to feature four — the Alliance, Night Elves, Orcs, and Undead. For the first time in a Blizzard RTS, the characters and buildings were represented by 3D models rather than two-dimensional assets. And the hero-focused gameplay brought in roleplaying elements, whereby players were encouraged to hunt down “creeps” on the map using their characters to build up their strengths while simultaneously upgrading their tech tree and defending their base.
I loved Warcraft III’s sweeping story, detailed characters, and seemingly-endless customizability offered by the tools that came with the game. But I’ll be honest — I was never much good at playing the core game. My crowning achievement in Warcraft III multiplayer was a time that, as the Night Elves, I had my starter building units self-destruct, then directed my main production building to uproot itself, eat a path of trees into the corner of the map, and then left to watch TV for 20 minutes. When I came back, my opponent had scoured the entire map for me and, not having found a trace, conceded.
Warcraft III further built out the fantasy world Blizzard would go on to explore in World of Warcraft. But perhaps its most enduring and wide-reaching legacy is the games that spawned from its user-generated content. While MOBAs have their roots in the “Aeon of Strife” map created for Starcraft, the Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients really kicked things off. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that games like League of Legends probably wouldn’t exist today were it not for Warcraft III. When you consider that another entire genre (autobattlers) has since evolved out of MOBAs, Warcraft III is probably one of the most generative titles of the last 20 years.
Of course, modern Blizzard being modern Blizzard, they found a way to fuck all of this up. In 2020, the company released Warcraft III: Reforged, a remaster of the game and its expansion which was so poorly-received that Blizzard offered no-questions-asked refunds for the release. That would be bad enough, but Reforged also effectively replaced the original 1 GB or so title for those who purchased it on Battle.net with a nearly 30 GB download, the bulk of which represents the upgraded visuals that owners of the original title were locked out of. It’s a sad, darkly fitting footnote to one of the most important games of the early 2000s, which today celebrates its 20th anniversary. So happy birthday, Warcraft III. Sorry they did you so dirty.