Certain games have a personal, subjective worth and value far beyond how they would be viewed and received today by a modern audience. In my formative years, games weren’t as readily available and affordable as today, often relying on trial software to tease and tantalise your desires without ever paying off. I first experienced Tides of Darkness over twenty-five years ago, enthralled by the bright colours and good humour, challenged by the menace of the Orc invasion. It was a counterpoint, the antithesis to Westwood Studios Command and Conquer series, rejecting the modern militaristic setting of that series and presenting tropes lifted from Tolkien and other fantasy classics with a modicum of English humour as an aside. As a Mac gamer in the 90’s, often shunned by studios in favour of the more user friendly Windows operating system, full releases were a scarce commodity, Warcraft was a great example of a studio bringing to life a real time strategy release on this fledgling platform, but with a dash of humour and an extremely friendly and intuitive interface My interest diminished when the series looked to move beyond the simplistic top down design, but that second entry always had and retains a special place in my pantheon of gaming hits.
I recall, it wasn’t the easiest experience to purchase this particular game. Reliable internet access was still a decade away, retailers in town centres in the UK favoured console releases with the dominance of Sega and Nintendo a contested market, so whilst as a gamer you could see an abundance of treasures on every magazine cover it felt very much like an elitist endeavour, especially as an Apple owner, a company that hadn’t achieved the market penetration and saturation it enjoys today. I was enamoured by the look of the game and desired to play its campaign having played and enjoyed the trial available over a number of months. We travelled to a specialist retailer a short drive from home that held the game in stock, a treasure trove for an impressionable gamer noticing a variety of games in their large cardboard boxes sitting on shelves waiting to play. It was my first experience of expandable content, the forthcoming expansion pack tantalising with the prospect of additional experiences beyond the core content. Sitting in our old estate car on the drive home, I was engrossed with the thick, dense manual, a testament to a period of time where these complex titles would have a novel sized instruction manual to introduce and guide you through the rich tapestry of its world.
It exceeded my young expectations, hitherto unknown units and structures hidden behind the veil of a full release were suddenly accessible and playable. Tactics I had memorised and learnt against the Horde rendered meaningless, with the introduction of upgradable classes for instance, that introduced a different dynamic on the field of combat to learn and adapt too. It had an enjoyable yet challenging campaign that tested my fortitude and determination but was equally fun to just dip your toe into and enjoy some of the earlier levels where you could persevere with minimal challenge and a sense of accomplishment. I do feel it hides its difficulty spike well, the charade of simplicity creating frustration at times but it never felt unfair or unbalanced. You always felt your failure was your own fault, your inability to understand and overcome the nature of the threat you encountered. It plays like a traditional real time strategy game, balancing the mining of resources with unit and structure building and a solid, competent battle dynamic that expanded as you progressed through the campaign with the addition of new units and upgrades to armour and weapons. All presented in a friendly and easy to understand interface that made it accessible for a wide audience that I feel its peers neglected or opted to avoid.
The world of Warcraft transitioned into the third dimension with its sequel before evolving to become the genre defining online experience and game that exists and continues to grow today. It shed a little of its good humour and cheer with that transition, opting instead for a more complex and less intuitive style both graphically and in its interface. The third game in the series, oft forgotten today, lost its appeal and it’s a difficult game to go back to today as with many early examples of 3D gaming. The first sequel remains as enjoyable and accessible today all these years later as that first experience, being overwhelmed at the improvements over the first Warcraft. It did however become more difficult to play, not native to the modern operating systems in use, relying entirely on existing hardware to experience. Thankfully, in recent years it was updated and brought back for a modern audience, released on GOG there are minor improvements to the graphics and interface but for the most part it plays faithfully to that original experience, capturing that same sense of elation and wonderment and enticing you to play one more chapter, one more level in its campaign to overcome the Orc threat with the inclusion of the expansion pack a welcome addition. It’s a world away from the complex online experience but still a really enjoyable, easy to pick up and play strategy game much as it was over two decades ago.
The addition of naval combat and expansion onto water in Tides of Darkness was one of its strengths, an area typically overlooked in traditional Tolkien inspired media. Each species has a naval flotilla of sorts that expands and grows as you progress through the campaign. I enjoyed the fact you could upgrade the basic stats of the various ships, it made you cherish and fear for them as they engaged against the Orc threat. There was a fair balance and like for like nature to the game that didn’t leave you feeling cheated, each unit had a corresponding equivalence in the opposing forces, however beneath it’s exterior it is a tough game, encouraging you to be venture out and explore the map at whim before that dreaded feeling of panic when you hear your town is under attack and you’ve left yourself open and vulnerable to a counter attack. Having gone back recently to experience the campaign once more, I did realise I had become a little more cavalier and confrontational in my style in contrast to my formative years, savouring the experience perhaps and wanting to avoid the crushing taste of defeat. It makes for an entirely different experience overall as you notice the ways the developers elicited that sense of menace through the position of random castles at points on the map for instance to spawn enemy units to attack from different directions. Equally, it encourages or teaches you to adopt a similar mentality to overwhelm the hidden threat shrouded in the fog of war.
One of the enjoyable aspects of the game away from the experience itself was the ability to open and modify the sound files, a common aspect and trait of games at this period of time in PC gaming. Both in its original form and as part of the installation files through GOG you have access to the entirety of the sound files used in the game allowing you, should you wish to modify or record your own dialogue. This freedom and spirit of customisation continued into the X-Wing series on the PC where the pilot sound files were extensively modified to create a localised wing of rebels fighting the Empire from the suburbs of North West London. A very distinct and treasured memory of playing these games extensively over the years. The prospect of cloud gaming instilled a slight fear this element of customisation would be removed or taken away from the user, it is the basis of how an entire community enjoy the freedom to customise and mod games often improving the base experience beyond the developer’s original intentions. Whatever the legality of it, in a very small way for my own enjoyment the freedom to sample and amend the sound files to personalize the experience elevated this beyond a piece of software, it became personal, it became something I treasured and still do over two decades later.
It was my first experience of map and level creation pivoting the game away from a traditional single player narrative into this creative, community endeavour that encouraged you to create and share you level designs with friends and other gamers. A little simplistic perhaps but the scope and potential was obvious, giving you the tools to create your own campaign in essence though lacking the narrative bridge between levels. The multiplayer element was and remains an enjoyable aspect of the game though distinctly primitive in contrast to what the series has evolved into today. You can see the foundations and genesis of the online experience. It is a little tricky and not entirely clear how to launch that aspect of the game, requiring a little digging around the library menu to locate your digital key that original was printed inside the CD case on purchase but once you’ve managed to locate this, you can join the global network of players who still enjoy playing in the digital sandbox against each other. I do appreciate on the recent release on GOG the basic connections still remain as an alternative, creating a local LAN network between users in close proximity to play a multiplayer experience. The dial up option feels somewhat redundant today but still fun to see how closely the game was ported over from the original version to the streaming option available today.
In recent months, the studio has become mired in controversy, the practise of its employees illuminated in the worst possible way towards each other tarnishing the legacy and history of the company. It was with a real sadness to read over the summer gamers making the difficult decision to walk away from the online experience of Warcraft specifically and the studio in general for their own personal reasons. This isn’t to excuse or validate the experiences as described, more a lament for a period of time and one very specific game that brought a lot of comfort and enjoy in my formative years. That still does today, a title when my personal interest in gaming as a whole, starts to wain is able to rekindle that spark and enthusiasm to just enjoy the experience of a fun, easy to play game without the dour, melancholy notes of everyday life. It feels glib and dismissive to say I’ve found it easy to separate the actions of the individuals from this particular product, without knowing the full history and context of what was alleged, I can only rely on my own personal experience and opinion. Irrespective of what has been revealed to date, this particular game remains one of my most treasured memories of gaming in my youth, released in the studios formative years when the intention was substance and style over the profit motive, achieving both in equal measure, a testament to a classic in the genre.
I wasn’t drawn to the allure of the online world and experience on launch, today, it feels very much like a guarded community, the gatekeeper of time and real financial capital a deterrent from even considering venturing back into this particular mythical universe. I do look enviously at times at the rich tapestry of this fantasy domain that has grown and evolved over the years, a testament to both the company and the community that had faith in a game as service model. I feel fortunate and privileged strangely to have seen how this creative universe begun decades ago. Whether the events of recent months will have a tangible, detrimental impact to the company moving forward is hard to say, beyond the initial social media reactions the online community continues to exist and operate as before. I suppose holistically, the lesson I took away was the futility and forlorn nature of saying goodbye to a product you’ve experienced and enjoyed based on the actions of others. Blizzard and Activision dirty words in gaming lexicon in the present day but it doesn’t detract from the accomplishments of their historical output. Easy to say I’ll concede, but this particular game remains an important element of my gaming history. I was delighted to see it appear again on GOG, it still elicits those same emotions and memories to this day. I won’t allow the actions of strangers to erase such a personal part and aspect of my gaming history. It was a great game, it still is.
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