You may have heard that 2020 wasn’t the greatest year—an issue we try not to belabor when covering the fun and escapism of video games at Ars Technica. But “disappointing” games are different than bad ones, especially at Ars, where we do our best to err on the side of caution and skepticism before a game is finished. In our case, when a game lets us down, especially during a year like the last one, the results sting that much more.
As the dust settled on 2020, one game—WarCraft III: Reforged—stood out as the year’s most staggering and baffling disappointment. Unlike other obvious candidates for 2020’s icky designation, it did so with a full 12 months of opportunity to right its own ship. So I’ll focus on that game to start, then circle back on other bummers by article’s end.
WarCraft III: Reforged: Customs violation
One of the gems of the early ’00s PC real-time strategy era, WarCraft III, entered 2020 still buoyed by a devoted modding community and ladder-battling fanbase. It wasn’t scorching the charts by any stretch, but WC3 continued to enjoy a hearty online population, largely fueled by a community’s goodwill.
Three weeks into 2020, the game’s handlers at Blizzard burnt most of that goodwill to a crisp… then spent the rest of this ridiculous year staring at the wreckage and occasionally poking the ashes with a stick.
WarCraft III: Reforged didn’t just launch as a brand-new version of the game; it also overwrote the game’s existing, licensed copies and forced all players to download a bloated 26GB version of the game instead of the original, tidy 1.3GB package. Once that was installed, players found a ton of the game’s original, popular content was missing, including ladder-based matchmaking, custom campaigns, and LAN support. The newly remodeled 3D assets proved uneven and underwhelming, and they landed with a thud, because they missed the forge for the trees: the combination of characters, terrain, shadows, and color treatments, as viewed from the god’s-eye perspective inherent to RTS games, had become harder to parse with Blizzard’s questionable changes.
Fans who didn’t pay for the upgrade had to wait for Blizzard to return the game to a tolerable state, since the 26GB version botched some of the game’s “original” graphics. In good news, those graphics were eventually fixed, as were a few glitches on the “reforged” visual side. Blizzard also eventually reinstated LAN play and got custom games to function again—though a newly oppressive EULA killed that scene to some extent.
“Custom games,” for the uninitiated, are essentially WC3‘s playground for modders to create new RTS game types and rulesets, and this became a particularly ripe factory of fun and experiments thanks to WC3‘s mix of standard RTS elements and ultrapowerful “hero” leaders. (In other words, you could do a lot with a system that combines resource management, troop deployment, and central, Diablo-like butt-kickers.) This is where the original, mega-popular mod Defense of the Agents was born before evolving into wholly new games like Dota 2 and League of Legends. (History lesson: Blizzard had six years to recognize and reward that mod’s popularity before Valve swooped in and did so instead.) Blizzard’s lawyers thought clamping down on IP a good 17 years after Dota‘s original launch was a wise call, and that’s apparently slammed WC3 community mod creation to a halt.
As far as custom campaigns go, they still don’t work. WC3:R broke those with no sign of them ever returning. And if you’re playing a smaller custom game and want to pause it for any reason, tough cookies: WC3:R players still can’t save their progress.
Job’s still not done
Fans have been waiting for any sign that the game may return to the non-Reforged version’s level of features, let alone hopes that the game’s graphics might be smoothed to the level Blizzard promised back at BlizzCon 2018. On the feature front, in July and August, Blizzard described how its team would reinstate ladder-based matchmaking and player profiles, respectively. Neither has come to pass, and in December, Blizzard issued a terribly brief update: “We’d like to acknowledge that a new build of the current version of Warcraft III: Reforged was just made available. This update addresses a server issue and contains no player-facing changes.” The Reddit responses to this official bulletin—which acknowledged nothing about the team’s months-old promises—were less than polite.
Fed up, the WC3 community built its own system to manage online ladder-matchmaking seasons and player profiles within the Reforged client. This requires installing an additional EXE and signing up at W3Champions.com. The community seems happy enough with this system, since it lets them return to the game’s original ruleset and code foundation and just play some satisfying WC3 matches. (Meaning, community members have found their bliss by rejecting every iota of updated content.) But there’s no telling if or when Blizzard might break the community’s roundabout solution.
At this point, WC3:R seems to exist solely and entirely due to someone‘s hubris at Blizzard. The remastered graphics are, at best, tolerable in a pinch—though they’re famously disabled on pretty much any remaining WC3 streamer’s Twitch or YouTube feeds. And Blizzard’s reasoning for breaking the game’s client and rooting out beloved features continues to escape anyone with a vested interest in the game. Why’d they bother? Was it really worth throwing nearly 20 years of fandom into the trash to sell special items and add-ons for other, connected Blizzard games? (WC3:R‘s $40 version gave World of WarCraft players a mount and Diablo III players a pet.)
A better company would’ve canceled the whole thing and refunded players, or it would have at least left the original, functioning client untouched. Blizzard is clearly not that “better company” in 2021.
Better option: Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection (Windows PC). This blast from the ’90s past costs $10 less, includes every campaign mission imaginable, and has enjoyed robust online support and developer transparency. (These upgrades, among other things, meant the devs added potentially controversial QOL updates because the community pleaded for them.) The result was easily EA’s best product of 2020.