In the summer of 2002 you had to marvel at a game that sold almost a million at full console price, when it was a PC game- such was the loyalty commanded by Warcraft III Reign Of Chaos finally getting released. At the same time Neverwinter Nights was launched to similarly stellar sales and solid following. One year on their mission packs are doing the same. So could the only non-FPS game at Intel's Multiplayer Gaming Championships deliver something special to single players too?
The Frozen Throne (TFT) carries on where the end of Reign Of Chaos (ROC) left off, and its 26 missions take you through the three main species of the Elven Night Sentinels, the Human Alliance and then on to Arthas who's got a rather different legion of followers than in ROC. The Orcs are only seen in the Durotar levels, a separate mini-campaign where Thrall from ROC makes a cameo- but this pop-up leaves you wondering how much Orc content will go into World Of Warcraft and the inevitable part four. Fans may be disappointed but there's enough of a handful controlling three factions with the missions that are here.
A newcomer to Warcraft has to appreciate one thing; the slow-burning hardcore addiction level of the game, by the time to realise the slick presentation has drawn you in, it's simply too late and you are hooked in the same manner as other strategy stalwarts such as Age Of Empires II, Rise Of Nations and Command And Conquer. Hardcore C&C fans may actually realise how much they miss good old-fashioned fantasy-based hack and slash combat, making a change from the high-tech battlefields of now. If combat gets too much, many heroes have avatars that can be summoned to aid combat for a limited time, and other companions join along the way in the style of the original game. Several quests and subquests will intertwine throughout the course of the whole game. As ever knowing and preserving the most useful but not necessarily the most powerful units may get you out of tight spots later on- as will remembering where the healing fountains are located. An extra hero, allowing four maximum, will always be welcome along with their magic supplemental abilities. Boats can be manned but it's just a couple of units, hardly the game-deciding armada you got in C&C Red Alert or Rise of Nations. Like Rise of Nations the top-down nature of the graphics makes the game extremely system friendly too, down to a 1GHz machine from four years ago and a Geforce 2 card, although RAM can always get better than 128MB, both ROC and TFT will run on that minimum.
If you've got enough currency in the game from quests, treasure or sales you can recruit mercenaries to your cause. Some units can reach more secluded sections of the map to search for bonuses. In short, everything you enjoyed from ROC is present in TFT, with new creatures to see or fight in every level. A good story in the RPG arena has been par for the course since the paper game days. It had to be-gamers simply wouldn't play otherwise. Even so, it's a surprise that TFT's story remains so gradually all-encompassing and as good as ROC's for being different. In fact it embarrasses several games in other genres where the storyline is clearly tacked on because publishers are desperate to try to challenge Hollywood. It's rounded off with the usual brace of multiplayer content as well.
Organisation is next to presentation for Battle.Net, which is where all patches are released first for download on demand. My installation was patched up to v1.12 with no hassle from the server end- once I'd sorted out my connection. There's no small link between massive sales and Blizzard's focus on customer support, not to mention fast releasing of the Macintosh version. For £20 it's an add-on that's deserving of its early praise and high sales.
Hopefully the myth of no-one playing PC games in summer is broken. It just tends to be strategy/fantasy games that do well. Publishers should take note at what looks set to be the retail add-on pack of the year (Enemy Territory being free, can't be beat). Up to now there's certainly been little else of this standard in 2003. If you're a fan you've already got it. If you're not, pick up Warcraft III at mid price or try the demo and see if you become a convert.