How Warcraft III accidentally became a great Lord of the Rings game

It doesn't get discussed as much as Defense of the Ancients, but Warcraft III had a surprising symbiosis with The Lord of the Rings—one that's worth revisiting, on the eve of Warcraft III: Reforged.

Credit: Warcraft III: Reforged

Warcraft III: Reforged releases today. We may never get a Warcraft IV, but at least III and its expansion The Frozen Throne are finally getting some love: A refined user interface, more detailed units and buildings, native 4K support, and so on. It’s been a while since I’ve played either campaign, and I’m looking forward to revisiting it. Arthas’s downfall is still one of Blizzard’s best storylines, and I’m excited to see it fully redone.

Blizzard’s authored story is the smallest portion of my love for Warcraft III though. I played it for years, and what kept me coming back is an element that was incredibly important at the time, but rarely discussed now: Warcraft III was one of the best Lord of the Rings games. Maybe the best.

And it happened by accident.

You bow to no one

Warcraft III shipped in 2002 with a robust set of map-making tools. To younger folks that might sound weird now. “Map-making tools?” But once upon a time it was normal. In the ‘90s and early ‘00s, most multiplayer games shipped with official tools for creating custom maps or scenarios. I imagine a number of today’s developers grew up making maps for Unreal TournamentQuakeCounter-StrikeAge of Empires II, and yes, Warcraft III.

People tend to remember Warcraft III’s custom scene because of Defense of the Ancients, which makes sense. There’s a “student becomes the master” aspect to it, with the fairly rough Defense of the Ancients mod eventually spawning two of the biggest games in the world, Dota 2 and League of Legends.

For me it’s always Lord of the Rings though. Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring released in December of 2001, a mere six months before Warcraft IIIThe Two Towers released six months after, in December of 2002. Then you get Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne in the summer of 2003, and The Return of the King in December 2003.

Both took place in fantasy realms populated by humans, elves, dwarves, and orcs. Better yet, Warcraft III introduced “Hero” characters, bigger and more powerful units that gave modders a perfect way to separate rank-and-file armies from named characters like Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn.

The timing was perfect. You had these enormously popular films, a cultural zeitgeist that raked in awards, completely changed the “acceptable” length of a movie for over a decade, sold goblets at Burger King, and et cetera. Then on the gaming side you had a hit strategy game that drew from the same ur-fantasy source material, primed for custom content. The two became weirdly intertwined.

Not officially, of course. EA made the “real” Lord of the Rings games, serviceable hack-and-slashes that attempted to capture the scope of the films on PlayStation 2-era hardware—and did an okay job, by 2002 standards.

Warcraft III felt more grandiose though. It had the eye-in-the-sky viewpoint that only a strategy game could give. The armies were larger, the battles more chaotic and unpredictable.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep became a particular favorite, and for good reason. There are so many unique elements. There’s the curved bridge leading up to the walls, archers peppering the oncoming orcs with arrows. Behind the door, elven swords arrayed a dozen ranks deep defending a narrow chokepoint. Gimli and Legolas competing for kills.

And of course, the two pivotal moments: The Uruk-hai blasting a hole through the fortress walls and streaming into the courtyard, and then the last-minute rescue by Gandalf and the Rohirrim at dawn.

Those touchstones made Helm’s Deep a perfect fit for modders. They gave the conflict a structure: An asymmetrical hold-out mission, with a fixed number of defenders fighting back an unlimited orc army. The battle evolved—first a fortress siege, then a chaotic scrum after the walls are breached, and then a desperate final stand in the keep itself. A timer counted down the minutes to Gandalf’s arrival, forcing the orcs to play aggressively and giving the defenders some small measure of hope.

It felt...well, maybe not real, but cinematic. Dynamic, in a way that most Warcraft III maps were not. Modders competed, creating ever-larger and more sophisticated simulations of the battle. I must’ve played dozens of different iterations back in the day. Hell, I think I even tried to create one.

There were other Lord of the Rings maps as well, though none quite as successful as Helm’s Deep. The Mines of Moria had a few different adaptations, wending through Balin’s tomb and down all those rickety staircases and across the bridge where Gandalf faced off against the Balrog. Again, instantly recognizable locations—though it tended to be better for solo play than the big multiplayer battles.

With the release of the Return of the King, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields also became popular. This one was harder to simulate than Helm’s Deep though, as Minas Tirith’s seven-tiered city didn’t translate well to Warcraft III’s landscape tools and overhead camera, nor were there as many hooks for scripting.

Many of the late-era maps opted to cover the entirety of Middle Earth instead. These went by various names, including “The Ring Wars,” “War of the Ring,” and “The Third Age,” but essentially you’d play a standard RTS battle out across a scale map of Middle Earth. One person would play Gondor, one Rohan, one Mordor, and so on.

It was the closest you could get to a full retelling of Lord of the Rings in Warcraft III, but again lacked the storytelling and the immediacy of Helm’s Deep. It was more like playing Risk, less like watching the films.

So maybe it’s just that Warcraft III was a great Helm’s Deep game, and only a passable Lord of the Rings game. Still, I find it fascinating. You have this perfect right-place-right-time crossover, and it happened naturally. Nowadays, something like Fortnite’s recent Star Wars event is a co-marketing deal months in the making. It’s two corporations coming together to sell more of their respective products.

Warcraft III became a Lord of the Rings vehicle out of happenstance though. Blizzard released a popular (and modular) fantasy game just as Peter Jackson turned fantasy into a box office juggernaut. Then bystanders said “Wouldn’t these be great together?”

And they were.

Bottom line

As I prepare to dip into Warcraft III: Reforged, I find myself hoping I can find a few people playing Helm’s Deep again. I’m sure it won’t live up to my memories, because it can’t. Even the films don’t entirely hold up for me, almost twenty years later. A bunch of Warcraft III maps built with 2002’s finest map-making tools probably won’t cut it.

I can’t imagine Warcraft III without Lord of the Rings, though. It wouldn’t have been the same game, for me and (I imagine) so many others. And sure, I could say the same of Dota and tower defense—but those already get plenty of credit when people discuss Warcraft III’s legacy. The Lord of the Rings? Not so much. It was very much of that time and place, two of 2002’s brightest stars overlapping by mere coincidence and then largely forgotten after pop culture moved on, the only record being the dozens of Helm’s Deep maps that come up when you search for “Lord of the Rings Warcraft III” on Google.

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Hayden Dingman

PC World (US online)
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