A Paean to an Obsolete and Underloved Game

I wish to ramble, at length and for no reason in particular, about something of absolutely no importance.

More specifically, I wish to ramble about an interesting but obscure and not particularly successful 1997 real-time strategy game that is wildly unbalanced, has clunky and unintuitive controls, is frankly kinda glitchy, and was created by a studio that went under more than 15 years ago.

You have been duly warned.

This title of this game is War Wind II (there is, of course, an original War Wind, released in 1996, but as it happens I only played it for the first time a couple of years ago, to examine how it differed from its sequel).  If you haven’t heard of it, well, I suspect not many people have.  Neither game was outlandishly successful; in comparison to their rough contemporaries, Ensemble’s Age of Empires (1997) and Blizzard’s Starcraft (1998), both of which had incredible influence on the genre and on video gaming in general (and have each recently been lovingly remastered), War Wind II and its predecessor were a footnote.  The studio that created it, DreamForge Intertainment, dissolved in 2001 and is now largely forgotten.  I think I would have first played the game around the time the studio went under, and have periodically come back to think about it ever since, because although it is deeply and unarguably flawed in a number of important ways, I have always loved the things it did right.  I gather that in its own time War Wind was derided as a Warcraft knock-off (yes, kids, Warcraft was originally an RTS; oh, sweet cr@p I’m old).  This honestly baffles me to no end, because I played Warcraft II (1995) back in the day, and although War Wind II had awkward controls and bad unit AI even by contemporary standards, as well as major balance issues, there has never been any doubt in my mind that it was the more creative game in both lore and mechanics, and in some ways weirdly ahead of its time.

War Wind was set on an alien planet, Yavaun, and concerned itself with a conflict between four alien species.  In the original game, each of the four was a faction unto itself; in the sequel, they were condensed into two alliances, and joined by two human factions, accidentally transported from Earth by magic and stranded on Yavaun at some point between the events of the two games.  The alien races are 1) the Tha’Roon, a physically weak serpentine race with advanced biotechnology and psychic abilities, who long ago conquered most of the world, 2) the Eaggra, plant-like creatures resembling a mass of vines with eye stalks, enslaved by the Tha’Roon and made to serve as labourers, engineers and artisans, 3) the Obblinox, three-legged saurian brutes with a militaristic, matriarchal social structure, who served as the armies of the Tha’Roon empire until driven to revolt by their lack of honour, and 4) the Shama’Li, three-eyed humanoids with primitive technology but powerful magic, who practice a Buddhist-like philosophy of inner peace and seek to bring balance and harmony to all four races.  War Wind II pitted the Tha’Roon and Obblinox, as the Overlords faction, against the Shama’Li and Eaggra, as the S.U.N. alliance.  The humans, all residents of a military research base somewhere in the Arctic, entered the equation when summoned by an eleventh-hour S.U.N. ritual intended to call on the aid of NagaRom, a mysterious divinity worshipped by the Shama’Li.  After decades stranded on the alien planet, they themselves split into two factions: the base’s scientists and engineers became the peaceful, enlightened Descendants, whose foremost goal is to find a way (either technological or magical) back to Earth, while the military personnel became the warlike, almost cultish Marines, who want to establish a new human nation on Yavaun and crush anyone who gets in their way.  Each faction has a distinctive look, with a lot of bright colours and a clear architectural style (the graphics are not advanced even for their time, but bear the touch of artists who were at ease with the limitations of their technology).  They also have unit rosters with radically different skill sets, strengths and weaknesses – this became a standard feature of the RTS genre following the success of Starcraft, of course, but for its time, War Wind II was actually breaking a lot of new ground.  The Marines have a lot of units with stealth abilities and some expensive, powerful vehicles; the S.U.N. use large numbers of support spellcasters to buff their relatively weak frontline warriors; the Descendants rely heavily on building weapons and tools like bombs or medkits, and can ultimately deploy laser satellites to zap their enemies from above; the Overlords have flexible hover vehicles that can travel basically anywhere, and spellcasters with a variety of powerful offensive abilities.

Yavaun itself is a big part of the game as well, because the game’s maps are populated with a wide variety of wild animals.  A lot of strategy games have unaligned creatures that may be hazardous to small groups of units, or guard resources (think wolves and boar in Age of Empires II, or creep camps in Warcraft III), but War Wind II’s were not just creatively designed, they had a range of behaviours that was much wider than usual for the genre.  Only a couple of types are simply aggressive.  There are passive herd animals that can be used as mounts by Shama’Li Cavaliers, but will attack you if you harm their young (which will wreck your buildings if they come near your base).  There are invisible vermin that sneak into your base to steal resources and hide them in a remote lair.  There are creatures that disguise themselves as plants and steal items from passing units.  There are bugs that constantly emit ion pulses that disable nearby vehicles.  All these animals can be tamed by units with the appropriate skills, like Obblinox Herdsmen or Descendant Zookeepers, allowing you to make use of their unique abilities alongside those of your own units, so they can be both obstacles to navigate and resources to exploit.

As well as having an interesting setting, War Wind II just feels very different to a more conventional RTS; it sometimes acts like it might want to be an RPG, or puts you in a situation that seems more like a puzzle game.  These games have all the mechanics of a conventional RTS – bird’s-eye battlefield perspective, resource collection, base building, units with different jobs that need to be coordinated, and so on.  They were also built almost entirely around their single-player campaigns (online multiplayer in 1997 was clunky at the best of times; War Wind II’s feels like an afterthought, and is not known for being well balanced), and one of their most important mechanics was the ability to carry individual units forward after the end of a mission.  Your units can receive cybernetic upgrades and consumable items individually, your spellcasters learn new spells individually, and in War Wind II some new recruits will be marked as having “potential,” which means that they can be trained into stronger or even completely different units (e.g. any Eaggra worker can be trained as a Ranger, but only the most talented can become spellcasting Druids).  You also had a special commander unit with powerful global abilities, whose death would mean losing the game.

The oddest thing about the game is that you can’t train units in the way that, say, Age of Empireswill let you.  Instead you have to recruit worker units and upgrade them, individually, into combat units – in War Wind you hire workers from your base’s tavern building, where they periodically spawn alongside mercenary cavalry, while War Wind 2 has you hire townsfolk from neutral villages scattered around the map.  Vehicles can be built in unlimited numbers if you have the cash, but have to be piloted by units.  What this meant was that units themselves – the lives of your people – were, in a way, a kind of resource.  Even if you’re super rich, you can’t produce a warrior from nothing; you need to have someone to train.  This is especially true in the sequel, where townsfolk do not respawn when hired or killed – there is quite simply a hard cap on the number of units anyone can ever train on a given map, so every single one is precious.  This is a frustrating mechanic for players of more typical RTS games (and was even divisive among fans of the first game), and there are undeniably some flaws in its implementation (in particular, how easy it is in multiplayer to just wipe out neutral villages of your opponent’s race), but it’s also a unique and creative take on the idea of “training” units, and makes you think about your units in a very different and more personal way to a typical game in the genre.  It also places a very hard cap on the scale of most engagements, which is what creates the puzzle game-like feel of some missions, where you have very limited forces and must either destroy or simply evade specific groups of enemies.  All those things considered, War Wind II and its predecessor feel in a lot of ways like the kind of RTS that someone might make if they were more familiar with tabletop miniature wargames or D&D-style RPGs – which makes sense, since DreamForge is otherwise known (by people who’ve heard of the studio at all) primarily for computer adaptations of D&D, and also went on to make a turn-based Warhammer 40K game in 1999.

In the interest of fairness, I should probably talk as well about the things this game does wrong.  The unit AI is unabashedly terrible, and units ordered to move in a large group will almost invariably stretch out into single file, and become abysmally confused if they have to navigate around any sort of terrain obstacle (this is pretty much standard for mid-90s games, but it’s worth mentioning).  Enemies too have very poor AI and simply will not use all their abilities to their fullest potential (or, in some cases, at all).  It generally takes multiple clicks or keystrokes to activate a special ability or spell, which makes it annoyingly difficult to do anything fancy with your specialised units given the fairly rapid pace of combat.  Levelling up spellcaster units, so they can access your faction’s most powerful spells, is extraordinarily time consuming because of the high cost of research, to the point that it’s best, if you can, to only ever do it once in a campaign, and then just keep your spellcasters safe at all costs.  The fact that you can have these units who are, for all intents and purposes, irreplaceable is thematically interesting but in practice very frustrating, especially since high-level spellcasters are no tougher than novices.  This is doubly unfortunate because high-level spells are some of the most fun things in this game (notably the ultimate Shama’Li spell, Implore for Help, which just summons a unit to permanently join you – anyrandom unit, of any faction, or even a vehicle or hero unit).  Another problem with the flow of gameplay concerns the fact that some cybernetic enhancements will cause units to consume a resource called butanium (a volatile green liquid that can be used as vehicle fuel – think Starcraft vespene) and become sluggish if your stocks ran dry, simultaneously imposing steep penalties on your economy.  That’s fine in principle, but you’ll usually be giving these upgrades to units that you want to carry forward through the campaign – and when you start a new mission, you may not have a ready supply of butanium.  Moreover, it can sometimes be difficult to get that supply quickly (particularly for the Descendants and the S.U.N., who harvest it in unusual ways), so you may end up crippled right out of the gate through no fault of your own.  Speaking of the campaigns, considering that they amount for most of the game’s point, it’s really bizarre that the game has no explicit structure for leaving and resuming campaigns; there’s no “mission select” screen or “save points” or anything, and if you somehow lose your in-game save file, you have to start the campaign over from the beginning.  Finally, there’s a very strange bug where, in a manner oddly reminiscent of an old-school Hyper Beam, killing a unit will always cause your attack cooldown to instantly refresh.  This can turn units whose powerful attacks are notionally supposed to be balanced by their long cooldowns, like the Marine Legionnaire and Tha’Roon Exterminator, into devastating army-killers (in the first game, the Eaggra Grenadier is particularly notorious for this).

It would be deeply satisfying to me if, at some point in the future, a nostalgic game studio somewhere picked up War Wind II and saw in it… whatever it is that I seem to.  If that inspired them to make a weird, off-the-wall modern RTS with unconventional mechanics that cares more about its single-player campaign than its competitive multiplayer and is interested in exploring the world of Yavaun.  I even think from time to time about how I would do it – what kind of mechanics you could use to emphasise the game’s RPG-like facets, what the unit rosters would look like if you had all six factions (two human, four alien) in one game, how you could develop the identity of the different factions and their relationships, all that sort of thing.  But I certainly don’t have the time, money or expertise, and there’s no clear reason for any proper game design studio to resuscitate a 21-year-old game that was never especially popular in the first place.  Even if they wanted to, I’m not even sure who owns the IP now; someone must, because you can buy copies on GOG.com and presumably the money isn’t just spinning off into the Endless Void.  I have a feeling it may ultimately be Ubisoft, but they certainly have better things to do. [EDIT: Since the time of writing, I have been in contact with GOG.com and learned that they now own the War Wind IP in their own right.  They are not a developer or publisher, and have no plans for the IP for the foreseeable future.]

And that’s… kind of it, honestly.  Like I said, it’s not even slightly important, it doesn’t matter.  There is an old game, that I love despite its flaws, and that I wish someone else with the skills and money would love enough to do something with it, which they probably never will.  What’s more, I’m not even sure I’m actually recommending this game.  Like, if you’re interested in trying it, it’s available at something like $5 from gog.com (free downloads also exist on abandonware sites, though personally I’ve found those versions noticeably glitchier), but again, it’s aged badly in a lot of ways.  However… if you’re just interested in it as a sort of antiquarian curiosity of the evolution of the RTS genre in the mid-90s, or think that the lore as I’ve described it sounds cool… well, I guess it’d tickle me if one or two more people developed the same odd, unshakeable affection for this dumb old game as I have.  Jim the Editor (who has no prior experience of War Wind II or its predecessor) has hinted that he might be persuaded to do a Let’s Play on his new YouTube channel, so if that sounds like something you might like to see, let me know and I’ll pass it on.

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