Way back in the 90s, Blizzard infamously planned to expand its Warcraft strategy game universe by jumping into adventures. Ever since then, Warcraft: Lord Of The Clans has been one of the PC’s more famous ‘lost’ games – one of the few known to be almost complete at the point of cancellation rather than just existing as a tech demo and a few screenshots. It was canned in 1998, with Blizzard turning down a petition to finish the job from fans back in the day when not every single blasted action or inaction spawned those.
And then last week, the whole thing finally leaked online.
Due to the leak thing, I was umming and aahing a bit over talking about this one. The simple fact though is that despite being a ‘lost’ game, we know more about Lord of the Clans than many that actually got released. It’s leaked before on a smaller scale, with a full longplay on YouTube (this version includes the cutscenes, to various points of completion). One of the Caverns of Time missions in World of Warcraft takes players back to its events, with future Horde Warchief Thrall escaping from Durnholde Castle. The whole story was also novelised in a book called, yes, Lord of the Clans.
In short, while download links are no doubt even now being struck down faster than you can shout “For Doomhammer!”, and we’re not advocating downloading dodgy code, it’s not like we’re looking at a half-finished copy of Project Titan full of future game ideas here. It’s about as dangerous to Blizzard now as the Millennium Bug.
That said, just to be on the safe side, all pictures are not in fact from Lord of the Clans, but from a specially written in-house tool that randomly assigns colours to every pixel of a 640×480 board with the goal of ultimately creating every image that could possibly exist. Cthulhu’s presidential nomination. An apology from literally everyone involved in the Farscape videogame. A scandalous rendezvous between Donald Trump and Mayor McCheese. Maybe some things look like Lord of the Clans. But rest assure, any similarities are purely coincidental. And no animals were harmed in their making.
As disappointing as Lord of the Clans’ cancellation was for fans, looking back it was definitely the right decision. The plot revolves around Thrall as an orphan brought up by the evil Lord Blackmoore – family motto, “Nil Morius Black” – as part of an honestly pretty silly plan to create the ultimate warrior and have him lead his army so that he can become King of all Azeroth. You know this guy’s probably a few scraps of Runethread short of a Netherweave bag when he comes across a dead orc mother cradling a tiny child, picks up and immediately starts laughing his ass off to the heavens. Basically, if you ever find yourself doing anything remotely like this, you = the baddy.
Anyway, as with most plans that begin with a psychopathic giggle, this goes wrong in several ways. First, the constant abuse teaches Thrall all about biding his time and being clever, which Blackmoore approves of instead of bulking him up to being a big tough orc who obeys orders and feels any sense of actual loyalty to his master. Second, after years and years of training, Thrall’s refusal to kill a fellow orc gets him thrown in the dungeon and scheduled for execution instead of a “Okay, so, we’ve got a bit more work here”. Third, in breaking free and exploring the world, Thrall becomes nothing short of a Horde leading powerhouse whose intelligence will forever make it hard to get another truly good grudge match going between them and the Alliance.
Even at the start though, the pieces don’t click. Lord of the Clans is an adventure that could have worked circa 1995/1996, but by its intended release date at the end of 1998? No. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t feel right. It’s an adventure visibly designed by inexperienced hands, which Blizzard acknowledged at the time by hiring IF legend Steve Meretzky to polish and rewrite and design great big chunks of it. More than that though, it’s not a ‘Blizzard’ game. Blizzard’s greatest skill has always been taking other peoples’ concepts and polishing and refining them to a shine. World of Warcraft for instance wasn’t in any way a bolt out of the blue, but the best bits of diku muds in particular wrapped up and made approachable to the wider audience.
Warcraft Adventures… it’s got nothing to add. It takes the interface from Full Throttle, but few of that game’s inspired thoughts on how to make a tough character into a different kind of adventurer than the usual inventory-packing geek. Thrall is bland, inappropriately quippy, and just generally stock. It comes from an RTS lineage, but can’t seem to find any way of integrating that into the mix in the way that, say, Quest For Glory merged RPG elements with its adventuring. There’s the occasional flourish, like using magic scrolls to solve puzzles, but not to any great extent – not even the extent of potion mixing in Kyrandia 2. There’s no ambition beyond ‘make it solid’. There’s no burning desire to improve the genre. It’s not a terrible adventure, but there’s no point in the 90s when it would have been a great one. It wants to be Full Throttle, but it’s closer to the likes of Dragonsphere, Inherit the Earth and Touche. Certainly Bill Roper was right when talking about its cancellation in 1998 that it was at least three years late and could only have diluted Blizzard’s already firm reputation for quality. Though it would have been interesting to see what the final version might have been.
That said, it’s definitely got its moments, including the hilarious sight of future World of Warcraft super-dragon Deathwing smoking a hookah, and Thrall defeating it in single-combat by cutting open a dead cow it’s about to swallow in one gulp, indeed being swallowed, and then trekking through his dragon guts with the help of a jetpack… yes, a jetpack… to cut off his flame. If only the WoW fight had been so much fun or the whole thing had been rooted in such satisfying physicality. What it does share with Full Throttle is that those bits are, by far, the most satisfying and fitting.
And on top of that, it’s strangely pretty, especially since the art was handled by Animation Magic. If you’ve never heard of them, suffice it to say that their animation portfolio in the 90s was nigh indistinguishable from Satan’s dream journal. I still can’t believe Blizzard of all companies gave them a shot on this project. Hell, I remember being convinced that at some point they’d found a genie and been given a choice between never having trouble getting work, and being able to draw. I shall let their work on games like King’s Quest VII, I.M. Meen and its sequel, and the infamous Legend of Zelda games speak for itself and settle comfortably into your nightmares.
To give full credit though, while you’re not going to mistake Lord of the Clans’ animation for Disney or Don Bluth at their best, it’s high quality stuff. Mostly. As leader of the Frostwolves, Thrall does look more like he’s skinned a particularly large cat. But let’s not quibble. By general 90s animation standards, never mind Animation Magic’s usual ‘stick a stylus in our sphincter and draw with our bottoms’ standard, this is a game with no expense spared on character animation and location art and background details, like the pungent breath of a glowing skull cave.
How did the code finally get out? Unconfirmed, but as said, code has been floating around for a while. It’s clearly in development. Cutscenes have almost no synchronisation, loads of music and sound effects and other assets aren’t there. Some dialogue is performed by a speech synth. But, since nobody’s going to actually download and play it without knowing the story, it’s not as if the rough edges or occasional unfinished movie here and there casts any poor light on Blizzard. Honestly, the amount of polished stuff makes them look good for making the right decision and pulling the plug, but it’s still not even close to being an Old Shame.
Now though, it’s an interesting piece of history in a medium that’s often far too quick to throw it away. Things have changed a bit recently with many an old game showing up on the likes of GOG and Steam, but even then, many hits like No One Lives Forever are lost in limbo. After that, if a game slips off eBay or a couple of big hosting sites like 4shared go down, they’re likely gone. And that’s released games. For anything else, we’re lucky to have a few trailers or documents to remember them by and imagine what could have been. Wouldn’t it be awesome for instance for 3D Realms to dump all the aborted Duke Nukem Forever builds onto the net or on YouTube, just to see what could have been? There’s a million and one reasons why it would likely be legally difficult/impossible, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it would be fascinating, and that those pesky problems are something to bemoan rather than accept.
But, sadly, like most of these things it’s unlikely that Blizzard could leave Lord of the Clans in the wild in this form even if it wanted to – we should probably be grateful that the YouTube videos are still up, though even typing that, I can’t help but feel I might be dooming them to the doomiest of dooms. It’s a sliver of both their history, and the histories of both World of Warcraft as a place and one of the biggest games in the world, a chance to see how Blizzard approached a game so far out of their comfort zone and how it played into the development of their storytelling, and for Animation Magic, proof that they could actually draw. For all that and more, it’d be good to see as blind an eye as legally possible turned to its existence, rather than a seek and destroy mission to try and prevent any hint that the company might have been responsible for anything terrible. Except the current state of Hearthstone’s Priest class, obviously.
Anyway. That was the 90s. This is now.
Don’t suppose anyone’s still hanging onto a copy of Starcraft: Ghost by any chance?