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Warcraft Arclight Rumble puts the strategy back in RTS

We were lucky enough to play a little Warcraft Arclight Rumble, and interview the creators, ahead of the launch of Blizzard’s tower offence title

Promo art from Warcraft Arclight Rumble beta test of three mini warriors posing

Warcraft Arclight Rumble is the latest spin-off from Blizzard’s iconic MMORPG franchise, and the first Warcraft title to launch exclusively on mobile. In case you didn’t know, that’s a pretty big deal, as while the series isn’t quite as popular as it was in its mid-2000s pomp, there’s still a dedicated community engaged in the world of Warcraft, and if Arclight Rumble is anything to go by, that community might grow in stature once again. 

Ahead of the as of yet unconfirmed Warcraft Arclight Rumble release date, I was invited to take part in both the beta test, as well as a group interview with Vik Saraf, VP and executive producer of WAR, and Adam Kugler, associate director and Blizzard stalwart. Following some interesting insight from the pair, and a good few hours in their game world, it’s clear to see that Blizzard has high hopes, and standards, for its upcoming title and the future of Warcraft. 

Described as a tower offence game, WAR puts a spin on the classic tower defence RTS genre, as you battle enemies with your army of minis to be the first to take down the opponent’s tower. The fact that you have to think both offensively and defensively is a refreshing change of pace for the genre, forcing you to act with more strategy than you would if it were just endless waves heading for your base.

This gameplay loop, much like classic tower defence games such as Plants vs. Zombies or Dungeon Defenders, hooks you almost instantly, perhaps even more so thanks to the additional layer of strategy. With a simplified vertical arena, a few well-placed gimmicks to add a sense of variety to each map, and plenty of scope for synergy between each of the multiple characters, each battle has a charm and a challenge of its own, and at least in my experience, the repetition that can be found in tower defence games is mostly absent. 

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Much like Hearthstone, WAR is a game within a game-world, with classic WoW characters getting a toy-like makeover for their miniature form, known in-game as minis. I asked the pair of developers whether the decision to create another shrunk down spin-off was a means to an end in terms of design, or whether there was something up the developer’s sleeve to expand on Warcraft lore. 

It turns out, at least from Adam and Vik’s point of view, that the reason for the toyification of WAR’s characters is that it just makes the game more fun, adding another spark of imagination to Blizzard’s fantasy game world by chasing the nostalgia of our collective youth, bashing figurines together and pretending they’re at war. He also says that making an arcade game within the world of Warcraft seems like a very “gnomish, goblinish thing to do”, which is as good a justification as we need. 

When Blizzard first announced that it’s bringing a Warcraft title to mobile, a lot of fans were anticipating the original MMORPG receiving a mobile port, a move that a lot of other studios have made with their popular online titles. When poked on this, Vik made the point that Blizzard is a massive company, and as a part of the Arclight Rumble team, that’s all he can really report on.

Warcraft Arclight Rumble battle screenshot with minis fighting in the field

While we couldn’t prise any further information out of the pair regarding a Warcraft MMORPG port, Adam was happy to share some insight on the ideation process over at the Warcraft developer. In his experience, ideas for new games and content generally come about through organic discussion throughout the office, with a particular member of staff usually championing a concept. 

In the case of Arclight Rumble, it was Tom Chilton, one of the former lead directors on the original Warcraft who got the wheels turning, before gathering the support of his colleagues. The support proved enough for the corporate bigwigs over at Blizzard to OK the project, with Tom installed as the game’s director.

Considering that I effectively took part in beta testing, I’m impressed with how seamless Blizzard’s mobile title is pre-launch. In all honesty, I’ve seen live-service games up for three years with much fewer optimisations and game modes, though admittedly I’m expecting the best out of Blizzard, considering the company’s resources and experience.

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That isn’t to say that WAR doesn’t have some of the familiar trappings of free-to-play live service games, but from speaking to members on the team at Blizzard, it’s clear that they’re trying to balance their monetization methods as best possible. Before purchasing new minis in WAR, whether it be with earned coins or your own dollars, you can fully preview the abilities of each new character, which in itself is much more generous than a lot of loot-box or gacha heavy titles. 

Both Adam and Vik are keen to make the point that every step of the way the game has been designed to be accessible for players who aren’t looking to part with their cash. This is seemingly influenced by Vik’s years of mobile development, with his lessons learned summed down to “the best free-to-play games are exactly that, free-to-play”, as well as a general industry trend of fans being disappointed by pay-to-win elements in free titles.

From my experience, I can’t say that the guys are wrong. With all the interconnection between game modes, progression in WAR comes naturally, as the mechanics push you to strategise with the resources you already have, before opting to trade in your gold for new minis with different abilities. That being said, you routinely unlock new characters as you play through levels, so once you clear the first few stages, you can begin to get tactical with your team choices.

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And boy, will you need to get tactical. Blizzard’s core design philosophy of “easy to learn, hard to master” is fully in play in WAR, and it’s this emphasis on strategy as a necessity that sets the game apart from similar titles like Clash Royale or Spellbinders. In the first non-tutorial area you head into, Elwynn Forest, the challenge presents itself clearly, and by the time you reach the area boss Hogger, you need to have improved your skills from the tutorials, or the Riverpaw pack chieftain will roll right over your defences. 

All of these things, the engaging strategic combat, the intelligent world design, the ability to play freely without having to, or even really feeling the temptation, to dip into microtransactions, come together in WAR to offer a mobile title that is as hard to put down as it is to master. While we’re still not expecting the upcoming title to light up the industry like WoW once did, our high hopes so far are warranted, and we’re very much looking forward to manifesting more minis, and getting to grips with PvP,  when Warcraft Arclight Rumble launches in the future.