Summary: Patrick digs himself out from under a pile of assignments and studying tasks in order to play the WarCraft III expansion beta. In order to earn his bread and water though, we made him slave away on a preview. So what's up with The Frozen Throne? Why, nothing less than revolution! The people at Blizzard have arisen against the magicocratic imperialist dictators, and established the People's Republic of Spellcaster Asskicking... or something like that. Read on to find out what the hell that means. Viva la Pandaren!
Warcraft III: TFT official page: http://www.blizzard.com/war3x/
Estimated Release: Summer 2003
Beta testing for The Frozen Throne, the long-awaited expansion pack for Blizzard’s critically acclaimed Warcraft III, has finally begun in earnest. One of the greatest aspects of the original Warcraft III was the richly textured, multi-dimensional campaign, which allowed players to experience the story from the distinct perspectives of each of the four races. Although Blizzard remains hush-hush about the specifics of the new campaign, its been rumored that we’ll finally be able to delve into the depths of Illidan Stormrage’s character along with bringing Arthas’ tragic story to a close. With all that out of the way, I’m sure most of you are most interested in reading about the new units, skills, spells, and gameplay revisions that Blizzard is bringing to the table. As the Beta stands at this particular moment, Blizzard has radically redefined the fundamental gameplay elements of Warcraft III, a drastic deviation from Blizzard’s typical expansion pack philosophy of augmentation, not revision.
Unearthing New Layers
Unsurprisingly enough, Blizzard has finally added a ‘magic’ type damage to the former trio of normal, piercing, and siege. This change has two considerable ramifications. Firstly, units with spell immunity are immune to magic-type attacks. Secondly, magic deals double damage versus medium armor. Building construction times, for the most part, have been notably decreased. Additionally, the gold costs of all buildings and units have been decreased by approximately 15%. Certain units now have an ability to turn themselves or another unit ethereal by casting a spell, rendering them immune to all but magic attacks. When a unit is in ethereal form, they are unable to attack, but they are still able to cast spells. And finally, creeps now give considerably lower gold rewards. Kill a group of level 1 gnolls and you can expect to only receive 7 gold or so per head, while top-level creeps may drop around 60 gold. Though there are dozens of other minor revisions, these are the most structurally significant. Blizzard will be including various neutral heroes, but the only one available for testing at this time was the Dark Ranger, who was as thoroughly unremarkable as your typical spell-casting mercenary.
It’s also worth noting that Blizzard has done a fantastic job with the new units with respect to graphics and voice-acting. These new units are gorgeously colored and animated. Perhaps most noteworthy of these is the Human Dragon Hawk, almost pterodactyl-like in bearing and menace, as well as the rippling shades of the Phoenix. The Blood Elven Spell Breakers are an exotic substitute for the plain-vanilla Footmen and have more than a passing resemblance to the Elven warriors present at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. The voice acting for the new units is arguably superior in comparison to the original units, as the Blood Mage radiates a deep, inbred arrogance, while the Crypt Lord sounds like someone you’d rather not run into at night. Those of you eagerly anticipating the Pandaren Brewmaster will be in for a real treat. His voice puts most anime dubs to shame, and his animation looks like something that could’ve come right out of Samurai Shodown. There are still some rough spots in the new art, however. A few of the unit portraits (the Dark Ranger and the Dragon Hawk, particularly) as well as the icons (such as unarmored) look either crude or humdrum and could benefit from some brush-up.
SIDEBAR: Jakub’s FiringSquad email account receives about 200 spam emails per day. Which is of course not nearly as many flames as he gets for his reviews.
The new units the Humans receive have the potential to completely redefine the typical formula for ladder play. Most noteworthy is the new Blood Mage hero. He has the ability to cast a ‘Flame Strike’ which deals staggering amounts of damage for the first two seconds, then tapers off and deals minimal damage for the remainder of the spell. The area the spell is cast upon briefly glows blue before erupting in a fantastic explosion, allowing for micro-adept players a short interval to move their troops. The Blood Mage can also cast ‘Mana Shield’, which allows for him to absorb a set amount of physical damage or magic spells. His ‘Banish’ ability turns any unit temporarily invisible, and his ultimate, ‘Mark of Fire’, sacrifices one of your units into a massively powerful phoenix which takes a constant amount of damage per second upon inception. The new Spell Breaker unit is almost identical to the Footman in terms of statistics and upgrades, and begins with spell immunity. They may be upgraded to ‘Spell Steal’ positive buffs from enemy units, placing the enchantment onto a nearby friendly unit, and perform the reverse with respect to negative buffs. Finally, the versatile Dragon Hawk can attack both land and air units. They also possess the ‘Cloud’ ability which casts a small fog, preventing any afflicted building from attacking with ranged attacks.
A popular strategy is to tri-hero with the Archmage, Blood Mage, and Mountain King. The player rushes the Mountain King into the middle of the fray, Thunder Claps (stunning all enemy units around the Mountain King), then simultaneously casts Blizzard and Flame Strike onto the enemy units. The combination of both spells, especially at high levels, will drop a unit’s hit points faster than Enron’s stock. Similarly, some players go heavy Spell Breakers, casting Blizzard and Flame Strike with abandon, as the Spell Breakers are completely immune to all spell damage. This sort of reliance upon heroes allows human players the luxury of diversifying their armies significantly. The Dragon Hawk is a more affordable substitute for Gryphon Riders and their base-neutralizing abilities can be very helpful. It is also worth noting that Flame Strike deals damage to buildings. Undead players who mass Spirit Towers are often shocked to see an able Human player rip through their base in a matter of minutes alternating between Blizzard and Flame Strike. Mana Shield makes the Blood Mage effectively invincible, and with Brilliance Aura, the Blood Mage won’t be running out of mana.
SIDEBAR: .303 caliber guns in Il-2 might as well be called ‘paint strippers’ for all the damage they do. Plenty of paint flies off enemy planes when they’re hit, but a closer inspection reveals no visible damage. One has to be deadly accurate with these guns, attacking engines and cockpits with unerring precision to score a kill.
Enigmatic Night Elves
The new Night Elf Hero, the Warden, has so many useful skills it can be difficult to choose what to specialize in. ‘Blink’ allows for her to teleport instantly to any point on the visible screen. ‘Fan of Knives’ automatically hurls a flurry to knives against all enemy units (to a cap, similar to Carrion Swarm) in the immediate vicinity of the Warden, dealing substantial amounts of damage. ‘Shadow Strike’ is the Warden’s tool of assassination; she hurls a poisoned dagger at a single-target, dealing massive amounts of initial damage, followed by significant poison damage. Last, but certainly not least, her ultimate ability, ‘Spirit of Vengeance’, creates a fighting spirit from the bodies of fallen allies. I’ve seen Spirits with thousands of hit points summoned from a mass graveyard of archers and huntresses. It’s worth noting, however, that bodies of fallen air units and mountain giants do not count to the corpse total.
The Night Elves, already the anti-magic race of choice, is given two weapons in its arsenal making them the undisputed Kings (or, perhaps more aptly, Queens) of anti-magic. Going spellcasters against an advanced Night Elf player at this time is suicide. I saw one Undead player attempt to swarm a Night Elf player with Skeletal minions, but his Necromancers virtually imploded when attempting to Raise Dead close to the transformed Faerie Dragons. Additionally, a fully upgraded Mountain Giant can take more punishment than a Town Hall. The –20 damage resistance seems rather severe, as a significant proportion of units in the game can’t deal more than 20 points of damage. If you take into account the Mountain Giant’s hit points (a whopping 1400), it’s easy to see why creating a couple of Mountain Giants, then going overkill on air, is a popular Night Elf strategy at the moment.
SIDEBAR: Most memorable use of ‘kosher’ in a movie…
This is England, we play by the rules. If the stones are kosher, then I’ll buy them, won’t I? Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s my lunchtime.
The new Orc Hero, the ‘Shadow Hunter’, is full of personality but doesn’t seem to have much use beyond rushing with Grunts early in the game. His ‘Healing Wave’ ability mimics the Far Seer’s Chain Lightning, except that it heals friendly units for twice the amount Chain Lightning would ordinarily damage for. ‘Hex’ turns a target enemy unit into a random critter and ‘Serpent Ward’ creates a low hit point immobile serpent which deals a small amount of damage against air and land targets. The Shadow Hunter’s ultimate, ‘Big Bad Voodoo’, renders all friendly units around the Shadow Hunter invulnerable except for the Shadow Hunter himself. The Troll Batrider is a cheap flying unit, able to deal respectable damage against air and land units. They are able to kamikaze themselves into enemy fliers with their ‘Unstable Concoction’ ability for massive amounts of damage (750 at this time) and they have a ‘Liquid Fire’ upgrade which deals burning damage to a building (in addition to the batriders’ normal attack) and prevents the building from being repaired for the burning duration. Conversely, Spirit Walkers, Tauren spellcasters, have ‘Corporeal/Ethereal Form’ which allows for them to morph between ethereal and corporeal states, ‘Ancestral Spirit’ allows them to resurrect non-Hero Tauren units, ‘Disenchant’, a spell which damages all summoned creatures in an area, and ‘Spirit Link’, a spell that distributes damage received relatively evenly among spirit linked creatures.
The current Orc stratagem can be summed up in a single word: Batriders. These things are absurdly cheap to build, come out almost as quickly as peons, and only cost two food. They deal, for their cost, more than reasonable amounts of damage against units and buildings, and they are fast. Unscrupulous players will mass batriders and take out an opponent’s gold mine from behind in less than 15 seconds. The nature of ‘Liquid Fire’ makes it impossible to repair a building a Batrider is attacking, allowing them to engage in blitz-and-run tactics. Their Unstable Concoction is handy in clearing out clumps of Faerie Dragons, Chimera, and the like, though you need to be careful or you might accidentally wipe out a significant portion of your own batriders; Unstable Concoction does not discriminate between friend and foe.
SIDEBAR: The transition quote comes from a Bugs Bunny episode where Bugs ends up staying overnight in the castle of Count Dracula.
The Crypt Lord, while not a particularly inspiring new hero, is nevertheless quite effective and is a growing favorite among Undead players. ‘Impale’ allows for the Crypt Lord to impale a single target (dealing respectable damage), hurling them into the air, and landing them a few squares away from where they originally were. The unit, upon landing, is also momentarily stunned. ‘Spiked Carapace’ returns damage to enemy melee attackers and increases the Crypt Lord’s armor. ‘Carrion Beetles’ progenerates (in Blizzard’s words) a pair of attacking beetles from a corpse. The Crypt Lord’s ultimate, ‘Locust Swarm’, brings forth a screen-covering horde of locusts which deal damage to nearby enemies, simultaneously healing the Crypt Lord in a vampiric fashion. The new Undead units, similarly, are quite useful.
The Obsidian Statue radiates an ‘Aura of Blight’ which heals nearby Undead units, regardless of whether they are on the blight or not. The Statue regenerates mana quickly and may ‘Absorb Mana’ from friendly units, further rejuvenating its mana store. As you probably surmise, the Statue has a ‘Replenish Mana’ ability which transfers its mana to a friendly, target unit. The Statue may transform into the Black Sphinx, a flying spellcaster. The Black Sphinx, along with dealing significant damage, can ‘Devour Magic’, which dispels all positive and negative buffs in a large area. Every buff dispelled in this manner refills a portion of the Black Sphinx’s hit points and mana. The Black Sphinx also has a ‘Orb of Annihilation’ ability which enables the Sphinx to deal a more powerful splash damage attack. This attack has a horrendously expensive mana cost, easily draining an entire mana reserve in less than a minute.
The Undead have not had their gameplay tactics changed significantly by these new units. Instead, these new units enhance the tools the Undead have at their disposal and encourage Undead players to have heavily diverse armies. It’s not an uncommon sight to see an Undead army consist of ghouls, crypt fiends, obsidian statues, black sphinxes, necromancers, banshees, and frost wyrms. The Undead are still very vulnerable to magic and lack an effective means to confront anti-casters. With the inclusion of the Crypt Lord, Undead players have an early game advantage in creeping and rushing, but their late game simply is not as deep as the Humans or Night Elves, and they lack the agility the Orcs now possess. Undead players now, more than ever, must be intimately familiar with all the tools at their disposal to hang with advanced players of other races.
SIDEBAR: Wakko Jakko says: As if the Undead needed help in early-game creeping and rushing!
We hates spellcasterses!
Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of The Frozen Throne is its vehemently anti-spellcaster bent. In the original Warcraft III, many one-on-one and team player games would devolve down to massing Priests, Sorceresses, Shaman, Witch Doctors, Necromancers, and various Druids. With units such as the Faerie Dragon and Spell Breakers, Blizzard seems to have executed a U-turn and is now endorsing a gameplay sentiment quite the opposite of what players are accustomed to. It’s especially interesting to see the heightened importance of heroes, especially the Blood Mage and Warden, boasting massive, independently offensive capabilities. Similarly, the insertion of so many powerful aerial units seems to be a not-so-transparent nudge from Blizzard to coax players away from massing land-based units (with the exceptions of mass Gryphon Riders, Chimera, and Frost Wyrms... which are analogous to massing Battlecruisers and Carriers). I would like to applaud Blizzard for being gutsy enough to completely redefine its gameplay paradigm, at the risk of alienating thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dedicated battle.net players in order to inject some fresh air into a stagnating game. Despite the numerous units and Heroes that were part of the original Warcraft III, I always felt as though it were incomplete, that it was a bit too one-dimensional. It finally feels as though Blizzard is putting the finishing touches on a painting that was never quite finished, and gamers will finally be able to experience Blizzard’s fully realized ambition.
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