Summary: Bob took some time out of his non-stop playing to write what he thinks about the WarCraft III beta so far. Who says FS never shows you any love? Happy Valentine's Day, and enjoy the screenshots!
Sleep? Who needs it?
We’ve experienced another Blizzard beta release, and yet again, I have suffered a ridiculous decline in the time I allocate to other unimportant tasks, like sleeping. We’ve put the beta through its paces here at FS, going the extra mile and putting in plenty of out-of-office hours on the game. You must all be weeping with sympathy for us hard-working folks.
The first thing we noticed upon loading the game is that the interface for logging into and navigating around Battle.net has gotten a facelift. Windows appear to be suspended on metal chains, and you can see smoke and fire churning behind the semi-transparent chat window. There are several new functions (currently grayed out). One of those is “arranged team” which allows you to create a prearranged team and be matched up against another team. No more setting up games and kicking out people who join up before your friends can connect to your match. There’s also a tournament button for entering one-day tourneys organized by Blizzard. A friends and clan list/finder allows you to keep track of which friends of yours are online, and where they are in Battle.net, whether it’s in-game or in a private channel. The GUI functionality for this is unavailable now, but you can still manage and see your friends via the command line.
If you choose to join a game using the old StarCraft method, WarCraft III now allows you to set teams before the game launches. That way, your allies and shared vision (ability to see what your teammates see) are set automatically and you’re not frantically clicking through the interface to set teams when the game starts. As all hardcore RTS players know, efficiency in the first couple minutes is absolutely critical. Other teamplay enhancements include the ability to share units if you choose, (teammates can control the soldiers you build) and transfer gold and wood over to your teammates.
Yes it’s pretty
WarCraft III is Blizzard’s first attempt at a fully 3D engine. StarCraft and Brood War were among the last of the great 2D RTS games, restricted to a 640x480 resolution with a 256 color palette. Though SC and BW are still played extensively today, Blizzard has fallen behind other RTS game developers in terms of graphics. Blizzard felt the pressure to move ahead with the times, and thus the change to 3D. WarCraft III’s engine is undeniably gorgeous, featuring detailed units and heroes on screen with many frames of animation. Hero units can be fairly large onscreen, with their weapons giving off a subtle colored glow to help distinguish them on the battlefield. Aerial units cast shadows on the ground underneath, and hug the contours of the terrain. You can zoom the screen in for a better look at unit detail, but this is impractical from a control standpoint – the default viewpoint is as zoomed out as the game will allow. No rotation of the screen is allowed, unfortunately.
Each of the four races has a unique look and feel that extends through the interface. The framing of the interface components as Humans features a chiseled stone look; the Night Elves sport a woodsy, leafy foliage; Orcs have a rough hewn wood/metal/horn combination, while the Undead have a skull/bone/metal motif. It’s a subtle detail, but one that adds to the atmosphere as you play. The uniqueness extends also to the building art and manner in which each of the race’s units are animated. The Elves have a more fluid grace than other races in the way they move about, with the Wisps floating around, and Huntresses and Archers gliding across the map. The Orcs, who emphasize raw power over speed, move in a more lumbering fashion, punctuated by thundering footsteps from their bigger units like the Taurens and Kodo Beasts.
Spell effects in the game feature good use of lighting and particles to distinguish them from one another. Seeing an Arch-Mage cast a Blizzard spell seems to be a good deal more intimidating than it was in WarCraft II because of the huge size of the ice blocks falling from the sky. Plague Clouds spread by the Undead Abominations engulf enemy units in a sickly green haze. The Tauren Chieftain’s Shockwave spell visibly distorts the ground underneath units as it moves in its linear path.
But at what price?
Right now the beta hasn’t been optimized for performance, and Blizzard claims that as the beta moves forward, lower end systems will eventually be able to play. As it stands right now, the game is somewhat of a resource hog. You’re allowed to tweak the resolutions from 640x480x16 on up to 1600x1200x32. Initially I tried playing at 1024x768x32 with unit detail, animation, lighting, and particles all turned up to max. This proved to be rather laggy in terms of performance on our test systems, even an Athlon 1.1GHz, 256MB RAM, GeForce 2 GTS. Knocking the color depth down to 16 bit improved performance greatly, with an unnoticeable decrease in image quality.
GeForce 2 GTS
GeForce 2 GTS
I play the game at 10x7x16 now, with all detail settings turned to high. It’s very playable most of the time, but I still experience slowdown in big battles.
One of the biggest additions to WarCraft III is the introduction of hero characters to multiplayer combat. Each race has a selection of three unique heroes, each of whom have their own special spells or auras, one ultimate ability, and different attributes. Some heroes have excellent speed, coupled with a powerful ranged attack, like the Night Elf Priestess of the Moon. Others lumber about more slowly, with punishing melee attacks like the Orc Tauren Chieftain. Still others, like the Human Arch-Mage, have their strengths in mana and spell casting ability. Blizzard allows you to make up to three heroes in a multiplayer match, the first one being free (just like the guy in the school yard selling the funny looking pills), and later ones costing progressively more money. You’re also not allowed to build your 2nd and 3rd heroes until you’ve upgraded your town center. Heroes accompanying an army comprise a big portion of any strike force. A smaller army escorted by a hero will just about always win out over a larger army sans hero, assuming you make good use of the hero’s special abilities.
If you can imagine taking a little bit of Diablo and sticking it into a WarCraft game, you have an idea of how heroes work. As they go through combat with enemy players and the NPC “creeps” on the map, they gain experience which can be used to level them up. Their already high number of hit points and mana increase with each level, and you get to choose from among two or three different spells or auras to learn each time your hero levels up. Each of the spells and auras has three levels, making it more powerful and effective with each successive level you add to it. This gives the player a choice. You can choose one single spell or aura, and pump all your points into it early on, or you can try to be more well balanced and spread your points around more evenly. The “right” choice will depend on the situation and what strategies your opponent is using that you need to counter. Auras are perhaps the most interesting hero ability, as they automatically confer their benefit to surrounding allied units with no cost in mana or need to manually cast. The Night Elf Priestess’ True Shot aura is a very popular one now, as it gives a damage benefit to any allied ranged units around her. It gives +2 damage at level one, on up to a whopping +6 damage per shot when fully upgraded to level three. The Undead Dread Lord has a Vampiric Aura that allows friendly units to regain small amounts of hp with each hit they deliver to an enemy.
Each hero has an ultimate ability that they can learn once they reach level five. These ultimate spells are often powerful enough that they can swing the tide of battle in favor of the player who can get them off the fastest and place theirs most efficiently on the swirling field of battle. Balancing it out is that these ultimates cost a lot of mana and usually have a long cool-down time, meaning that even if you had the mana to re-cast it, you still have to wait until the spell re-charges itself. All spells in the game have a certain cool down time, preventing rapid fire, repeated casting from the same unit. Ultimate spells include the Tranquility spell, cast by the Night Elf Keeper of the Grove. It’s basically a massive area effect healing that affects all allies in a large vicinity. The Human Paladin’s ultimate is Resurrection, which as you can guess, is an area effect spell that brings any surrounding dead units of his right back to life with full hp. This very powerful ability takes an entire day within the in-game day/night cycle to cool down before recasting.
Heroes can also carry magical items in a six space inventory. The magical items can be attained by killing the NPC creeps littering the map, or by purchasing them from a Goblin Merchant. There are a wide variety of different wearable items that confer certain bonuses to the hero and/or his accompanying army. Rings of Strength buff up your hero’s hp and attack power, for example. Rings of Protection give your hero an armor bonus. There are also different scrolls and wands that have one-time or other limited use, such as the scroll of healing, which gives a one-time 100 hp boost to you and your army. You can also buy and pickup an array of health or mana potions that will heal your hero or give a quick boost to his mana. It’s also worth noting that each hero starts with a scroll of town portal. This scroll allows you to instantly teleport your hero and surrounding units back to any friendly town hall, including those of your teammates. You get caught outside of your base? Teleport in, instead of wasting time running from the other side of the map. Need to help a friend who’s getting double teamed? Teleport into his base. Scrolls are one-time use though, and are expensive to re-buy at the Goblin Merchant. Use them wisely!
Economy and RTS Philosophy
As it stands, WarCraft III gives players a 90 unit cap on the army they build. This doesn’t mean they can make 90 units. Most of the regular units count 2 or 3 units against that 90. Higher level units can cost 4 units against the cap, while heroes take up 5 slots. Compared to StarCraft, which had a 200 unit cap per player, and most units only took up one or two slots, you can see that the size of armies has scaled down a lot. While in StarCraft, it was common to send 75 Marines, Medics, and Firebats and 10 Siege Tanks streaming into an enemy Zerg base littered with 60 Hydralisks and 15 Mutalisks, you don’t see that scale of battle in WarCraft III. Most players have a pair of strike groups of about 12 units each running around by the mid-game stage. Better players might manage three groups by the late game. It’s also notable that all units have much higher relative hit point counts in WarCraft III than in SC.
The reason for this is that Blizzard wanted players to focus more on combat instead of economy. The best players in StarCraft didn’t bother with micromanaging their battles for the most part, because casting spells was a waste of time. When you have to send 50+ units in to an average fight, your time is better spent back at your base, pumping out more guys than casting little spells here and there. The closer you get to world class competition, the more you’d see players who take a macromanagement philosophy – get lots of expansions, lots of money, and just pump out guys like no tomorrow.
Blizzard’s goal with WarCraft III was to allow players to not spend as much time fiddling in their town, and spend more time casting spells, casting counters, and managing their battles like a lieutenant or a field major, as opposed to just managing a war economy like a Supreme Allied Commander. SC vets might look at the 90 unit cap as a huge limitation, but in trade, you don’t have to spend as much of it on peons. Night Elf town halls mine gold without the benefit of peon units. The optimum number of peons to mine a gold mine for the other races is just five, as opposed to StarCraft where it could take 20 or more peons to effectively mine a big patch of crystals.
Yet another big addition that Blizzard has made to the game is the concept of upkeep. The idea is that the larger your army gets, the more logistical cost it takes to keep them in the field. If you have your army size at 30 units or under, you are at the No Upkeep level, and you mine gold normally, at 10 units per hit, while the mine drains at 10 units per also. Between 31 to 60 units you are at Low Upkeep. This means you bring in gold seven units at a time while your mine is still being drained at 10 units per hit. Get over 60 units and you reach High Upkeep which is a whopping 60% penalty. Your bank balance grows by only four units per, while the mine is still draining 10 per.
There are a couple major effects of Upkeep on the game. One is that the player is encouraged to not keep a big standing army hiding in his base. Why have your guys standing around doing nothing when it’s costing you big money? If you send them out to fight, you’ll get some of them killed, but at least then you’ll be back down into the lower upkeep levels and you’ll be able to bring in money faster for upgrades and research. It rewards aggressiveness. It also brings a new strategic element…how long do you want to stay down in the low upkeep level? The longer you stay there, the faster you will mine versus an opponent who immediately builds a large army to seek you out. You can use the extra money for upgrades and to advance more quickly up the tech tree, and maybe even grab an expansion or two. But if he attacks you with his army while yours is still small, you could be in for a world of hurt.
Finally, upkeep makes it more possible for players to make comebacks. If you send out a big attack, and get your army completely obliterated, as long as you have a number of towns bringing in money, you’ll be able to get back on your feet quickly. Again, keeping with Blizzard’s philosophy to increase the amount of fighting in the game, just because you’ve beaten down an opponent’s large army doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels. To keep your advantage, you have to press the fight, get out of your base, and counter-attack immediately. Yes, he’s lost a lot of guys, but he’s down to low or no upkeep again and he’s getting money in pretty fast!
SIDEBAR: …the less I get to play. Would you guys prefer shorter, daily or every other day updates on WarCraft III? Like diary entries? Or do you prefer larger, weekly updates like this one? Cast your vote
WarCraft III also introduces Non-Player-Characters in the maps. These “creeps” include Gnolls, Ogres, Golems, and Trolls. They don’t wander around the map – instead they stand guard at entrances/exits to bases (these are the weakest creeps usually), and also guard available gold mines on the map and the various neutral structures scattered around. There are a few reason for their existence. One, it prevents players from taking their first combat unit and scouting around very early, and launching a quick “rush” on an opponent. It also prevents the player from taking his first batch of money and using it to expand to a new gold mine immediately. Usually you have to wait until you’ve built a couple of units and maybe your hero before you can break out of your base and go scouting. Or you can wait for night to fall and sneak past the creeps, who fall asleep during the night hours. Either way, their presence more or less eliminates the very early rush. Players in WarCraft III who still complain about rushers really need to stop whining and learn to build faster. You’ve got a good five minutes now before any serious attack is going to reach you on most maps.
The creeps also give your hero a source of enemies to beat down really early for experience and to pick up items. I view them almost like a finite resource on the map – I want to go around and kill as many creeps as I can, level up my hero and collect the goodies they drop before my opponent does. It’s always a trade off though. Your hero can and will take a beating from these encounters. If you happen to run into an opposing army while your hero is half dead from creep fights, it could be a bad scene.
The various neutral buildings you find scattered about the map create yet another strategic layer to the game. The four types we’ve seen in the beta include the Goblin Merchant, the Goblin Alchemist, the Mercenary Camp, and the Fountain of Life. To use the first three structures, you have to bring a hero up to it. The Merchant sells magical items that your heroes can carry. These include health potions, mana potions, and various scrolls and wands. The Goblin Alchemist is like the one in WarCraft II. You can buy sapper demolition teams (currently too costly and ineffective to bother with) or a Zeppelin, which now acts as an aerial transport that can move up to 8 units around the map.
Each race has a small assortment of non-hero spellcasters as well, that support the regular army. Many of their spells and abilities enhance the effectiveness of your troops, or act in a deleterious fashion against enemy troops. The beauty of these spells is that a lot them are toggleable to cast automatically. The Human Sorceress, among other spells, has a Slow spell that’s similar to the one in WarCraft II, slowing down a targeted unit’s attack rate and movement speed. And yes, it’s auto cast. The Night Elf Dryad has a Dispel ability that can be autocast to remove any hexes or other harmful magics on your own units, or beneficial spells that are on enemy units. The beloved Bloodlust spell from War2 also makes a return, an autocast buff spell from the Orc Shaman.
The new patch
Yesterday Blizzard released the first balance patch to the beta since its release. This new patch nerfed some of the Night Elves’ strengths, reducing damage from the Archer, and adding hit points to all melee units, which the Elves don’t have in abundance. The first revision of the beta seemed to give a large advantage to ranged units, with many Orc players opting to build all Troll HeadHunters instead of many Grunts. The new patch should probably change all of that. Undead got a much needed boost, with Abominations and Crypt Fiends being reduced in cost. And now players will no longer be able to build duplicate hero types – this probably became an issue because of stacking auras and being able to cast the same ultimate twice in a row if you had two of the same level 5 hero.
Overall we’re loving the WarCraft III beta – it’s as though no other game exists in the FiringSquad office. We’ll be churning out more updates as we go, so click the by-line above if there’s something specific you want us to cover. Coming up next are the race specific guides, starting with Night Elves and Undead
SIDEBAR: What do you think of WarCraft III? Sound off in our comments section
|© Copyright 2003 FS Media, Inc.|