Blizzard quietly started the closed beta test for The Frozen Throne, its upcoming expansion pack for Warcraft III, late yesterday evening. We've been able to jump into the game briefly and take the early version of the beta for a test drive. Please note that these impressions are from the very beginning of the test, and since Blizzard is using this beta-testing phase to balance out the expansion pack's many new additions, the information below is subject to change as the test progresses.
Currently, the beta features a whopping nine maps: Bridge Too Near, Hail Stone, Ice Flow, Islands, Tanaris, Turtle Rock, Whirlwind, Stranglethorn Vale, and Wheel of Chaos. These are all fairly large maps (the first seven are four-on-four maps, the last two are six-on-six maps) that, for the most part, provide players with ample starting space to develop their initial base of operations. The Frozen Throne's maps feature much of the same scenery seen in the original Warcraft III, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, considering the original game's colorful and detailed 3D scenery. However, the new maps do have notable new features, including the new tavern building, which lets you hire a neutral hero. We were able to commission the services of a few of these, including the dark ranger, a corrupted dark elf with the intriguing abilities of stealing life force from enemies, firing poisoned arrows that deal continuous damage over time, enhancing allied damage (an ability that actually causes any slain enemies to rise again as skeletons), and taking control of any non-hero enemy under level six with a powerful charm spell. These intriguing abilities obviously lend themselves well to undead players who are used to using skeletons as cannon fodder, but they work well with other sides too.
In fact, much of The Frozen Throne's new units and content seem geared toward balancing out the game--or, more specifically, filling in gaps in the various sides' different armies and strategies. For example, the new human hero, the elven blood mage, currently seems best as a support unit. The blood mage's abilities include the stationary flame strike, which deals damage over time to any units in a specifically targeted area; the mana shield, which absorbs damage; and banish, which renders a target immune to damage but unable to act. Banish seems to be a perfect tool for protecting a wounded hero or a powerful unit from focused enemy fire, at least for a few moments. It also seems to have interesting tactical potential when used on a single disposable unit, such as a footman, to lure enemies into the range of a flame strike or blizzard spell. Since flame strike itself is a stationary area-of-effect spell, it's best used against stationary enemies, such as enemy spellcasters or archers, or from behind the protection of a line of footmen or water elementals. At this point, the humans' real powerhouses seem to still be the archmage and mountain king heroes, but the blood mage seems like a good choice for a secondary or tertiary hero.
In Frozen Throne, the humans also gain the services of the elven spellbreaker and the dragon hawk--both powerful companions with highly specific but very useful abilities. The dragon hawk's cloud ability helps human players assault towered defenses. Previously, many elements of the humans' armies were simply too weak in terms of health and armor to tear down large groups of enemy defense towers, at least in the early game. The spellbreaker's spell steal ability (which must be researched from the arcane sanctuary) lets spellbreakers swap magical effects onto other units, which is a great way to turn the tables on spellcasting enemies. However, both units are very expensive and require you to upgrade your keep to access them, so these powerful units don't seem to be getting a lot of use at the moment, at least in the early-to-mid game, when priests and sorceresses are immediately available at the sanctum.
We also had a chance to play as the undead in the beta. The new undead hero is the crypt lord, which is essentially a gigantic crypt fiend. The crypt lord is a very large unit, and it's as menacing in battle as it looks. While the dreadlord and death knight are adept fighters, the crypt lord is meant to be a frontline unit and can take quite a beating. In fact, the new hero actually has a skill that seems specifically designed for this purpose: a damage shield ability that functions similarly to the orcs' spiked barricades upgrade. Essentially, every time a crypt lord sustains damage from a melee attack, he automatically deals damage in return to his attacker, and this ability also provides an armor bonus to the hero. But the crypt lord's other skills seem even more useful, such as the ability to briefly incapacitate an enemy by hurling it into the air, damaging it and stunning it temporarily, and the ability to summon scarabs from corpses on the battlefield. Unlike the necromancer's skeletons, the scarabs are permanent, non-summoned units. The number of scarabs is dependent on the level of the spell, and it's currently an auto-cast spell, which makes replenishing fallen scarabs in battle easy. The crypt lord's ultimate spell is called locust swarm, and it conjures a swarm of locusts to hover around the crypt lord and attack anything within range.
The two new undead units are actually built off the same one, much like the Zerg devourer in the Brood Wars expansion for Starcraft. Both of the forms have tremendous potential to boost an undead army's strength when used correctly. The first phase, the obsidian statue, funnels mana from enemy spellcasters into its own mana reserve, which can then be subsequently transferred to an allied spellcaster. At this point, it seems that if you can keep your statue intact, you'll be able to summon legions of skeletons and scarabs with what seems like a virtually unlimited reserve of mana. We experimented with an army consisting of both a crypt lord and a dreadlord, both of whom constantly had full mana when we used them in conjunction with the statue. This duo itself worked well, since it let us alternate the sleep and impale abilities to eliminate individual enemy heroes with ease. The second new unit is the black sphinx. Its first ability allows it to dispel positive and negative buffs within a given radius, which is a powerful defense against the human forces' priests and sorceresses' inner fire and polymorph spells. This ability also returns mana and health to the sphinx and deals 100 damage to summoned units, making the sphinx a valuable asset.
We also noticed numerous miscellaneous general features that Blizzard may include in the final version of The Frozen Throne, including faint, purple-colored outlines of new buildings that appear when you assign a peon unit, such as a human peasant or an undead acolyte, to build it. In addition, The Frozen Throne's minimap display now shows the location of camps of "creeps"--neutral monsters that your forces fight for experience. The new feature lets you quickly zero in on neutral monsters and gain quick levels for your heroes, and the size of the circle indicates the relative strength and levels of each group of neutral monsters. And thankfully, The Frozen Throne has made at least one specific addition to unit AI: When setting a unit-producing building's waypoint on a friendly hero or other unit, new units still flock to that designated unit or hero, but in the original game, they wouldn't attack unless specifically commanded to. If you tried to create an army larger than a 12-unit control group, the stragglers would follow you but stand stock-still while your main group was attacked. Now these follower units will automatically join in and attack any enemies that assault your main force.
These are just a few of the new features we've been able to try out in The Frozen Throne beta. Be sure to check back for further updates on this promising expansion pack.