The closed beta test for The Frozen Throne, the expansion pack for GameSpot PC's Game of the Year for 2002, continues on Blizzard's Battle.net online service. This time around, we focused our attentions on the orcs and night elves and have impressions on how each of these factions' new units and abilities affect the way they play. Please note that these impressions are from an early beta version of The Frozen Throne; the game is still being play-tested, so the information below is subject to change.
We decided we'd catch up with the brutish orcs first. The orcs in Warcraft III were unquestionably the strongest race when it came to head-to-head melee combat; even the low-level grunt units packed a powerful punch, even more so when augmented by the shaman's bloodlust spell ability. However, playing as the orcs more or less required you to focus on brute strength, so many orc players would opt to balance out their close-combat armies with the far seer hero, whose chain lightning ability helped you attack enemy archers and spellcasters from a distance while the grunts pummeled enemy infantry from the front. But from what we've seen so far, this focus may change drastically for most orc players thanks to The Frozen Throne's new troll shadow hunter hero, a wisecracking Rastafarian troll who wears a glowing voodoo mask.
The shadow hunter is extremely powerful and versatile; his abilities include healing wave (a healing spell that works just like chain lightning by bouncing off of allied units, healing less and less damage with each bounce), hex (a spell that works just like the human sorceress's polymorph spell and turns a single enemy into a harmless animal), serpent ward (a spell that summons a rather fragile stationary magical turret that helps draw fire away from your troops), and the level-6 spell big bad voodoo, an ability that makes all nearby friendly units invulnerable to damage for 30 seconds. These abilities, especially healing ward and hex, help address the orcs' original problem of having no healing abilities in the early game.
In the original Warcraft III, it wasn't uncommon to start a game by attacking a few groups of neutral enemies (or "creeps") and end up with a severely wounded grunt or two, but since you had no way to heal them, and the grunts cost so much in the way of gold and food, having injured grunts in the early game was basically like carrying around wasted resources. The healing wave ability lets you keep your grunts at decent health levels (without having to wait for the midlevel healing wards research upgrade), and the hex ability is fantastic for neutralizing powerful creeps or troublesome enemies that might have otherwise severely damaged or killed your troops. The humans were (and still are) feared for their ability to polymorph enemies using the upgraded midlevel sorceress unit, but in The Frozen Throne, the orcs can get this powerful ability right at the beginning of the game with the shadow hunter. If what we've seen is any indication, we're pretty sure that many orc players will want to consider retiring their early-game far seers in favor of this powerful new hero unit.
The orcs' new units also include the tauren spirit walker, a tauren unit recruited from the spirit lodge structure, and the troll batrider, a flying unit recruited from the bestiary structure. At this point, the spirit walker seems to be of limited use; it's a solid addition to an orc army's fighting force, but its new spell-like abilities seem as though they'd really only be useful if you specifically plan to recruit taurens in your armies. The spirit walkers' spirit link ability lets them share damage with any friendly units that have been injured; the ability sounds rather unexciting, but it's somewhat useful, at least if you keep your spirit walkers in the back ranks and soak up damage for your grunts and taurens. The spirit walker's disenchant ability damages summoned units, but it's also of limited use unless you happen to be specifically facing enemies that summon enemy units, like necromancers or the human archmage hero. However, the highest-level ancestral spirit ability, which lets the spirit walker instantly resurrect a dead tauren, is a powerful ability that works quite well if you opt to add taurens to your armies. The batrider's abilities are also rather specific but quite useful; they begin with the powerful unstable concoction spell that damages enemy air units, and they can also research the liquid fire spell, which damages enemy towers and slows their rate of fire.
Currently, units seem cheaper to produce overall in Frozen Throne than they are in the current version of Warcraft III (grunts cost only 200 gold, rather than 235 in the original game, for instance). This change is especially beneficial to the orcs, whose heavy-hitting units are balanced out by equally heavy production costs. However, the new change to unit costs is universal to all four races; the idea seems to be to let players create a stable base of operations and a starting army much more quickly. Interestingly, Frozen Throne's beta client also has improvements to the Battle.net general interface. First of all, there's a "quick launch" button next to the "play game" button that remembers your previous settings, so you don't have to go to an additional screen just to start a game, and you don't have to continually select your race when you want to play a new game. Second, when you look for a ladder game, Battle.net will take you back to chat so you won't miss any messages while you wait for a game.
We got out of chat and jumped back into the beta, this time as the night elves. In the original Warcraft III, the night elves had problems in the later stages of a match because they never had any true frontline fighters to protect their weaker ranged units. Huntresses were strong, but they were only low-level troops and usually got slaughtered by stronger units like taurens. The Frozen Throne corrects this issue by giving the night elves a fighter hero and a new fighter unit. The night elves also had a problem with base defenses and were the most vulnerable to early attacks in team games because most players wouldn't be concerned about ancient protectors, and uprooting trees to fight back wasn't the best thing to do in all cases. The Frozen Throne addresses this by having the ancients fight back while rooted. From what we've seen, night elf players might not have to uproot their tree of life and destroy their entangled gold mine just to defend themselves.
The warden is the new night elf hero. She is almost equivalent to the demon hunter in terms of physical attributes, but her abilities allow her to quickly strike vulnerable units in the opposing army. The blink ability allows her to instantly teleport anywhere on the screen. It can be used to escape a crowd of units, or it can be combined with her other two abilities to assassinate supporting units. Fan of knives damages multiple targets around the warden, so you can blink into a group of weak spellcasters and launch the knives to weaken or kill them. The warden's other ability is a poison dagger that deals a substantial amount of initial damage, then deals additional poison damage over time. This ability is great for killing heroes who are trying to run away after being injured, and it makes her an effective hero killer in a battle, more so than the demon hunter, because that hero's manaburn ability is no longer as strong as it used to be. The warden's level-6 ability allows her to call upon the spirits of fallen allies to help her. What this means is that your warden can summon a powerful spirit ally if she's surrounded by allied corpses. The spirit's strength is determined by the number of dead allies in the vicinity, so you'll generally want to use this late into a battle to get the best effect.
Frozen Throne also adds two new units to the night elves' army. The first of these, the mountain giant, seems like the answer to most night elf players' prayers. It's a massive unit that can take huge amounts of damage. It's meant to soak up damage while your archers, huntresses, and dryads go to work. The mountain giant even has a taunt ability, which forces every enemy unit to attack it instead of other units. Your opponents can, of course, redirect their units to attack your more-vulnerable troops, but they're forced to actually watch the battle instead of going off to do something else. The mountain giants can also grab a tree and use it to add siege damage to their attacks. You can help extend a giant's life by researching hardened skin and resistant skin. The first upgrade means that only strong units like heroes or tier-3 units will be able to even hurt it. The second upgrade gives the mountain giant a hero's magic resistance. That means it can't be polymorphed, and effects like slow will have a reduced duration.
The second new unit is an air unit. The faerie dragon is a good counter to enemy spellcasters. Like the dryad, it is immune to spells. You can fly them over to enemy spellcasters and use their mana flare ability. This will damage spellcasters when they cast spells. You may think that the enemies might just attack the faerie dragon at this point, but it has another ability that allows it to avoid such attacks. Phase shift will turn the faerie dragon ethereal for a short amount of time. This means that it can be damaged only by regular magical attacks (that aren't spells), such as the normal attacks of the undead necromancer unit or the human's archmage hero. And since the faerie dragon is already immune to magic, this means that it can be damaged only by very, very few kinds of enemies. Enemy spellcasters that face faerie dragons will need to stop using any autocast abilities until they've eliminated the faerie dragons, or at least until they can get out of range.
The Frozen Throne continues to be very intriguing each time we play through the game's beta, and it's also still constantly in a state of flux. We'll keep you up to date on the expansion's various changes as the beta progresses. You can also