Frozen Throne updated beta impressions #3

We're back from the beta test, and have much to report about Frozen Throne version 3.05A, including impressions of the tweaks and improvements made to the humans and undead.

The online beta-testing of Blizzard's upcoming Warcraft III expansion pack continues, and we're providing this update to keep you informed of the many changes that Blizzard has implemented in the game so far. Please be advised that these reports specifically pertain to the beta version of The Frozen Throne and are subject to change.

Blizzard recently updated The Frozen Throne to version 3.05--which includes nearly 60 different fixes and balance tweaks to the general game and the specific playable sides--and then added a few more tweaks in the 3.05A patch. These changes join the various other additions that have been made since our last update, like the inclusion of a 10th map, Rice Fields--a medium-sized map for team games.

Blizzard has publicly stated on its message boards that it wants to give players more freedom in Frozen Throne to switch between different strategies, such as attempting to build up their heroes' experience levels by aggressively hunting neutral "creep" monsters, or instead focusing on mining resources to build different structures, which in turn allows them to advance to different technology levels and recruit higher-level units. Switching between these kinds of strategies, especially building high-level units, costs a lot of gold, so as a result, gold costs have been reduced for buildings, but wood costs have been increased. (As we reported earlier, Frozen Throne's units are already cheaper to produce in terms of gold for all four sides.) As a result, the game's population limits have been tweaked to let you recruit larger groups of peon units to gather wood. You are now in no upkeep at 0-50 food, low upkeep at 51-80 food, and high upkeep at 81-100 food.

That's not to say that early-game "creeping" (hunting neutral monsters called "creeps" to gain experience for your hero units) is no longer a valid strategy, but the mechanics of creeping have changed. Low-level heroes tend to gain experience more quickly, though they earn experience a bit more slowly once they hit level three, and once they hit level five, they can't gain experience from creeps anymore. This change helps balance out experience distribution between heroes in the same group. In the original Warcraft III, it wasn't uncommon to see groups with a level-seven hero and a level-two hero, but since low-level heroes gain experience more quickly, you should be able to get more-balanced armies more quickly, and you won't be able to access your level-six "ultimate" hero abilities by avoiding the enemy and looking only for creeps.

Frozen Throne's new changes also include a reworking of the unit armor system--now, all units have light, medium, or heavy armor. Light-armor units are mostly aerial units, medium-armor units are mostly ranged units and peons, and heavy-armor units are mostly level-one and level-three melee units, such as knights and abominations. Light-armor units are especially vulnerable to ranged units' piercing damage, and medium-armor units are resistant to piercing and magic-based attacks, but especially vulnerable to melee damage. Heavy-armor units are especially vulnerable to magic-based attacks. As a result, it's even more important for you to diversify your armies. For example, sending in an attack force that consists of nothing but gargoyles is a great way to get them torn to shreds by archers.

We also managed to log in some time with each of the game's races, including the humans, whose new blood mage hero has been improved somewhat. The blood mage's banish ability (which renders the target unit unable to attack, but immune to damage) has been tweaked to have less of a slow effect, though the ability now has longer range. The hero's standard magical attack, flame strike, costs less mana to use and has a larger radius--a definite plus, considering that the flame strike's area of effect is still stationary, and that most moving enemies can still move out of the spell's area of effect unless they're slowed by midlevel sorceresses or walled off by small armies of footmen and knights.

Interestingly, the blood mage's level-six ultimate spell, now simply called "phoenix," has been modified, too. Though the ability still turns a target allied unit into a powerful flying unit that continually loses health until it dies, the affected phoenix units now lose less health over time, and when a phoenix dies, it becomes a phoenix egg. If the egg isn't destroyed in 10 seconds, it rises as a new phoenix. Though at this point it seems difficult to actually try to protect downed phoenix eggs in large battles, the phoenix egg at least provides an alternate and very urgent target for your enemies to address, so your opponents may focus their efforts on getting rid of a phoenix egg long enough for you to banish an injured friendly unit, like a severely wounded hero, that would otherwise have been slaughtered by your opponents' focused fire.

Finally, the humans, like the other races in Frozen Throne, have been granted new early-game defense towers since our last beta update. Early-game base defense is, overall, much cheaper to put together than it is in the original Warcraft III. Human scout towers cost only a measly 30 gold and 20 wood, for instance, and they can be upgraded immediately to the new arcane tower. The humans' arcane towers are the same ones that impeded Arthas and his undead armies in the single-player campaign. The arcane tower can be upgraded to use the magic sentry ability, but it can immediately assault any attackers with magical bolts that have a mana-burn-like ability that deals bonus damage to enemy hero and spellcaster units.

The undead have also been constantly tweaked throughout the beta. Several areas of weakness have been addressed in the latest beta patch. The undead were always particularly susceptible to very early hero rushing, especially the infamous speed-built archmage attack, which let human players wreak havoc on undead bases with only an archmage and a water elemental or two. The problem was that while other races had some way to effectively fight back, undead players couldn't do much more than try to move their acolytes out of harm's way and send ghouls to try to put a dent into the archmage until their own hero was produced. The solution at this point is the nerubian tower, a ziggurat upgrade that does not require the graveyard. It's not particularly strong, but it does slow its targets' movement. So while it won't do much to damage an attacking hero, it will give the undead player an opportunity to get the acolytes out of danger and surround the enemy hero with ghouls.

Second, it appears that there have been some attempts to make the undead army more diversified. While the undead have always had some rather interesting unit combinations, there was never a reason to use most of them. Other races had viable strategies that involved massing large armies of spellcasters, but the undead's necromancer units weren't very useful in this regard. While they have always been excellent support casters with unholy frenzy and cripple, there was almost no reason to use them to raise skeletons because wands of negation, which destroy skeletons instantly, were cheap and very effective. Once the skeletons were dispelled, the necromancers usually got torn to shreds. The wand has now been removed from shops, so adding necromancers to your armies is now once again a viable strategy. Opposing races can still dispel the skeletons using certain units, but they'll be forced to switch their own strategies to gain access to dispel abilities. This change is in line with Blizzard's ultimate goal of making a more dynamic game that gives players room to switch between strategies in the middle of a game.

A few other units have been tweaked as well. Gargoyles now do significantly more antiair damage, making them useful in fighting massed air enemies. Banshees were always underused on Battle.net, which is probably a good thing, because they were almost too powerful in certain situations. They now have less health, so they're easier to kill off. Abominations were good frontline units, but they weren't very useful on their own. Unlike other tier-three units like taurens or knights, abominations usually required unholy frenzy support from necromancers to make them even remotely useful. Blizzard has granted them the cannibalize ability to feed on dead corpses to regain health. It's a good way to make abominations worth using without making them drastically overpowered.

Lastly, some of the undead heroes have been tweaked. The crypt lord's impale ability no longer stuns an opponent. Practically since the beginning of the Frozen Throne beta, undead players have complained the crypt lord is too weak, and it's somewhat true in later stages of the game, especially with this new change. But the crypt lord is still an excellent early-game hero. The spiked carapace ability is useful when players are still using melee units for rushing, and scarabs are great for hunting down neutral creep monsters. The death knight's level-six ultimate spell, animate dead, has also changed drastically. Units raised with animate dead are now invulnerable. To balance out this change, the duration of the animate dead ability has been reduced, but it's still very powerful in a pitched battle. As a result, the death knight is now a very popular choice for an early-game hero, both for this ability and the already useful death coil ability.

Blizzard has also introduced some of the new neutral heroes. We got an opportunity to try out the pandaren brewmaster, for instance. The brewmaster is a rather comical hero who has a rather harmless-looking character portrait, but don't let that fool you. The brewmaster is a strong fighter who relies primarily on strength. However, the brewmaster's own abilities can be used in combination with each other. The drunken haze ability slows an enemy unit and causes it to miss some of its attacks, but it also drenches the unit in alcohol. The powerful breath of fire ability is even more effective against enemies that have been hit by the drunken haze ability, since it ignites the alcohol and causes damage over time to that unit. Breath of fire also deals significant damage even without drunken haze. The hero's third skill is an evasion skill much like the demon hunter's. The brewmaster's level-six ultimate ability splits the hero into three separate units with specialized attack types: storm, fire, and earth. It is a duration-based spell, so if any of the three units is alive at the end of the timer, the brewmaster will reincarnate into his former self. It should be noted that there can be multiple neutral heroes on the battlefield at any given point, so every player in the game can have a pandaren brewmaster if they so desire.

Blizzard continues to keep the Frozen Throne beta interesting by making important changes and tweaks to the various units and to overall strategies. From what we've seen, the developer may be well on its way to accomplishing it goal: giving players of all four races more options and more freedom to change their strategies, even within the course of a single match. Stay tuned to GameSpot for further updates on the Frozen Throne beta.

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