Frozen Throne updated beta impressions #4

We're back with more information about The Frozen Throne beta, including updates on the orcs and night elves.

The online beta test for Blizzard's upcoming expansion pack for Warcraft III continues, and we--and many other faithful Warcraft III fans--have been following its progress with great interest. We have updated impressions on the latest changes in the beta, as well as race-specific updates for the night elves and the orcs, but please note that this information is based on the expansion's beta test and is subject to change before the development is complete.

The beta of The Frozen Throne is currently up to version 3.07; the 3.06 patch was released earlier this week, and 3.07 just hit the wire. The new versions add minor interface upgrades like letting you filter custom games by map creator and map size (so that you can, for instance, filter out hero arena maps if you prefer). Blizzard has also tweaked creep monsters slightly so they'll generally no longer attack your flying units on sight (unless you've specifically set your units to "attack-move" any nearby enemies), which is in line with the developer's desire to encourage players to scout and expand.

However, the team at Blizzard clearly made sure to use the last week or so to also reevaluate the selection and effect of the magic items in the game--many items have been slightly tweaked to reduce their duration or power, and some new items have been added. For example, prior to the 3.06 patch, one of the most frequently abused items in the game was the wand of illusions. This item can now be used only on friendly units, which eliminates the popular tactic of using the wand to create duplicate neutral "creep" monsters and then dragging a huge army of angry creeps into your opponent's base.

In another example, Blizzard has introduced magic items called runes to the game. While runes were removed from the drop tables in the 3.07 patch because they weren't quite ready to be included, we got to use a few of them in version 3.06. Their functionality may change in the final version, but as of now, these items are "used" the second you pick them up. Essentially, they serve as temporary boosters for your army. So, for example, the speed rune let your units move much more quickly than normal. It wasn't a small effect, like the boots of speed, which grant +15 percent movement--the speed bonus was very noticeable. The greatest benefit of this rune seemed to be that you could reach creep camps very quickly and take them out before your opponent.

Blizzard also recently introduced two new neutral heroes, the pit lord and the beastmaster. The pit lord is a strong, melee-based hero with very powerful offensive abilities. His three normal abilities are rain of fire, howl of terror, and cleaving attack. Rain of fire is a powerful, area-effect ability that functions similarly to the human archmage's blizzard, except that it rains fire instead of ice upon enemies and it inflicts a bit of extra damage over time upon any enemies it hits. Howl of terror is an area-effect ability that temporarily reduces the amount of damage that affected enemies can inflict, while cleaving attack causes the pit lord's normal attacks to do additional damage to nearby enemies. The pit lord's level-six "ultimate" ability, doom, puts an unbreakable curse on an enemy unit that causes damage to the affected unit over time and turns it into a doomguard unit under the pit lord player's control when it dies.

The beastmaster is also a strong melee hero, but his abilities let him summon reinforcements in the form of a grizzly bear, a quilbeast (a large warthog), or a thunder hawk. Each of these summoned creatures currently lasts a long time in the game (the grizzly bear remains for 70 seconds, for instance) and can be useful to either draw fire or serve as a support unit. The grizzly bear is a powerful melee unit that seems almost as effective as a water elemental for drawing enemy fire. The quilbeast is a ranged unit that fires quills at your enemies, and the thunder hawk is a flying scout that, when summoned at the beastmaster's highest skill level, becomes invisible by default. The thunder hawk's scouting abilities don't seem especially useful, considering that you'll need to have already built a small force to clear the creeps around a hero tavern to even hire a beastmaster, but the grizzly bear can create a good diversion for your enemies (and actually take a bit of a beating before it goes down), and the quilbeast can fill in holes in your army if you need ranged attacks in a pinch. The beastmaster's level-six ultimate ability, stampede, hurls an angry horde of exploding animals at his enemies.

We also revisited the game's specific races this week, including the orcs and the night elves. As we've previously noted, Blizzard is continually taking steps to encourage players to incorporate underused units into their strategies. For instance, the humans' new blood mage hero still isn't seeing much action, so that hero has had its spell abilities, speed, and range increased. Similarly, the orcs' batrider units, which sit very high up on the orcs' technology tree (they require both a fully upgraded fortress and the voodoo lounge shop building) have been improved. Batriders have more hit points, and they can inflict damage more quickly with their unstable concoction ability (which now causes instantaneous damage). More importantly, batriders now inflict siege-based damage upon enemy buildings, which makes them exceptionally useful for tearing down your opponent's expansion bases.

In addition, the powerful shadow hunter hero's abilities have been slightly retuned to encourage players to use more of them. The hex ability, which changes enemies into harmless animals, now starts out with a shorter duration that improves as the hero gains levels. The shadow hunter's relatively unpopular serpent ward ability, which creates a temporary, stationary turret to draw enemy fire, now inflicts more damage. Even so, the shadow hunter's powerful healing wave and hex abilities remain his most essential ones, especially for an early-game start that includes aggressive creep hunting--we've noticed that healing wave even makes early-game grunt armies viable. However, the spirit walker units are still very attractive additions to orc armies, since they can keep the already powerful taurens in a fight much longer by reviving them and avoid damage themselves using their ethereal form ability.

The night elves have seen a lot of changes as well. While their new units and warden hero haven't been tweaked much in the last week, there have been major changes to the race as a whole. In the previous versions of the beta, ancients, the night elves' living tree buildings, could attack at all times while rooted. But v3.06 rendered ancients unable to attack while producing units or researching upgrades. Another big change is that ballistae no longer require a tree of ages to build, making the night elves the only race with siege equipment in at tier one (the lowest research level). This change was presumably made because the night elves' first unit is the archer, which is not a melee unit and does minimal damage to buildings with its piercing attack. Therefore, the night elves had trouble rushing an enemy with even one tower. It turns out that this change, which was made in v3.06, was a bit unbalanced, since you could essentially create a "ballista rush" by creating a large army of siege weapons. However, the recent 3.07 update tweaked the night elf ballistae so that they take longer to produce and are less durable than they used to be. They're still useful, but they're not overpowered, and night elf players who try to rush their opponents with ballistae can now themselves be rushed by enemy infantry.

Other night elf units have also been tweaked. The keeper's entangle skill now prevents enemy units from attacking, the druid of the talon's cyclone ability no longer affects mechanical units, and dryads now have faster mana regeneration (which helps the night elves counter massed groups of enemy spellcasters more effectively).But of all the night elf units that have been tweaked, the huntresses have probably been changed the most. Practically since the initial release of Warcraft III last year, many players have complained that the huntresses are too strong as frontline fighters in the early game and often underpowered in the late game, when other races have heavy hitters like knights and taurens. The latest beta versions have addressed this problem. Version 3.05 gave the huntresses light armor and decreased their hit points by 50, which meant that players could use ranged attackers to take out huntresses quickly. But it was too drastic a change--it made the huntresses almost worthless, and no one used them. Version 3.06 fixed this problem by increasing their hit points by 25, giving them a basic armor value of 3, and increasing their attack power. We also spent more time with some of the night elves' new units this week. For instance, the mountain giant has so far proven to be very useful in combat when you micromanage its taunt abilities. We also got a chance to finally use the faerie dragons. On two separate occasions, we played against both orc and human players with large armies of spellcasters. In those games, it took only three faerie dragons (with the mana flare ability, which damages spellcasters) to tear groups of shamans and sorceresses to shreds. Of course, if you're the one fighting faerie dragons, you can save your own spellcasters from a horrible death by turning off any auto-cast spell abilities and specifically targeting the dragons, but it can be difficult to target each one in the middle of a pitched battle.

Perhaps our favorite new night elf unit is the warden hero. The warden, when accompanied by a demon hunter as a secondary hero, gives the night elves a powerful melee ground force. The blink ability and shadow strike seem to be great skills--in particular, the shadow strike's limited-range teleport makes the warden an exceptionally good hero killer. The warden's ultimate ability, spirit of vengeance, has been tweaked to create an avatar unit that does not require corpses. The avatar will summon additional spirits from corpses on the field, making the spell much more effective in the early stages of a battle.

If nothing else, the constant changes and tweaks in The Frozen Throne beta have introduced more diversity into the different strategies and outcomes that players can expect to see in the game. For instance, in one match, we pitted the night elves' huntresses, archers, faerie dragons, and chimeras against the orcs' shamans, witch doctors, and taurens. While the flying faerie dragons and chimeras dispatched the spellcasting shamans and witch doctors with ease, the orcish heroes and taurens smashed through the night elf ground forces with equal facility. We found in these and other matches that we'd have to go back to the drawing board and prepare a new army with new counter units. This switching of strategies in the middle of a game is exactly what Blizzard is hoping for with The Frozen Throne, and it's why unit costs have been reduced across the board.

Though it's clear that some units, buildings, and other features could stand to be further adjusted, The Frozen Throne seems to be coming along nicely. We'll continue to keep tabs on the ongoing beta test for this promising expansion pack and bring you updates in the future.

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