Since the Warcraft III Beta officially opened last week, frenzied battles have been raging on Blizzard's Battle.net service, not only in competitive matches, but also in the chat rooms, as testers discuss which of the game's four factions is the strongest. The night elves have been the center of much attention, only partly because their ranged units were initially very strong in massed groups. The night elves have also been popular simply because of their distinctive look and gameplay style. We'll look at what makes the night elves so different in this final installment to our week of Warcraft III beta reports.
Keeper of the Grove
Half elf, half stag, these magical creatures can summon the very trees to their aid. Keepers can charge into battle to smash enemies with their melee attack, but they often use their magic in a supporting role. Force of nature turns trees into walking treants that fight with their sturdy wooden limbs, and the entangling roots spell can root an enemy in place. Keepers assist nearby troops with the thorns aura, which shields units from damage, and tranquility, their ultimate spell, showers a group of friendly units with a healing rain.
Although they haven't before appeared in a Blizzard game, night elves have a very long history in the world of Warcraft. An ancient race capable of potent natural magic, the night elves have long lived apart in their remote homeland of Kalimdor. Even at first glance, it's obvious that they have a special relationship with nature: Their most important "buildings" are animated trees with distinctly humanoid features like arms and faces. In fact, so powerful is the magic that animates these trees that they can even uproot, walk, and fight. While the Terrans of Starcraft may have had structures that could airlift from one position to the next, it's quite another thing to attack an enemy's base and have it attack back.
The tree of life is at the center of every night elf base and defines how night elves gather resources differently from the other three races. Instead of having elven or even treelike workers, pixielike wisps gather at the tree of life to keep the elven economy running smoothly. Wisps gather lumber, but they gather it in the most eco-responsible way imaginable, coaxing it magically from nearby trees in a way that leaves them standing intact. Wisps can also summon buildings, which sprout from the ground as a small copse of trees before growing into rooted giants or one of a few static buildings. But the wisp also disappears in the process of building, so the elven player will have to produce a steady stream of new wisps, one for every new building. And despite what a new player might expect, wisps don't have any role in mining gold. The tree of life itself does that, entangling the mine with its roots to harvest resources. Expanding the night elves' territory to encompass new gold mines is as simple as sacrificing one worker wisp to create a base that mines for itself. For this reason, when night elves are free to expand to multiple gold mines, they can do it very cheaply, without the upkeep costs associated with having many workers.
It should be no surprise that the night elves take advantage of Warcraft III's new day and night cycle. Like their high elven cousins who fight alongside the humans, night elves don't suffer any penalties during the day. But night elves are perfectly suited to moving and fighting in darkness. A troop of elven fighters can be very stealthy at night because of the shadowmeld ability that all female night elves have. When standing perfectly still, the elves' hardy female fighters disappear into the moonlit shadows and are effectively invisible. It's also possible to research ultravision for your elves, which gives them the ability to see as well at night as during the day, giving elven players an extra reason to move at night, when other factions are swathed in darkness.
But don't think that trees and nocturnal scouts are the most fearsome troops the elves can muster. Find out about transforming druids, swift archers, flying hippogryphs, and more.
Creatures of the Night
By ancient tradition, these agile warriors use forbidden dark powers to fight the forces of chaos and ritually blind themselves to develop "spectral sight." A demon hunter is one of the fiercest melee fighters among the night elves and augments its combat abilities with damaging spells. Immolation surrounds the warrior in a wall of flames that damages nearby units, and his ultimate ability is metamorphosis, which turns the demon hunter himself into a fiery demonic form to launch fireballs. Evasion protects the hero by making it more likely that attacks will miss, and mana burn steals mana from a spellcaster to heal the demon hunter's wounds.
From Lord of the Rings, if not innumerable other works of high fantasy, we know that elves are swift, magical, and impeccable archers. Warcraft III's night elves fit the bill perfectly. Elven units are all quite fast on their feet, but there are a few slow, heavy supporting units as well. No one can expect a lumbering tree to sprint across the map.
Once the tree of life is planted near a gold mine, pumping gold out through its roots, the night elf player is ready to start turning wisps into a budding base. One of the most basic buildings is the moon well, which is the night elf equivalent of a farm or supply depot, and several of them are required to sustain a growing army. The elves draw their sustenance from the trees and their moon goddess, so the moon wells have the added ability of recharging the mana of a designated spellcaster. The moon wells are especially useful for topping off a newly resurrected hero's mana points or for aiding a caster that's defending the base.
Nearly everything the elves create can have a role in defending against invaders, and the wisps are no exception. Like the other factions' town hall, the tree of life can be upgraded to reveal the second and third tier of tech tree abilities, and the second-level tree of ages allows for wisps to be upgraded with a healing ability. With this upgrade, wisps become a useful addition to any elven army when set to auto-cast this healing spell. But even without an upgrade, wisps have one simple ability: They can detonate and dispel any magical buffs (upgrade spells) in an area of effect.
The basic military structure for the night elves is the ancient of war tree. This is where archers, huntresses, and--later--ballistae are produced. Of the four factions in Warcraft III, the elven archer is the only basic unit with a ranged attack, which in groups can make them quite formable against ground or air opponents, especially when careful control keeps them out of melee range. Mounted huntresses are surprisingly sturdy melee fighters, useful for added balance to a force of archers. With an upgrade, they also have the ability to use an owl to scout distant areas. The ballista is the elves' primary siege weapon and is particularly necessary because elven arrows do very little damage to buildings.
In the air, the elves are aided by magical flyers, the hippogryph and the chimaera. Both are created at the ancient of wind tree. At first, the hippogryph only has a strong air-to-air attack. But with an upgrade, it's possible to tame them to allow archers to ride on their backs. Once archers mount, the hippogryph riders have a ranged arrow attack, making them useful for quick raids on enemy workers. Chimaeras are fearsome creatures with two heads and dark purple skin. Their breath attack is useful only against land targets, but with the corrosive breath upgrade for damaging buildings, the chimaera becomes much like a flying siege engine.
The night elves use magic on a daily basis, but so far in the beta version, their spellcasters are relatively weak and incomplete. The dryads are female creatures that resemble centaurs, and they are intended mainly as antimagic units. Their primary spell will, like the wisp's detonate, remove protective buffs from enemies or harmful buffs from friends. The ancient of lore tree will also house two druids, but only the druid of the claw is currently in the game. This male spellcaster now just has one spell to cast--the protective barkskin--while in elven form but also has the upgrade ability to transform into a bear. This is much like the Diablo II druid ability and makes the druid of the claw a quite effective melee unit. The missing elven unit is the druid of the talon, which can turn into a storm crow to fly. It's expected that the druid of the claw's second spell and the druid of the talon unit will appear later in the beta.
Now that you know the basics about night elves, find out how they play. Are they as overpowered as early testers have said?
The Power of the Moon
Over the course of the beta test Blizzard will obviously make many balance tweaks, and it's the night elves that have been the target of the most change in the first patch, which was released in the middle of this week. In the first week of the beta, it quickly became apparent that the night elf archers made it too easy to build a large, effective army of a single unit type. The archers were particularly effective when paired with the Priestess of the Moon's trueshot aura, which adds quite a bit of damage to ranged attacks. Since Blizzard seems to be focusing Warcraft III on smaller battles that contain a better mix of units, any mass-produced unit that can stand on its own is likely to be rebalanced. Each faction is meant to have effective combinations of units, and now that the new patch has made melee units stronger and faster, the elven archers need support from huntresses much more than before.
Priestess of the Moon
Priestesses channel the strength of the night elves' moon goddess to lead the troops of Kalimdor into battle atop a swift white tiger. A priestess can use her magical energy bow for a powerful ranged attack, and she's an essential part to stealthy raids. Her scout ability sends an owl to reveal an area, and the priestess is the only elven hero that can shadowmeld into the night like archers and huntresses. The priestess helps out ranged units with trueshot aura, which increases damage, and she can boost her own attack with the searing arrows ability. Her ultimate ability, starfall, is a powerful area-of-effect attack that calls down waves of falling stars to strike the enemy.
In the early game, night elves are still quite strong against orcs and undead, but the human footman's defend ability can pose a distinct problem. Since defend effectively protects footmen from ranged attacks, an army of archers needs a front line of huntresses to keep the melee attack at bay. Warcraft III's smaller armies and streamlined base management does make it easier than before to closely manage units and battle, and archers really benefit from this, especially with hit-and-run raids against melee units. Archers can get a few hits in, concentrated on one unfortunate enemy, and then retreat. This is particularly good at night, when female night elves can disappear into the shadows (the hide ability is intended to keep the elven unit AI from auto-attacking nearby enemies, which would ruin a shadowmeld attempt).
While most other factions get powerful units high up the tech tree, the elves currently have most of their strength in basic units and with their powerful heroes. The elven spellcasters are still incomplete, and, of them, the druid of the claw's bear ability makes him the only one that's effective in combat. But in spite of this, the night elf has a few inventive options. For one, the elven defensive building, the ancient protector, can uproot and walk around the map with an army, then plant in one place to use its ranged ground attack. Although ancient protectors are initially quite slow, they take a huge amount of damage, and there's an upgrade to improve all trees' walking speeds. With this upgrade they become as fast as slow units, so it's possible to turn ancient protectors into walking siege buildings, taking them right up to the outskirts of an enemy base.
Night elves don't cut down trees like other races, but they have other uses for them. The keeper of the grove can summon treants, smaller fighting trees. At this spell's highest level, the keeper gets two treants from every downed tree, and they're roughly as effective as the human archmage's water elemental. Since the spell has a short cast time, a keeper can very effectively defend a contested base by using moon wells to recharge his mana. Night elf bases also have the unique ability of healing themselves by eating surrounding trees. For example, when an enemy attacks a tree of life that's harvesting gold from an expansion gold mine, it can uproot and eat trees to help stave off destruction until friendly forces can come to the rescue. However, this ability might have been a little too effective at protecting precarious early expansions, so Blizzard lessened the effect in the first patch.
The night elves' many cool abilities and streamlined resource model make them one of the most interesting sides to play as in Warcraft III. Their relative strengths are sure to change somewhat as the beta's balancing tweaks progress, but the night elves should also get some additional help in the spellcasting department once the druid units are finished. The 5,000 players in the Warcraft III beta will likely find a number of strong new strategies as the testing continues, and the final game can only benefit from having each faction fine-tuned over a matter of months before it's finally released later this year. This is the final report in GameSpot's weeklong coverage of the Warcraft III Beta, but we will continue to follow the test and will periodically report on Warcraft III's evolution.