Another month, another big Warcraft III beta patch. In the last few days, Blizzard has released the 1.20 and 1.21 beta patches in rapid succession, and there've been quite a few changes since we last looked at the game's progress. This patch includes new spells and upgrades, changes to balance, and tweaks to the game's interface and mechanics, and as it turns out, even the seemingly subtle tweaks have had a big effect on the way Warcraft III plays.
The public beta test is limited to Warcraft III's multiplayer, but the beta still periodically gives us tiny glimpses of how the game's story-based campaign is evolving. As Blizzard's Bill Roper has told us, the single-player missions are still being finished up for the game's summer release, and changes to the game's multiplayer balance will naturally carry over. Although it doesn't seem like such a big deal on the surface, one of the most fundamental changes in this patch is a new ultimate spell for the undead's dread lord hero. The new "inferno" spell is visually impressive--a meteor crashes down from the sky, causing heavy damage within an area of effect before the rock animates to become an infernal, a strong golem-like unit. But those who've followed the game closely will recognize the infernal as the demon unit that appeared in the very first Warcraft III trailer when the game was announced in 1999. Still, this doesn't mean that Blizzard is cutting the number of units for the burning legion, the nonplayable demon faction that is so central to Warcraft III's story. In fact, there's good justification for the undead's hero to summon this demonic creature: the dread lords were once lieutenants in the burning legion, but they have since turned. We'll naturally have to wait for the final game to hear the full story.
The beta will never have more than a portion of the final game's multiplayer maps, but the latest update adds two more, and one introduces both a neutral building that produces fearsome red dragons and a autumnal tileset covered with golden grass and red-leaved trees. There are lots of new items to pick up when you fight the neutral creeps scattered around maps, including items that summon units to your side and items that duplicate heroes' ultimate spells. All items are random drops, depending on the type of creep, and naturally the best are reserved for high-level creeps, such as the giant granite golem and the red dragon that are on some of the beta maps.
The new ultimate spell is only one of many changes to the heroes. Another obvious difference is that heroes are no longer summoned from the town hall but rather from the altar, which was previously used just to revive heroes. To adjust for this change, the altar has been brought down the tech tree, so you can choose to build it right after the basic infantry barracks--or even before, to rush out with an unescorted hero. The altar is now the required structure for upgrading to the second-tier town hall, and these changes mean that summoning heroes doesn't interfere with the town hall's building queue. This is one of the changes that has forced beta testers to rethink their building strategies, and it has generally made the lastest versions of Warcraft III a very different game. There have even been some changes to the upkeep system, which taxes gold production when players reach high unit populations. The bar for low upkeep has gone up to 40 population and it's now 70 for high upkeep. Blizzard is obviously still tweaking upkeep, as 1.20 and 1.21 both included small adjustments to the high upkeep tax rate.
There are also a few new unit upgrades, the most prominent of which are splash-damage upgrades to the night elves' huntresses and ballistae for the human gryphon riders. A couple of other human units saw major changes--the steam tank lost its ability to serve as a rolling bunker for riflemen, and it's now a pure siege unit, while the underused gyrocopter now has an air-to-ground bomb attack. But beyond the tech tree and upgrade changes, there's the reworking of Warcraft III's balance system, which has forced many beta testers to go back to the drawing board with their strategies.
Rock, Paper, Scissors
Balance is one of the defining characteristics of a competitive real-time strategy game. While some games have a profusion of units with some small advantages one over another, other games are designed with strong counters for each general unit type, often resulting in certain aspects of gameplay that are very much like a game of rock, paper, scissors. The 1.20 patch has made significant changes to Warcraft III's balance by reinforcing the game's existing system of weapon and armor types. Basically, the game's units fall into five categories: hero, melee, ranged, air, and siege. Small ranged units now take less damage from air units and do more damage to them, making it even easier to counter air attacks from the ground. In turn, melee units have a stronger attack against specialized ranged attackers if they can get close enough to unleash their strikes. Not all the classifications are completely obvious. The speedy orc raider, for instance, does siege damage, making it particularly useful raids against enemy buildings. While this may sound like a fairly abstract change, the effects are quite easy to see. In the previous beta versions, for example, it was too effective for an undead player to build masses of gargoyle flyers or for a night elf player to build masses of huntresses (which throw glaives for a melee-like attack). This runs counter to the game's concept of having diverse, mixed armies, so it's no surprise these strategies have been tamed for the most part.
Since heroes are at the center of most combat in Warcraft III, it's essential to carefully control a hero to target spells or guide its melee attacks. But spells like "slow" and "entangle" could make it far too easy to disable and kill heroes. Instead of making heroes completely invulnerable to such spells, the new patch shortens the duration of spells on heroes to a few precious seconds and slightly lessens how much damage heroes take from spells. Each hero has an ultimate spell that's particularly powerful, and it's now a bigger achievement than ever to earn it. In addition to earlier changes to the experience system so that heroes gain experience more slowly (especially when just fighting the neutral creeps scattered around maps), you now have to wait until level six to learn an ultimate spell. Many of the ultimate spells have been made more potent, except perhaps the blademaster's powerful spinning bladestorm attack, which no longer makes the orc hero completely invulnerable to attack--now it's just spells that don't affect him during that maelstrom of melee strikes.
Blizzard is in the final stretch of finishing Warcraft III for this summer, and where this shows the most is in the polished little details that have made their way into the latest beta build. The game programmers have added a few new features and refined a few others. One surprise is that you can now rotate the camera about 45 degrees to either side of the default perspective using the Insert and Delete keys. Blizzard had said that the game would omit camera rotation to avoid making the interface too complicated, but this isn't really free rotation--the camera snaps back to center when you release the rotation key. The formation system, which automatically directs your melee units to arrange themselves in front of ranged units and spellcasters, has also undergone some revision, as units will no longer try to form up in the middle of combat, and the Alt key can be used to disable the formation system at any time. There's also a new layer of visual polish to the game, with plenty of new combat effects, including more blood and new details to some buildings, like the night elf trees of life, which now have butterflies flitting around through their branches.
Battle.net itself is going through some changes. There's a new arranged team feature that will let you set up teams for the service's automatic matchmaking system for ladder games. Before you can add people to an arranged team, you first have to add them to your friends list. The public beta test was initially limited to 5,000 lucky players, but Blizzard has opened the test up to those who know beta testers. Now each CD key for the beta test can be used for up to five accounts, instead of one. This should add some new players to the test who will look at the current state of the game with fresh eyes. Warcraft III has seen many changes in recent months, and there are sure to be more before it ships this summer.