Although game expansion packs usually include a couple of new weapons or units, a smattering of maps, and 10 hours or less of new gameplay before calling it a day, Blizzard's follow-up to Warcraft III will not be judged by such an easy standard. Unfortunately for Blizzard, Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne will be directly compared to Starcraft: Brood War, the wildly successful expansion pack to Starcraft. Brood War managed to not only extend the single-player experience with a campaign as lengthy and engaging as the original, but improve upon multiplayer balance with the new units and abilities for each of the game's three races. With the bar set so high, The Frozen Throne has lofty expectations to meet, and after seeing the game during a recent visit by Blizzard's Bill Roper, it appears as though Blizzard is making every effort to meet the challenge.
According to Roper, development on The Frozen Throne began in earnest just five months ago, although initial research and brainstorming for the expansion pack actually started as soon as Warcraft III was released last summer. The development team studied trends in the way people played the different races, identifying various holes in the races' abilities and designing new units and spells to address those needs.
As a result, Blizzard is including a fair amount of new content in The Frozen Throne, including two separate campaigns, one of which continues the story set forth in the original Warcraft III. The other is a custom campaign that includes more RPG-type missions and also serves as a proof-of-concept and tutorial for mapmakers who wish to take advantage of the new campaign editor features that will ship with The Frozen Throne. Each of the races will be bolstered by a new hero, two new regular units, and the ability to build their own shop from which they can buy basic items as well as items specially designed for that specific race. Finally, new neutral buildings and five mercenary heroes are going into the game, along with interface tweaks, three new tilesets, and enhanced Battle.net functionality.
The story campaign follows the story of Arthas (leading the undead) and Illidan racing to find the titular Frozen Throne and claim its power. Standing in their way are the humans, whose race is joined by a sect of high elves called the blood elves. The blood elves represent what is left of the high elves after the undead ravaged their ranks in the original Warcraft III. The night elves also get involved, as they are hunting down the demonic Illidan in an attempt to rein him in before he can do any more damage.
Though the story campaign includes a complex mix of races with varying motivations, the orcs are notably absent. They are not being ignored for the single-player game, however, as they are the stars of the special second campaign with the role-playing missions. The orc campaign follows the adventures of Thrall and his efforts to get the orcs settled down in Azeroth. As we mentioned earlier, one of the primary purposes of the second campaign is to showcase new tools in the campaign editor, which will include new ways of structuring campaigns so that maps can be linked to one another. Campaign makers can now make scenarios where players go back and forth over the same maps. Triggers can be set such that events that happen in one map will change states and affect other maps, such as unlocking new areas that were previously inaccessible.
The first race Bill Roper demonstrated for us was the humans. Tying in with the story set forth in the campaign, all the new human units and the new hero are actually blood elves who have joined the human cause.
Blood mage: The blood mage is a new hero whose regular attack is a ranged magical ball similar to the archmage's standard attack. Unlike the archmage, the blood mage isn't mounted on a horse; he walks around wearing a large cape. One of his spells is a devastating area-of-effect attack called flame strike. Unlike the archmage's blizzard, which deals recurring damage equally spread out over a period of time, the flame strike deals almost all of its damage at the start of the spell, with smaller amounts recurring over a short period of time. In order to give opponents a chance to defend, there's a several-second delay between the casting and the time the spell hits. Opponents are also warned by a visible effect on the ground around the spell's targeted area. During the delay, the spell can be interrupted if the blood mage moves or by hitting the blood mage. Enemies can also just move out of the area of effect if they're fast enough.
The other regular spell shown to us, banish, wasn't quite as exciting, but it may not be any less useful. Casting banish on a unit, friendly or enemy, turns the targeted unit ethereal, meaning it cannot be damaged by physical attacks. An obvious strategy would be to cast it on a friendly hero who is near death, which would give the hero a better chance of escaping a battle. Currently the blood mage cannot cast banish on himself.
Another regular spell will be added to the blood mage's repertoire before the beta, but Roper was able to demonstrate the blood mage's ultimate ability--the mark of fire. This ultimate ability transforms any allied unit into a phoenix. The summoned phoenix has increased hit points, the ability to fly, and big damage potential. Only one phoenix can be summoned at a time, and even if it doesn't die in battle, the creature will self-immolate after four minutes.
Spellbreaker: The spellbreaker is very similar to the footman in terms of armor and standard melee capability. However, he is immune to all spells, like the night elf dryad, and possesses an autocast ability called spell steal. As the name suggests, spell steal gives the spellbreaker the ability to take an enhancement cast on an enemy unit and transfer it over to a friendly unit. We watched as Roper sent in some footmen and spellbreakers against an orc army of grunts and shamans. The instant the shamans cast bloodlust on the grunts, the spellbreakers transferred the lust automatically from the grunts to the footmen, easily turning the tide of battle. The spell can also move negative spells off allied units and onto enemies. Spell steal can be cast manually, so you can select the units from which you want to remove an enhancement. However, you cannot target the new recipient of that enhancement, as it is still automatically chosen.
Dragon hawk: The humans get another flier in the dragon hawk, which features a standard air-to-air and air-to-ground attack. Its special ability is called cloud, an area-of-effect spell that can blind any towers in its radius. We watched as Roper took one dragon hawk and was able to cast a cloud that simultaneously blinded four towers placed close to one another. This allowed our zeppelin air transport to drop its units unfettered and even gave some time for those units to deal free hits, as the towers remained blind for some time after the zeppelin unloaded. The only drawback to cloud is that the dragon hawk casting the cloud spell must remain still, or else the effect is broken.
In addition to their new hero and units, the undead get a new upgrade for the necromancer, which will allow him to raise a skeletal mage and a skeletal warrior, instead of two skeletal warriors. This allows more efficient use of massive numbers of skeletons in battle, as mages behind the front line of skeletal warriors will still be able to use a ranged attack.
Crypt lord: The crypt lord is a giant beetle hero, the king of the spiderlike crypt fiends. Unlike its brethren, the crypt lord is a powerful melee attacker with plenty of hit points and no ranged capability. Its primary purpose is to serve as a tank for the undead legions. One of the crypt lord's special abilities is impale, which targets a single enemy, tosses him into the air, and impales him on one of the crypt lord's sharp limbs, doing big damage and stunning that enemy for a few seconds. The crypt lord also has a passive ability called thorny shield, which increases basic armor rating and does a small amount of damage to melee attackers who strike the crypt lord. Currently there is no visible alteration to the crypt lord's appearance to indicate that it has thorny shield enabled, but that may change before or during the beta test.
The crypt lord's final regular spell is carrion scarab, which allows it to spawn a single beetle from any corpse on the ground. As the spell is leveled, the spawned beetles grow more powerful, and the crypt lord will be allowed to spawn more beetles into existence simultaneously. Currently, the scarabs have about half the hit points of a regular tier-one unit and do moderate damage. They also have the ability to burrow into the ground, which allows them to regenerate hit points faster than normal and serve as a stationary scout (reminiscent of the Zerg in Starcraft). Undead players can also upgrade crypt fiends to have this burrowing ability.
Locust swarm is the crypt lord's ultimate spell--it calls a large cloud of locusts in an area around the crypt lord, doing damage to any enemies caught in the radius. The cloud of locusts will move with the crypt lord, making it difficult for enemies to escape.
Obsidian statue: The obsidian statue is not a combat unit. Instead, the obsidian statue provides support for magic users as a portable mana battery. Experienced Warcraft III players might think of it as a mobile moon well for the undead. Its other ability is as of yet unfinished but will likely have something to do with absorbing mana from nearby enemy spellcasters and recharging its own mana reserve. The obsidian statue is rather stark in its appearance in that it has no moving limbs at all--it merely floats about with an ethereal light underneath it, like the lich.
Black sphinx: Similar to the way lurkers evolved from hydralisks in Starcraft: Brood War, the black sphinx morphs out of the obsidian statue in The Frozen Throne. Unlike the obsidian statue, the black sphinx is a flying unit, and it has an attack. Its antimagic capability, devour magic, dispels in an area and reflects that power as damage back on the casters. However, like the obsidian statue, the black sphinx's abilities are still in flux and are subject to change before the beta.
The Night Elves
Along with the humans, the night elves currently have the most fleshed-out units and spells. Their new units address a number of perceived deficiencies in the race, adding a hero with better hero-killing ability, a tank-type unit, and an aerial antimagic unit.
Warden: The warden is a hero specifically designed for combat, with specialized abilities that allow her to kill quickly and effectively. Blink allows the warden to teleport almost instantly across a screen. This means the warden can pop up behind the front lines of a battle and attack heroes or weak spellcasters hiding in the rear flanks. Blink has a very low mana cost and cooldown time, making it ideal for combining with her two other abilities, fan of knives and shadow strike.
Fan of knives is great for doing damage to a line of enemies--the warden spins around with a flourish, unleashing a hail of blades that at high levels can strike up to five or six enemies at a time and do upward of 150 or 200 damage to each. It's not optimal for use against single targets, as the extra knives do not appear to stack up and do extra damage. Roper demonstrated a devastating attack on a line of five creeps, blinking back and forth to either side of the line, tossing a fan of knives every time. After three repetitions, the creeps were all dead.
Shadow strike is much more optimal for use against a single target. It's a melee attack with a poison dagger, striking for more than 200 points of damage on its initial hit and then draining an additional 45 damage every three seconds for 15 seconds after the first strike. An obvious strategy is to use it as a final deathblow on a damaged enemy hero attempting to flee a battle.
The warden's ultimate ability is spirit of vengeance. While somewhat similar to the paladin's resurrect ultimate, spirit of vengeance does not raise dead allies from the ground to fight anew. Instead, the power of all the dead night elves on the battlefield is combined into one demonlike being that has plenty of hit points and attacking ability. The more dead allies on the ground, the more powerful the spirit becomes. Roper envisions the spell as a way for the warden to swing the tide of a closely fought battle.
Mountain giant: Made of living stone, the mountain giant serves as the night elves' answer to the orc tauren or the undead abomination, with plenty of hit points and a strong melee attack. The mountain giant's taunt ability forces all nearby enemies to redirect their attacks to him, reducing the pressure on the other, more delicate night elf units. It will also receive passive upgrades as you tech up, in the form of hardened skin, which reduces physical attacks by 20 points (to a minimum of three damage), and resistant skin, which will reduce the duration of harmful spells cast on it. The grab tree ability initially conceived for the mountain giant is currently slated for removal or an overhaul.
Faerie dragon: The faerie dragon joins the dryads to help the night elves combat enemy spellcasters. Like the dryad, the faerie dragon is immune to spells. It is a flying unit with a standard attack, but it features a special mana flare capability. In its current incarnation, a faerie dragon with mana flare activated will deflect a portion of area-of-effect damage back on to the original spellcaster. It's therefore sensible for night elf players to have faerie dragons escort large groups of units that may be targeted by area-of-effect damage spells. The faerie dragon's previously reported phase shift capability has been dumped and will be replaced by something new.
Though the orcs have been left out of the story campaign in The Frozen Throne, they will still be receiving a new hero and two new units, just like the other races. However, one of the new units, the spirit walker, was not present in the preview build that Roper showed us. All that is known about the spirit walker is that it is some type of sacred tauren. Whether it is a spellcaster or a fighting unit is currently undecided.
Shadowhunter: The trolls have remained faithful allies to the orcs, and Blizzard felt it was time for a troll hero to join its headhunter and witch doctor brethren. In order to address the orcs' inability to heal its units at low levels, the shadowhunter has been given the healing wave, which acts like chain lightning cure spell. The targeted unit receives the most healing benefit, and from there, the spell bounces intelligently to the next most damaged unit, and then to the next, on up to a maximum of five healed units. The spell gives less healing benefit with each successive bounce.
The shadowhunter's hex spell acts like a crippled version of polymorph, except that hex currently has a low mana cost and low cooldown time. The hexed target retains its hit points and armor and only remains in critter form for about 15 to 30 seconds depending on the level. As a cosmetic effect, hex turns targeted creatures into a random critter, not just a sheep. Roper demonstrated on an enemy creep, turning it from a rat, into a crab, and then into a penguin. Flying targets morph into flying critters and are not killed outright.
Keeping with the tradition of witch doctors, the shadowhunter has a special totem called the serpent ward. The serpent wards act as relatively low-cost towers. They shoot out fireballs that do a considerable amount of damage, but with just over 100 hit points, the serpent wards are easily destroyed by physical attacks (though they're immune to magic). If the shadowhunter can place a few behind the lines of a battle, they can act as formidable ranged support.
The shadowhunter's ultimate ability, voodoo, makes all units within a screen's length of the shadowhunter invulnerable to attack. However, the shadowhunter, who must remain stationary during the spell, becomes the only vulnerable unit on the screen. Roper demonstrated its use during an attack on an undefended town with towers. Bringing the shadowhunter and the accompanying army within range of the towers, Roper activated voodoo, and immediately all the towers focused fire on the shadowhunter. However, the attacking orcs, invulnerable to the towers, immediately razed them and freely attacked the now undefended town. It's not yet decided if the shadowhunter will be allowed to drink potions during voodoo, as an obvious tactic would be to cast the spell and drink healing potion after healing potion to absorb abuse. We also pointed out that an invulnerability buff would make the spell fairly unstoppable as well--these types of balance issues will be addressed during the beta.
Batrider: The orcs receive another flying unit in the batrider, whose abilities give it unique antiair and siege abilities. Along with a standard attack, the batrider has the unstable concoction ability, which currently allows it to kamikaze itself into enemy air units like a sapper. The ability has no effect on buildings or ground units. The batrider's other ability, liquid fire, gives the orcs more effective siege capability. Buildings hit with liquid fire sustain continuous fire damage, and peasants are not allowed to repair the buildings while they are on fire.
Each of the four races will receive a new shop that they can build. The human shop is called the arcane vault, the undead get the tomb of relics, the night elves shop at the ancient of wonders (you can uproot and move it like the other treants), and the orcs receive a voodoo lounge. The shop counts as a tier-one building, but not all its items are immediately available. Each shop has three levels of items, with every new level of items unlocked as you upgrade your town hall. Each of the races will be able to buy the standard items like healing potions, mana potions, and the town portal scrolls. New items shared across all shops include the philosopher's stone, which converts any item into a potion (to reduce useless items in your inventory), and a "mini town hall" that will allow heroes to set up expansion town halls without using a peon. More for convenience than any other advantage, the pocket town halls will still cost the same resources and take the same amount of time to build as a normal town hall. Perhaps most exciting is a tier-three item called the tome of retraining, which allows you to reassign all the accumulated level points of a hero to different spells. This means the upgrade paths of the heroes are not permanent, and if you are willing to pay some money, you can retool your heroes and change up strategies on the fly.
What differentiates the shops from one another is that each will include items specially designed for its specific race. For example, the humans can buy an ivory tower item at the arcane vault, which allows a hero to set down a scout tower without the help of a peasant. This tower can be upgraded to a guard or cannon tower just like a regular scout tower but will be marked with a special seal to show that it was created by a hero and not by a peasant. The humans also get mechanical critters, which look and act like regular critters but can be controlled by the player and act as scouts. Creeps will automatically attack mechanical critters, so they can't really be used to wander the map. Opponents can discern mechanical critters from real ones by clicking on them. Humans can also buy an orb of fire, which adds ranged attack to any hero and six additional damage.
The undead can buy a sacrificial skull from the tomb of relics, which will create blight on any area of the map. The ability to create blight means the undead can expand without first haunting a new gold mine. They also get a monster lure, which, when set in the ground, will attract creeps from other areas of the map. This might be used to wreak havoc on an undefended enemy expansion or just to simplify creep hunting for your own benefit. The special orb for the undead is the orb of corruption, which adds ranged ability and additional damage to a hero's attack and reduces a targeted enemy's armor by a few levels for five seconds.
The night elves can buy a moonstone from their ancient of wonders, which allows them to instantly turn day into night. A staff of preservation will instantly transport one target unit to the highest-level town hall of the player. They can also buy an orb of venom, which adds ranged attack and damage and poisons any targeted enemies for 10 seconds. Finally, the orcs get a wand of neutralization, which is basically a chain dispel for up to five units. Their special orb is the orb of lightning, with added ranged attack, additional lightning damage, and a chance to dispel buffs from the targeted enemy and slow him for three seconds.
Blizzard plans to include five mercenary heroes that you can hire from a neutral site called the cantina. However, there isn't much known about most of the neutral heroes, except that two of them will be the dark ranger and the pandaren brewmaster. The latter is based on a fictitious race of pandas that Blizzard introduced as an April Fools' Day joke last year. Like many pranks, this one has apparently gotten out of control, and as you can see from our exclusive screenshot, the pandaren brewmaster is indeed real. It will be a hero with abilities similar to a drunken master. Despite the inclusion of the neutral heroes, you will still be limited to three heroes per game, and dead neutral heroes will be available for resurrection at the altar. None of the heroes were playable in the build we saw, so we'll have to see if Blizzard can get them finished in time for the imminent beta testing.
Interface tweaks based on player feedback will be included in The Frozen Throne. You will be able to queue buildings, research unit upgrades simultaneously with unit creation, and see creep camps labeled on the minimap. Rally points from buildings will support specific waypoints, and mouse-overs on mixed units will give a friend-or-foe indication. Additionally, clan support will finally be included in Battle.net. You will be able to register your clans, invite people to join, and get a special seal next to your name on Battle.net to show your clan affiliation. Clans will be given a private chat channel that only clan members can enter, and a rough clan ladder will be introduced that will use individual player stats to give a rough power ranking of the various clans. Plans for clan-based tournaments are in the works as well.
Though much work remains to be done on missing units, spells, and abilities, it's clear that much of The Frozen Throne's new functionality is working already. For that reason, Blizzard is optimistic about the current summer release date, with Roper noting that the beta test could begin in the next few weeks. There's an incredible amount of new content for you to look forward to in The Frozen Throne, and it will be interesting to see if all of it can be balanced before release.