Warcraft III Updated Preview

Blizzard dropped by our offices and brought along the latest build of Warcraft III.

Blizzard Entertainment's third game in its Warcraft series is among the most anticipated games of next year. Its predecessor, Warcraft II, is one of the originators of the entire genre, and Warcraft is one of the most popular real-time strategy franchises ever. People still remember this game fondly, and despite the disappointing news that the sequel, Warcraft III, has been pushed back to late 2001, the gaming community is still eagerly awaiting this next game. Since the announcement at E3 that the game would be delayed, there has been scant news on the upcoming role-playing strategy game, which takes the conventions of normal real-time strategy, emphasizes combat over resource management, and adds a slew of role-playing elements.

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After having seen the latest version of Blizzard's Warcraft III, we've garnered enough information to update our preview with some new information. The game looks very good right now, with detailed graphics and animation and lots of colorful environments. So far the terrains we've seen are snow, forest, and plains. In the most recent build, we saw a new lava level, with lots of animating elements, such as glowing red magma and lava geysers. In addition, the characters look great. The dark wyvern that the orc farseer hero rides is wispy and translucent, like a living shadow. The tauren unit, which is a large minotaur, is a brute that walks with deliberate, hulking steps. When he stops, steam pours from his nostrils with each heaving breath. The attack and death animations are also impressive. The water elemental, for instance, is a summonable creature that can be called by the elven sorceress. This creature looks like a shimmering mass of water shaped loosely like a humanoid. Showers of water rain down from its arms and head, creating an effect of moving, fluid water loosely confined in a malleable shape. When it attacks, it forms into a giant fist of water, slamming the opponent. The whole effect is fluid and mercurial, exactly as you'd picture an amorphous, animated body of water to move.

The building animations are also looking very nice. During the orc mission, we got a glimpse of what the building animations would be like. When Bill Roper of Blizzard, who demonstrated the game, ordered a peon to build a tauren totem (needed to build the tauren unit), the building was built piece by piece. It started as a rock foundation, and then we saw pillars rising from the ground to form the walls of the building, and then finally, the massive totem was raised by two wires and pulled into place in the center of the structure. When Roper built a troll lodge, a giant tree log appeared, and then we saw the inside being hollowed out, as clouds of wood chips and dust spewed from the inside of the log. Then various flags were raised around the new structure.

So far, the graphics and animation look great, even though the game is still probably more than six months from completion. Let's look at some new gameplay information.

Quests and General Gameplay

Blizzard didn't talk much about the units, since the ones shown were the same ones that have been reported on in many previews both here and in other gaming publications. However, we did learn new information about the heroes, the dynamic missions, and the living world. The many missions in the game will be delivered through NPCs or through in-game cutscenes, and many will overlap each other. In addition, there will be quests throughout the game. Bill Roper showed us one possible way in which a quest might unfold and be part of a larger mission.

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Roper brought a human force to an orc camp. The objective was an orc stronghold that sat at a river's edge. One way to get in was through the main land entrance, which of course was guarded by numerous troops. Another way in was through a back door, basically the drawbridge that connected the stronghold to the land on the other side of the river. However, this drawbridge was locked with a key. Roper said that you would be free to make a suicidal run through the main defenses, but you could also try to find the key to lower the bridge and go through the back door. However, to do that, you would have to kill a tauren guard near the drawbridge. He might have a note on him indicating that a caravan with the means to enter through the drawbridge is on the way to deliver supplies to the orc town. At that point, you'd have to intercept the caravan. But once you got there, you would see that a pack of harpies had ambushed the caravan, and so you would have to kill them to get the key. Then you could return to the drawbridge and lower it to gain entrance to the town. And in a further nod to the choices you're given in typical role-playing games, once you attack the orcs, the orc warlord might call for a truce, saying that the undead pose a greater threat to both of you. Then you could decide to press the attack or withdraw. Either way, Roper indicated to us that the game will feel more organic, with more dynamic missions and shifting objectives. Blizzard doesn't plan to add any sort of really deep dialogue trees or bog down what is essentially a strategy game with unnecessary dialogue, but the world and missions will definitely feel more alive.

Some of the neutral structures we saw further add to the world's realism. We saw a gnomish observatory, with a windmill, a smoking chimney, and a giant telescope. There was also a mercenary camp, where Roper says you will be able to recruit neutral creatures such as gnolls, kobolds, or centaurs. He said that these neutral units would probably count less against your food cap, or ultimate population, since they probably will be weaker than standard orc or human units.

Heroes

The most interesting information from the recent demo involved the game's heroes. One new feature for the heroes is that they now have randomly generated names, lending each a unique flavor. Although the beginning stats of each hero are the same, you can customize them differently as they advance in level, and you'll be able to keep track of them through their unique names. On the human side, we saw the archmage, paladin, mountain king, and ranger in action.

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Roper says that when heroes advance in level, their base stats - strength, agility, and intelligence - will increase automatically. They will also get one point to spend on their special abilities. Heroes will have from three to five such abilities, which include spells, passive powers, and unit-enhancing auras. All these abilities currently have three levels of advancement, and each affects different aspects of the heroes. Strength affects a hero's attack damage and hit points. Those heroes with high strength, like the mountain king, the undead abomination, and the tauren chieftain, are very powerful and thus have lots of hit points and attack power. Agility affects a hero's movement and possibly attack speed. We saw a perfect illustration of the influence of agility when Roper created two rangers - one a first-level ranger and the other an eighth-level ranger - and made them race. While the neophyte ranger jogged rather quickly across the map, the eighth-level ranger, who had over double the agility, zipped across the same distance, taking faster strides and moving nearly twice as fast. Intelligence affects the amount of mana a hero has, as well as mana regeneration.

Another RPG-like element for the heroes is inventory. Heroes will be able to hold only one item at a time, but this could be a special item, a weapon, or a quest item. The key to the drawbridge in the quest mentioned on the previous page is one example of a quest item that a hero might hold in his inventory.

Heroes will of course be your prized units, and you'll want to keep them alive. However, because Blizzard doesn't want you to dread their deaths and thus hold them back from battle, it will be easy for you to resurrect them if they do fall. When a hero dies, he returns to the Altar of the Heroes. Here, you can pay gold to resurrect the hero or simply recruit a new one. And should you ever want to return to a hero you abandoned earlier, the hero will always remain at the altar for you to reclaim. The Altar of Heroes is the human's hero structure; other races will have other names for their hero building.

Human Heroes

Aside from learning that the dwarven mortar team's special ability is to self-destruct and destroy everything in a nearby radius in a mini nuclear blast, we didn't see much that was new about the existing regular human units. We did learn a lot about the human heroes, however:

Archmage: We saw two archmages, one named Tenn Flamecaster and another named Andromath. They have a decent attack, which is currently well matched against a standard melee unit's attack but is nowhere near as strong as a pure melee hero, such as a mountain king or orc warlord. The archmage's spells include a fireball, a blizzard, and mass teleportation. The spell effects are nice, especially for the mass-teleport spell. The spells increase in power as you apply points to them.

Mountain king: The mountain king we saw was named Munin Ironcliff. He has a variety of skills, including avatar, thunderbolt, and thunderclap. The avatar skill wasn't working in the build we saw. However, thunderbolt is a special attack wherein the mountain king hurls his hammer at a foe. The thunderclap ability lets the mountain king slam his hammer on the ground, creating a shock wave that damages all nearby units. The mountain king also has an ability called "giant slayer." We saw that certain heroes, such as the abomination and tauren chieftain, had the modifier "giant" in parenthesis next to their types. Roper informed us that giants will probably be a unit modifier, perhaps denoting the same status as a "large" unit in Starcraft. This could mean that they take extra damage from certain types of attacks or less damage from others. Roper also said that there might be certain weapons or items that would have an effect only on a giant-type hero. This ability presumably means that the mountain king will become extremely deadly against "giant" class units.

Paladin: The paladin is a well-rounded hero, with equal numbers in all three stats. He also has a slightly higher defense rating. The paladin we saw was named Sage Truthhearer. Stats at this time are of course very preliminary and subject to change, but the paladin seems to be the most well-rounded character, with special abilities that come in handy against the undead and that also bolster surrounding allied units.

Ranger: The ranger is one of the most mysterious units because little has been revealed about it. We saw two rangers in Blizzard's demo: Amora Eagleeye and Anthis. The ranger has high agility and does less damage than the paladin or mountain king, but it is fast and has a far-ranging attack. Among the ranger's abilities are evasion, cold arrows, and flaming arrows. Evasion is a passive skill that makes the ranger harder to hit. Certain heroes will have passive skills that are always active and do not need to be triggered to come into effect. The cold and flaming arrow spells let the ranger fire arrows that do additional cold or fire damage.

Orc Heroes

After detailing the human faction, Roper started the orc mission, which was played on the lava level, and revealed more information about the orc buildings and heroes.

We learned a few new pieces of information about the orc units. For instance, when the grunt uses his special berserk ability, he actually grows in size, becoming nearly as large as the tauren. We also learned that the wolf raider and wyvern rider are currently both built at the bestiary building. Now let's look at the orc heroes we saw.

Blademaster: The blademaster is the kensai-like orc unit who wields a katana with deadly effect. The two blademasters we saw were named Samuro and Nikoro. The two special abilities we saw for the blademasters were critical strike and mirror image. Critical strike is a passive skill that gives the blademaster a percentage chance to turn a regular strike into a critical attack that does triple damage. The visual effect is that the blademaster jumps up and his blade blazes with energy as he brings it down with destructive effect on the target. The other ability is mirror image, which lets the blademaster spawn three images of himself that can be moved and controlled. Although they can't actually attack, they can act as decoys to confuse the enemy.

Spirit walker: The spirit walker named Kag Visionchaser represented the hero class for us. Among the spirit walker's abilities, we saw banish and regeneration aura. Banish will work like the paladin's exorcism spell, but the difference is that it affects demons instead of the undead. As the orcs are trying to extricate themselves from the influence of the Burning Legion of demons, the spirit walker will be invaluable in destroying demon units with this spell. Orcs also won't have healing spells, so the only way for their units to repair themselves will be to gather around a spirit walker, whose regeneration aura will let all units near him regenerate hit points. The more points that you put into this ability, the faster the units can heal themselves.

Tauren chieftain: The tauren chieftain is a huge hero that easily towers over the other units in the game. He is classified as a giant unit, which could mean that he has special qualities in combat. Tigor Dusthoof was the particular chieftain we saw. This class of hero has incredible strength but low agility and intelligence. Among his most powerful abilities is reincarnation. Roper says that every other hero, when he or she dies, will return to the Altar of Heroes or a similar hero building to be resurrected. However, the tauren chieftain has the chance to literally rise from the dead immediately after he goes down. When a tauren chieftain with this ability is killed, if he has a full mana bar, his mana will drain away, and he will be brought back to full life instantly. Roper says this is consistent with the tauren chieftain's spiritual existence as the keeper of his clan's lore and his elders' knowledge.

Warlord: The warlord we saw was named Foerend. This hero has several abilities, including death scream, command aura, howl of fury, bloodrage, and raging scream. With the death scream ability, when the unit dies, it lets out a shriek that does damage to all enemies in a certain radius. The command aura is a passive ability that lets all allied units near the warlord do more damage with their attacks. The howl of fury is a damage spell, as is the raging scream.

Although Warcraft III is between six and 12 months away from release, it is looking good. It looks stable, and even now, multiplayer testing is commencing at Blizzard headquarters. As we learn more about this game, we'll be sure to update our gamespace with more news and screens.

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