The sign of a truly great expansion pack is when, having played it, you realize you could never go back to the original game. After all, truly great expansion packs don't just add new content--they add real depth, and fundamentally make the core game better. Blizzard Entertainment knows the drill when it comes to delivering these sorts of products. Its follow-up releases for 1998's Starcraft and 2000's Diablo II were so effective and so good that many, many people are still playing both of those games today, all these years later. Given Blizzard's track record with expansion packs, it's understandable that fans of the company's games would have very high expectations for Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. Last year's real-time strategy game was a very tough act to follow on any number of levels, and yet Blizzard has delivered a terrific, full-featured expansion for Warcraft III that makes an already outstanding game significantly more so.
To say the least, there was a lot to like about Warcraft III in the first place. The game's single-player campaign delivered an interesting and engaging story told from four unique perspectives, its online multiplayer mode was the best in the real-time strategy genre, its four distinctly different factions featured numerous viable strategies and tactics, its gameplay was focused on action and rewarded skill and practice, and its powerful scenario editor let you design your own missions or entirely new gameplay modes using the game's great-looking 3D engine. Basically, The Frozen Throne adds to and improves on every single one of these features, and more.
If you enjoyed Warcraft III's single-player campaigns, you'll be pleased to know that The Frozen Throne offers at least as much if not more single-player material. The campaign picks up where Warcraft III left off, in the aftermath of the banishment of the burning legion. The renegade half-demon Illidan and the death knight Arthas are at the center of the story, as both of these power-hungry characters are seeking to take control of a world already ravaged by conflict. You play the campaign missions linearly, just like in Warcraft III, starting with the night elf sentinels, then moving on to the remnants of the human alliance, and finally taking control of the undead scourge. There are more than two dozen sizeable missions in all.
The campaign missions offer remarkable variety from one to the next, and it's not a stretch to say that these represent the most skillfully designed single-player scenarios in any real-time strategy game to date. Recognizing that many players have long since grown weary of the standard formula of having to build up a base, raise an army, and then attack an entrenched enemy, Blizzard accordingly included this formula in only a few of The Frozen Throne's campaign missions. Some of the missions grant you access to multiple armies, each charged with its own important objectives. Many missions feature clever variations on familiar strategies. Some limit the types of units you'll get, which may prompt you to develop a newfound appreciation for some of Warcraft III's less-intuitive strategies. All the missions are story-driven and seem plausible enough in the context of the game. The campaign packs in a lot of surprises, perhaps more so in the mission design than in the story itself, and it offers a significant challenge that will help bring you up to speed on some of The Frozen Throne's new gameplay additions.
The plot of the campaign is sufficiently epic, and the superb voice acting and memorable character designs effectively drive the story along. But this isn't the greatest story ever told for a couple of reasons. There's actually a lot more buildup than resolution in what ought to have been a culmination of the previous game's storyline. Furthermore, The Frozen Throne's plot just doesn't give you anything to latch on to--there's no single central character, and since you'll be playing both as and against numerous characters over the course of the game, you'll sometimes find yourself wondering exactly whom you're supposed to be rooting for. It's an interesting approach to be sure, and it's similar to what Blizzard did with the stories of both Warcraft III and Starcraft: Brood War, but the real issue is probably that none of The Frozen Throne's characters are particularly likeable--they're charismatic yet despicable, good-natured yet foolishly naïve, or vengeful to a fault. Then again, most real-time strategy games--and most games in general--don't even try to create such complex characters, so the fact that you can even criticize the finer points of the game's story speaks to its impressive depth.
The orcs are conspicuously absent from the main campaign, but they're central to a bonus campaign in which you play as a half-ogre beastmaster who befriends the orcs, who've just settled in a new land. This campaign plays less like a real-time strategy game and more like Diablo, as you'll persistently control just the beastmaster and his small entourage while exploring a map and its surrounding areas, completing quests, gaining experience levels and better gear, and more. All this is actually quite entertaining, though the bonus campaign isn't balanced as well as the core missions, and it becomes pretty easy pretty quickly. Also, enemies will respawn on the map after a while, and it can be tedious to have to slog through the same underpowered foes every time you have to backtrack. The bonus campaign is fun anyway, and the cliffhanger ending promises more of the same in the future.
The Frozen Throne adds three beautiful new types of environments that look even better than the original game's maps, several new units to each of the game's factions, and new abilities for some of the original units. Many of the new units are designed to counter particular strategies--specifically, to counter spellcasting units--and each faction's air force has also been bolstered by at least one new support unit. So while the night elves' faerie dragons or the humans' spellbreakers won't replace your frontline troops (though the night elves' gigantic new mountain giants certainly might in the late game), adding a few of them to your army can make a big difference. In one of its most meaningful additions, the expansion also introduces a fourth hero character for each side, and these are featured prominently in the campaign--you'll gain an appreciation for most all their powers in the single-player mode and can then use these powerful troops in multiplayer matches. Though each of the new heroes is very likeable in its own right, the undead's crypt lord, which looks like an enormous stag beetle, is probably the most impressive. All the new units also sound great, and some have some very funny things to say when you click on them repeatedly.
On top of all that, numerous new neutral units and buildings figure prominently in the expansion. Some fans of 1996's Warcraft II were slightly disappointed when they realized Warcraft III had no naval combat, but now, in some scenarios, ships are available. Just like in Warcraft II, you'll have access to a troop transport, a destroyer, and a battleship. The naval combat is as simplistic as ever, but its inclusion is still a nice touch. More importantly, in some scenarios you can recruit a number of neutral heroes that normally aren't accessible to each faction. The four sides can also build a new type of structure from which they can purchase hero items, such as potions and magic scrolls, as well as items that are specifically useful only to their faction. Considering how much depth there was to be found in choosing from or choosing combinations of the three heroes per side in Warcraft III, having many additional such characters and all these other things makes the gameplay even more interesting and more complex.
The Frozen Throne also features numerous gameplay balance adjustments and interface tweaks, though almost all of these are now available in a downloadable patch for anyone who owns the original game. Many units and buildings have lower costs than before, making the early part of a Warcraft III match go by even faster as you quickly muster a respectable force. New early-game defensive structures are available to discourage hero rushing, a popular tactic in the original Warcraft III. The upkeep system has been adjusted to let you marshal larger armies without incurring a penalty to your income, and the unit limit has also been increased slightly. The system used to determine how different weapon types affect different armor types has been overhauled to better balance ranged, melee, flying, and spellcasting units. Several difficulty settings are available for skirmishes against the AI (which fights like a pro at the toughest setting), whereas the original game didn't offer any difficulty levels at all and was pretty punishing for more-casual players. All these changes are in fact improvements, though they do cater to more-experienced players (there's also an option to play The Frozen Throne with the original Warcraft III rules, if you wish). Whether or not you're an advanced player, online matches still tend to not last longer than 30 minutes, making Warcraft III the perfect real-time strategy game for both quick sessions and marathons.
Online multiplayer over Battle.net is also improved, thanks to the implementation of player clans and automated tournaments, as well as some other minor improvements. Now you can gather up nine or more of your friends and form a clan on Battle.net, which allows you to have your own private chat channel and your own internal rankings systems and lets you compete against other clans on a dedicated clan ladder. Tournaments, meanwhile, adjust the rules of the game and strictly enforce a 30-minute time limit. Blizzard has also included numerous new multiplayer maps, as well as a few fun multiplayer scenarios based on popular user mods. Battle.net is running as smoothly as ever, and at this point in time, just after the expansion's release, you're virtually guaranteed to find fierce competition at all hours. The best Battle.net option remains the arranged teams mode, where you and one or two friends can quickly get into matches with teams of the same relative skill level.
Not only does it play better, but The Frozen Throne also looks and sounds just as excellent as Warcraft III did a year ago. The new units and map types are colorful, dynamic, and highly detailed. There's new music for all the factions, and the new tracks fit in well with the original themes. New intro and ending cinematics that are on par with the high-quality Warcraft III CG sequences bookend the campaign. The Frozen Throne also features an improved version of the world editor utility that gives scenario designers more and better options for creating complex and original new scenarios, in addition to straightforward skirmish maps.
All things considered, The Frozen Throne is an impressive expansion pack for a remarkably good game, and anyone who enjoyed Warcraft III needs to get it. It's more expensive than the average add-on (and requires the original game to play it), but it offers much, much more. Blizzard Entertainment, due the commercial success of its games, is in the privileged position of being able to spend seemingly as much time as is necessary to create highly polished, long-lasting computer games and then support those games for a number of years. And judging from this latest game, the company seems to be taking full advantage of that position.