Monday, August 08, 2011

Warcraft 3 - The Frozen Throne

Prepare to enter again in the world of Azeroth, old school style.

Few games can boast the same legacy of relentless success earned by Blizzard's Warcraft series. While the first was an instant classic, its sequel in 1995 defined Blizzard as an ambrosial prince of the RTS genre. However while it was instantly playable, many gamers complained about the lack of unit variety between sides. Spurned by the community's need for diversity, Blizzard worked hard on the third title (ignoring Tides of Darkness, the expansion to the sequel), pushing its release date ever backwards to perfect the shine. Finally, Warcraft 3 was released mid-2002, and yet again demanded unwavering attention. And yes, god damn, it was fun. Back in the mid-2003, and Blizzard has released The Frozen Throne, an expansion that complements the single player and multiplayer aspects of Warcraft 3. Along with a load of new missions, it oozes fresh units, items, buildings and gameplay mechanics - the last item in this list being the most notable. In fact, the change in play dynamics is so intense you'll find yourself being pounded many times over before you get a hang of the changes.

Frozen Throne continues where Warcraft 3 left off (obviously). With the Burning Legion (the Undead) defeated, the races are recovering - arguably the Humans and Night Elves suffering the most. However, Illidan, an evilly evil Night Elf released from his prison beneath the earth, has taken a demonic form and awakened the sleeping Naga below the oceans to help recover the Eye of Sargeras. It's an immense power struggle fought while the surviving races attempt to repair the damaged land. Blizzard's never been a developer to include a serious dynamic or non-linear story in any of its RTS, and Frozen Throne is no different. While the single player campaign includes a number of new triggers and characters, there's no way to dismiss the "led by the hand" feel. And after looking at the unbelievably improved World Editor, it's hard to find a solid reason for the on-rails story other than time constraints.
It's easy to get past this as the rest of the game is fantastic. As has been mentioned, few game elements have been left untouched. Each side has a new hero who for the most part addresses a race weakness, while adding some genuinely useful powers. The Undead Crypt Lord, for example, is easily identifiable as a meat unit. Along with powerful melee abilities, including Impale, which fires spikes from the ground directly ahead of the Crypt Lord, it has a massive chunk of hit points and dishes out ferocious damage with its claws. For the Orcs there's the Shadow Hunter, equipped with a spell called Healing Wave. It bounces between friendly units, providing less and less health as it goes. This addresses the Orcs inability to heal early-on, and is a definite balance changer. To supplement the new heroes is a set of neutral ones that can be recruited at Taverns during multiplayer. With the same gold and lumber cost as a race hero, they can be a useful alternative to combat certain creeps or pass obstacles. Monster camps are now marked on the mini-map, with green for level 1-3 creeps, orange for 3-5 creeps and red for 5+ creeps.

Units overall are cheaper, speeding up gameplay significantly compared to vanilla Warcraft 3. Altars for summoning heroes are almost half-price, and while you'd think this would give sides such as the Night Elves and Undead an unfair advantage (thanks to their early harassing tactics), base troops such as Orc Grunts are now much cheaper, though still expensive compared to Ghouls. Each side also has an item-producing structure (Voodoo Lounge), where healing potions and race-specific gear can be purchased. There's also a new unit upgrade available to all sides called Backpack that gives certain ground troops the ability to carry items, so you can ferry things between heroes or haul around excess booty.

Enemy AI has become very aggressive: Blizzard has tweaked the scripts to make the computer push harder for expansions and to attack more strategically. Its omnipotence seems to have been improved as well, and now more than ever your gold mines and bases are at risk from a "surprise" rush. How Blizzard continues to put out stunning titles and genuinely fresh expansions is a mystery - again the kings of RTS (with Westwood just a pleasant memory) has come through with a tight package that'll make you wonder how you managed without it.




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