The expansion pack was long a domain of PC gaming. Not quite a sequel, expansion packs usually did what they advertised: they expanded a game beyond what was originally released. Blizzard often turned to the expansion pack for its games and it’s a strategy that made a lot of sense. Their games tended to take a long time to develop and reusing those assets was a way to recoup even more of the development costs. Blizzard was also very committed to online gaming and an expansion pack was a way to address balancing issues that might not have been apparent at launch. And sometimes an expansion could be a testing ground for things to come without the necessary investment a true sequel requires.
The Frozen Throne was released in 2003 roughly a year after the release of Warcraft III. Warcraft III was a success for Blizzard and an expansion to the game was essentially a foregone conclusion. There were a lot of loose ends to tie-up following the completion of the game’s campaign mode, and after a year of steady online play, fans were more than willing to embrace some new units to mess around with. Blizzard also had the soon-to-be mega success World of Warcraft primed and ready, and The Frozen Throne could be a way to prep that game for release thematically.
The Frozen Throne expands upon the lore of the Warcraft franchise and introduces a bunch of new creatures in the process, just the sort of thing needed to support a living, playable, world. Warcraft III was the biggest Warcraft yet as it introduced two, new, playable factions to bring the game’s total to 4. I suppose in a move that isn’t a huge surprise, the expansion can’t quite live up that as it includes just 3 campaign modes. Returning from Warcraft III are the Night Elves, Humans, and Undead Scourge while remaining on the sidelines are the Orcs. It’s a bit surprising to see what has long been a fan-favorite faction in the Orcs kicked to the curb, but these are the limitations of an expansion vs a sequel. And while it makes The Frozen Throne seem comparatively smaller, there’s actually a whole lot of new content added including what is basically a fifth faction in the Naga.
The campaign begins with the Night Elves. Illidan has joined forces with the Naga, a race of amphibious creatures recently awakened by the night elf turned demon. Illidan even gets a new character model as he now permanently sports bat-like wings and features some other, minor, cosmetic changes. In pursuit of Illidan is the new Night Elf hero – the Warden Maiev. Each faction gets one new hero and some new units to play with. Most of the additions seek to strengthen an area that may have previously been a weakness. The Warden is more of a melee unit and its ultimate attack basically allows for a small army to be formed. It works well alongside the more support type heroes in the Priestess and Keeper of the Grove and it’s not as specialized as the Demon Hunter. It does feature one ability, a short-range teleport, which has little, practical, use outside of the campaign but it’s other abilities are fine.
The plot for the campaign is that the Wardens were all slaughtered, save one, by Tyrande during the events of Warcraft III to free Illidan. The surviving warden seeks to return Illidan to his cell and exact revenge on the priestess. The Night Elf campaign feels largely separate from the other two, though Illidan remains a presence throughout all 3. The second campaign is the Human Alliance campaign, but more appropriately, it’s the Blood Elf campaign. The new human hero is a Blood Elf Mage and several scenarios will actually put the player in charge of an elven settlement, but it results mostly in a cosmetic change as they operate like the humans just without human and dwarf units. The Blood Elf, and the new Spellbreaker unit, basically specialize in countering magic and they’re quite good at it. The final campaign puts the player back in control of Arthas as well as the fallen Sylvanas, who is now one of the non-faction aligned heroes – The Dark Ranger. The new Scourge hero is actually the Crypt Lord, which is part of the same spider-like race of beings the Crypt Fiend belongs to. It’s basically a tank unit and is tough to bring down.
Not addressed by the campaign are the Orcs. Their new hero units can be experienced in a fourth scenario, The Founding of Durotar. That puts the player in control of another neutral hero, The Beast Master, and it’s basically a scenario similar to how Warcraft III was originally conceived. It’s basically a dungeon crawler and largely serves to confirm that Blizzard was right to not go in this direction. Successful scenarios have been launched from this campaign, like the popular DOTA, but as present in this game it’s a bit bland. It’s also decidedly not Warcraft. The new Orc hero in this is the Shadow Hunter, a troll that basically specializes in support including healing, something the Orcs didn’t have available from any of its heroes. Other neutral heroes include the Naga Sea Witch, a ranged attacker that can do magic damage as well, the Pandaran Brewmaster, a joke turned real and ultimately a unit that can deal out quite a bit of damage. Lastly, there’s the Pit Lord which is basically a demon unit from Warcraft III not previously playable. As one would expect, it’s quite powerful and hard to bring down. Neutral heroes can be hired like mercenaries on the map, only they’re quite a bit more expensive.
The campaign is obviously shorter than Warcraft III’s since it omits one entire faction, but even accounting for that, each part of the campaign feels shorter than before. That said, there are a few scenarios that are quite a bit harder than anything in Warcraft III, including the final one called A Symphony of Frost and Flame (someone on the staff was apparently a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire), which took me just a tick over 2 in-game hours to beat. There were a few other longer ones, and most of those I very much enjoyed. What I didn’t enjoy as much were the scenarios that didn’t involve any base management. I don’t mind those here and there, but there were quite a bit more this time around. Some were designed to take advantage of new abilities, like one where a powerful item is hidden in spots only accessible via the Warden’s new teleport ability, but most felt too linear and boring. Aside from that, the plot and pacing of the story felt fine, if a bit inconsequential. The middle scenario in particular felt like the game was spinning its tires, but there was some fun to be had in-between so it’s not like I minded. The story the game really wants to tell, if you couldn’t tell by the title, concerns Arthas and his relationship with the titular Frozen Throne. It’s a bit interesting because Arthas and the Scourge are basically the villains of our story, but you the player are tasked with protecting the throne, and the Lich King within it, from those who seek to destroy it.
Not every faction benefits as much as some of the others when it comes to the new additions in The Frozen Throne. The Shadow Hunter is a welcomed addition for the Orcs, but the new units in the Batrider and Spirit Walker are less interesting. The Batrider is essentially a flying siege unit, but it’s not really any more useful than a catapult while the Spirit Walker is strictly for support. It can resurrect dead units, but it’s fairly costly. I do like the Blood Elf Spellbreaker as it’s a great counter for a horde of Necromancers. The new air units for the Humans, the Blood Elf Dragonhawk Rider, is like a lighter version of the undead Bone Dragon as it can incapacitate buildings briefly, very useful for attacking settlements. The Undead just get the Obsidian Statue, a strictly support unit, but it can turn into a melee unit powered by mana that’s just okay. It’s much better in a support role where it replenishes either health or mana so pair it with a group of Necromancers and you get an instant army of skeletons. Speaking of which, the Necromancers can also reanimate corpses as skeletal mages now, which are useful in adding a weak ranged attacker. Lastly, the Night Elves’ flashiest new unit is the Mountain Giant. It’s basically a catapult turned into a traditional melee unit. They’re really tough to bring down when upgraded, and they do actual siege damage by ripping a tree out of the ground to wield as a club. They’re very costly, but worth it. Not really worth it is the new Fairie Dragon which strictly exists to counter enemy spellcasters, but it’s not as good in that role as the Spellbreaker and it’s a bit too costly to invest in.
Being an expansion, the game utilizes the same engine as Warcraft III and basically looks the same. A few heroes received a makeover, and there are some new settings to explore like a tropical one. The game also brings back naval units as mercenary units. They feel quite weak compared with the naval units in Warcraft II, and mostly feel like a gimmick, but it’s kind of neat to see. By far, the most interesting addition are the Naga who have an entire tech tree. They’re not a playable faction in multiplayer, but they can be experienced in the campaign. They have their own worker units, melee, spellcasters, siege, and so on. Their only limitation is that they have just the one hero as opposed to four. And since they’re amphibious, all of their units can swim which introduces a fun, new, wrinkle to things. All of the voice actors appear to have returned and the presentation on the whole feels largely the same. There’s fewer CG cinematics, but that was to be expected. Also receiving a downgrade is the packaging. There’s no giant instruction manual this time, just a CD booklet. That booklet does provide biography information for all of the new units and buildings though so it’s not as-if it’s as empty as a modern booklet.
One of the major selling points of any expansion is the new functionality that comes to online play. And in the case of The Frozen Throne, that was through Blizzard’s Battle.net interface. From what I can remember, it added a lot and gave me a reason to dive back into it. I don’t think I bothered much with the neutral heroes, but I did use some of the new ones. Now, Battle.net no longer supports this game so I can’t check it out. Like Warcraft III, The Frozen Throne was remade somewhat recently and if you want to experience everything the game has to offer you pretty much have to do so via the new game. It’s a shame, because this version is still very playable. It doesn’t cry out for any real quality of life improvements, and even though the visuals are dated they’re hardly unpleasant to look at.
The Frozen Throne does what a good expansion should do: it makes an already terrific game even better. I liked having new single player content, even if I wish there was a bit more, and the new units and heroes are largely worthwhile additions to the gameplay. It’s only sin is not having a proper Orc campaign. It definitely made picking a faction in multiplayer more challenging as all four are pretty good, though the addition of the Shadow Hunter actually made it perhaps too easy for me to stick with the Orcs. The Mountain Giant is probably my favorite addition, but it was often difficult to make use of it in the much faster-paced world of multiplayer given its placement on the tech tree. I don’t play it, but it also feels like this game really set the stage for World of Warcraft with the new lore and a new big, bad, evil, dude in the form of the Lich King. Playing this one made me wish we had a Warcraft IV, but I also got my RTS fix by playing through this one. I suppose the next time that itch arises I’ll just play them again!