Advent of the Zenith (Rising_Dusk, 2006) is comfortably one of the best-known AoS maps in Warcraft III. It stands out in many ways as a memorable experience, partly due to innovative hero design, and partly due to its immersive theme and custom graphics. The game is played 6v6, and depicts the final battle between two old rivals: the Hallowed Order and The Bane of Eternity.
Let’s start with the terrain:
The map’s layout is kept pretty simple. Marked in purple on the map are side-paths because I think it’s worth noting that there are very few. There are (almost) no tactical vision blockers, but troops spawn to a slower beat than most maps, and alternate between a primary wave, and a smaller backup wave. The primary wave contains an additional strong melee troop, and a caster that gradually boosts the effectiveness of its non-hero companions. This slower beat means that there is more time between waves while the enemy wave (and consequently heroes) are out of vision: this extra time can be used to gank other lanes before an absence is noticed.
For a bit of spice, there are DotA-style runes which spawn around the map. There are three spawn-points, and spawning happens periodically at every location, not a randomly chosen one. The particular rune that spawns is randomly chosen between seven temporary boosts to basic stats.
One feature that really leaves an impression is the map’s atmosphere. It permeates every element of the game, far beyond the level of most Warcraft maps and even commercial mobas. I’d like to take a moment to run through some of the major contributors to this:
- The heroes feature a wide variety of custom artwork, which helped AotZ to stand out amongst its peers. But access to custom assets isn’t everything, it’s how you use them that counts. An example: most mobas are homogeneous when it comes to hero size, but in AotZ heroes range in size from a scrawny imp that’s intentionally difficult to click, to a lumbering ent that’s six times as large. It makes the heroes feel like a cast of characters, rather than visual representations of ability sets. The heroes also have tasteful descriptions and flavour text on their abilities which, rather than the usual minimalist instructions or puns, try to convey a sense of character. Why does this hero have that ability? How does this hero feel about using that ability? AotZ does a fantastic job of exploring this.
- The factions have very distinct themes. When you play as a ‘good’ hero, your UI tooltips are blue, cyan, and white; your buildings are towers and castles. On the evil team, those tooltips become rusted red and orange; your main base is the monstrous ‘head’ of a giant creature whose subterranean tentacles surface across the map in the form of your towers. Your minions are deformed squid-like or insectoid beasts. They have very different shapes and colours to the knights and spearmen of the Order. Every unit available to the Hallowed Order is prefixed with “Hallowed”, such as “Hallowed Soldier”, while the Bane creatures are “Striker of the Bane”, “Berserker of the Bane”, etc. All of this helps the factions feel more distinct, while reinforcing the narrative.
- The game’s liberal use of uncommon/rare words when naming units and abilities is a step taken to reject association with other games or franchises. Among the hired heroes (which I’ll describe later), are the Hallowed Evangelist, Vagabond, and Cavalier: no genre-staple paladins here! The choice of names definitely sets AotZ apart, though having an obscure lexicon can be alienating and isn’t to everyone’s taste (particularly if English isn’t your first language). That said, Blizzard executed this technique very successfully with Starcraft. For example, Zealot is a rare, specific word that perfectly fits the manifest of the unit, but they also mix it up with Firebat and Queen which are good fits despite being simple.
- AotZ pioneered the genre’s use of contextual dialogue. Heroes will shout battle cries or sneer at each-other from across the lane, while the lane troops demand justice or gargle incoherently upon killing each other. It lends a great sense of character to the game, and to the relatively small cast of 20 heroes. The level of awareness isn’t anything near as thorough as Valve’s more recent work on Dota 2, but the fact that characters referred to each-other at all was a big step forward for the genre.
AotZ also pioneered some very fresh hero concepts. A personal favourite of mine is called Myriad. This “hero” is a collective that consists of a commander and his legion of six skeletal warriors. The warriors can’t stray too far from him, and eventually respawn if they die. Their formation may be adjusted, affecting how they position themselves around their commander while moving, and granting bonuses based on formation. The commander’s abilities let him detonate his warriors to damage nearby enemies, bolster their attack or defences, or improve the legion’s numbers. As they’re all melee, they can potentially surround and block their victims.
There are a few heroes who specialise in siege or taking out buildings, a relatively uncommon speciality across modern mobas. Of course some heroes can do it with summons, but in AotZ there are bigger bases, and consequently a few ultimate abilities which deal a lot of damage to buildings. In particular, Marksman can drop a nuke Starcraft style to crumble a base.
Other concepts include a hero with no attack, and an imp that mind-controls enemy units and heroes. Since AotZ has a relatively small cast of 10 good heroes and 10 evil heroes with no overlap, even the more extreme designs see frequent use and can be balanced at a very granular level, since there are only so many match-ups to consider.
Items and Temporal Scaling:
Items are a scare commodity in AotZ, relative to most maps. There are four consumable potions available, along with eight basic items that offer very modest bonuses to hero stats. Further to this, there are eleven ‘legendary’ items, which offer stronger bonuses, but are pricey. Numerically, the legendaries have nothing on the items you’d see in other mobas, but they are distinct and work well within the context of AotZ. There isn’t much room to argue about builds, since those 19 permanent items are all that’s in the game!
With the absence of higher-tier recipes, a hero’s maximum potential is much lower than in most mobas, and is routinely hit before a match ends. This limit means that individual heroes can’t snowball out of control or carry the team: victory is always a team effort. Even when your team is losing on towers, team fights can still be relatively even opportunities for both sides. Also worth noting about maximum potential is that heroes are equipped with five abilities:
- Three regular abilities with 5 levels each, available at hero levels 1/3/5/7/9.
- An ultimate with three levels, available at hero levels 6/12/18.
- A super-ultimate with three levels, available at hero levels 11/16/21 (max).
The benefit of having a super-ultimate is that it allows for more granular control of balance and roles over the entire course of a match. Celestial Seeker’s super-ultimate for example, deals massive damage around him while he channels, building towards a final blast. The ability also damages structures, so despite being an agile damage dealer early-game, he acquires the potential to take bases late-game. Not every hero gets a game-changer super-ult though, sometimes they’re short-cooldown abilities that compliment the way the hero is played.
Contrast with most mobas, where heroes have access to their full kit by level 6 (typically around 25%-33% of maximum level), and from there their development is dependent on items. The emphasis on items results in the player-base categorising heroes in terms of what they can build (carries, semi-carries, supports), rather than what they are. However, the combination of super-ultimates and less impactful items means that despite a small hero pool, AotZ players aren’t as inclined to complain about “not enough supports”. They’re conditioned to understand that every hero is distinct, and the hero design reinforces this. These mechanics complement each other very nicely.
As well as earning gold for last hits, players also earn a resource called Faction for killing enemy heroes. Many of the stronger items cost Faction as well as gold, but its primary use is for hiring non-player-controlled heroes or single-spawn units. In a 6v6, both resources are relatively plentiful, but in smaller games it can be difficult to harvest.
Faction serves as a motivation for hero kills, because there are several assets you simply can’t access without it. Personally I’m not a fan of there being no alternative means of generating Faction, because on a tactical level sometimes you want to play defensive, but that’s not a huge deal in practice.
NPC heroes may be hired at each team’s strongholds, and will stay within the bounds of the stronghold to defend it. While it lives, a hired hero will also contribute an additional troop to every primary wave that spawns from its stronghold. The troop will vary based on its parent hero, and there are six classes of hired hero (and troops) available, as listed below. The different heroes/troops also have varied damage and armour types that produce a rock-paper-scissors effect.
For a major boost in survivability, players can sink a substantial volume of gold into a Crystal Soul. This powerup will cause all your team’s existing and subsequently hired heroes to revive once upon death, overall making your investments less vulnerable. Crystal Soul may only be purchased once.
Single-spawn units can also be bought from strongholds, and immediately leave the stronghold to help attack the enemy base alongside the troop wave (or defend if there’s already enemies nearby). As the name implies, they don’t recur, but become available for purchase again after a cooldown. All three of the available spawns are powerful, but as they’re not a long-term asset, they’re significantly less expensive than heroes. They usually apply bonuses to nearby allies, and some combinations of spawns each other and the troops from NPC heroes synergise particularly well.
One other use for gold is buying workers to repair your buildings, which is a nice option to have available, though it’s slow and (rightly) a bit expensive. Finally, you can buy a unit to ferry your items around, not that you’ll have many in the first place.
Losing a stronghold is devastating, as there is exactly one stronghold per team per lane, so once yours is gone, you no longer have any troops spawning on that lane and must allocate heroes towards defence. In addition, the enemy can stack up to four hired heroes on one of their strongholds to pressure your weak lane as much as possible. Bases might seem intimidating by having so many towers, but they melt quickly to a coordinated assault or unchecked ultimate.
Also a major threat is the loss of your Power Plant. This Tides of Blood–inspired building has good defences, but is isolated. If you lose it, your team stops passively generating gold, and your healing fountains will run dry, which seriously inhibits your team’s ability to stay in the game. It requires a coordinated assault from the enemy team to take down though, so chances are if you can’t spare the resources to defend it, you’ve probably already lost.
On the whole, AotZ is a game with some of the genre’s most creative heroes, housed in a rich universe which raises the standard of what lane-pushing games can achieve in terms of setting, lore, and aesthetics.