1st May, 2014By Softmints7 minutes

Advent of the Zenith 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.

Overhead view of the battlefield

Map Layout

First impressions of the battlefield are that it's kept clean and simple. There are very few side paths; only four "routes" exist that aren't lanes.

Without a jungle or any other distractions, the entire game is about killing and pushing. The focal points of pushing are the four Strongholds held by each team, which are responsible for troop production. Once one dies, that lane will no longer produce troops, allowing the enemy to gradually march upon the main base... or occupy heroes with holding them off.

For this reason, Strongholds must be bitterly defended.

Another threat is the loss of your Power Plant. This isolated building has good defences and isn't pressured by troops. If you lose it, your team stops passively generating gold, and the Healing Fountains in your bases will run dry, which seriously inhibits your team's ability to stay in the game.

Shows a split-screen with both Power Plants. Each is defended by four towers
Two happy power plants.

Power Plants need a coordinated assault from higher-level heroes to take down, so chances are if you can't spare the resources to defend it, you've probably already lost.

Troops in AotZ spawn at a slower beat than most maps (every 33 seconds), 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: extra time which can be used to gank other lanes before an absence is noticed. This is worth mentioning, because there is no uphill/downhill on the map, nor anything to hide behind that would be useful for ganking. To catch an enemy hero off-guard: simply run up from behind in plain view!

To add 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.

A samurai hero approaches a red powerup rune, titled 'Drain' and claiming to offer 100% life leech on attacks for a time
Also available: life regen, mana regen, attack damage, attack rate, movement speed, and armour.

Stylistic Choices:

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:

Artwork:

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. Rather than the usual minimalist instructions or puns, they 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.

A hero's tooltip reads: "Welcome to my world, stranger. You will find pain, you will find death, but you will never leave. I shed this wave of decay upon you, damaging any caught in its wake."
This style of tooltip might not be appreciated on a more complicated ability, but it sure is nice for flavour here.

Distinct Factions:

The factions have very distinct themes. When you play as a 'good' hero, your UI tooltips are blue, cyan, and white, while your buildings are towers and castles.

On the evil team, those tooltips become rusted red and orange, and 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.

Picture of a Hallowed Order base, with green, grey, and cyan colours. A tooltip appears in a similar colour scheme
A Hallowed base.
A Bane base, with its black, pink, purple, and brown colour scheme
A somewhat less Hallowed base.

Non-generic Names:

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.

Dialogue:

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.

A hero on lane quips, "Scamp can have his fire; I prefer something more tangible"
An example of hero dialogue.
As troops clash, a creature of the bane hisses "This pleases me..." while a Hallowed Solider yells "And STAY DEAD!"
And some troop dialogue. This is happening on lanes all the time.

Heroes

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.

Myriad's 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.

Seven skeletal swordsmen stand in formation. A tooltip describes the three available formations and their bonuses: Assault adds damage, Balanced adds speed, Reserved adds armour
I'm Myriad. No, I'm Myriad!

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.

The screen is almost whited out by a giant explosion with blood flying everywhere. Some Hallowed buildings can be seen in the background
Another lost game of "find the red dot".

Other concepts include a hero with no attack, a telekineticist that throws units around, and an imp that mind-controls enemy units and heroes.

Since AotZ has a relatively small cast of 10 Hallowed heroes and 10 Bane heroes, even the more extreme designs see frequent use and can be balanced at a very granular level, since there are less potential 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!

Among the basic items is a Teleport Staff, which will be an early and necessary investment for most heroes. The map is quite large, and it takes a while for heroes to walk anywhere (especially the lanes farthest from their main base).

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 even ones. 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.

For example, Celestial Seeker's super-ultimate deals massive damage around him while he channels, building towards a final blast (which kills him!). The ability also damage 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-ultimate; sometimes they're short-cooldown abilities that compliment the way the hero is played.

Contrast this with most mobas, where heroes have access to their full kit by level 6 (typically around 25%-33% of maximum level), and after that their strategic development is dependent on items. In these circumstances, players categorise heroes in terms of what they can build, because that's what provides impact during the latter 50% of the game.

If "items maketh the hero", then the hero's carefully chosen theme would be less of an emphasis. Using super-ultimates instead allows theme to remain important when it comes to how players perceive and categorise heroes.

Team Resources:

As well as earning gold for last hits, players also earn a resource called Faction for killing enemy heroes. It 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. This turns out not to be a huge deal in practice: particularly not in a 6v6 where kills are more common.

Many of the stronger items cost Faction as well as gold, but its primary use is for hiring additional units for your team.

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.

Chart detailing the available heroes and the units they produce

For a major boost in survivability, players can sink a substantial volume of gold into a single Crystal Soul. This powerup will cause all your team's existing and subsequently hired heroes to get one extra life: making your investments less vulnerable. Crystal Soul can only be purchased once.

A base of the Bane has four hero units patrolling inside it
A selection of NPC heroes man the fort.

Reinforcements are bought from Strongholds, and immediately leave the Stronghold along the lane towards the enemy base. Once dispatched, they become available for purchase again after a cooldown. Despite the plurality of the name, each 'batch' of reinforcements is a single (powerful) unit.

As they're not a long-term asset, reinforcements are significantly less expensive than NPC heroes. They usually apply buffs to nearby allies, and some combinations of reinforcements with the troops from NPC heroes synergise particularly well.

Another 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 courier to ferry your items around... not that you'll have many in the first place.

Closing Thoughts

Advent of the Zenith is a subtle but effective expansion on the Tides of Blood formula. It's 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.