I don’t remember agonising over any review quite for as long as I have for Epiphany Games’ brand new RTS — Frozen Hearth, made right here in Australia. I even had the chance to get away from it all, after having surgery on my leg, but the break only made me think even more about how conflicted I felt.
Part of the deliberations have centred on what the game is and what Epiphany wants it to be. There’s an evident, deep love for where real-time strategy came from: fans of Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, and WarCraft 3 will be immediately familiar with most of the mechanics.
But mechanics do not a full game make, and the most disheartening — and harshest — criticism I have is that Frozen Hearth doesn’t feel quite complete. The world of Amorra and the characters within are cleanly rendered, but the landscape itself, even accounting for the growth and recession of the ice, feels flat and lifeless.
This is the campaign’s greatest problem. It’s difficult enough to marshal the Danaan tribes in an organised retreat away from the Shangur menace when you have absolutely no motivation in doing so.
None of the in-game cut-scenes are voiced, and when combined with the bland landscapes that remind me of my days wandering around the University of Western Sydney’s Werrington campus — just buildings and grass — it’s incredibly disheartening.
As such, playing the campaign is about as fun as doing the dishes or vacuuming the floor. The story is already hard to engage with, but the missions themselves are not exactly inspired either. Many of the objectives involving running down the clock or plain-old busywork (like having to stop every minute or so because of some ridiculous wind that tears the flesh off your bones or something). It’s not until you get about four or five hours into the campaign that the battles start to become large enough that the game finds its stride and starts to come into its own.
On heroes and micro
In some respects, this is kind of understandable given the game’s concentration on micromanagement. Your avatars — heroes in any other game — have about 10 or 12 active abilities, while most troops will have one or two active abilities that are almost always valuable in a fight.
Poison arrows, area-of-effect heals, fireballs, aura boosts, a short-range teleport and taunts are all some of the abilities you’ll hit in a two or three second period at the start of each fight depending on how fast you are. And that’s the game’s real target audience: people who enjoy the sheer speed of RTS games like StarCraft, but want something more aligned with Dawn of War or Company of Heroes that has less of a focus on economy and base-building.
I can’t actually fault the base-building at all either: it’s a very simple mechanic with enough variations that are wholly different but still viable. Each player gets a single building with six options. There’s three tiers of units, and because of the prerequisites you’ll usually need three tier 1 buildings, two tier 2 and a final tier 3. You could go for an all-out attack with tier 1 and 2 buildings, and there are still various compositions you could use in that strategy.
The avatars have a similar mechanic: you select from one of three heroes and then from one of three tribes. Each specialises in healing, damage or tanking (the developers are huge fans of Blizzard and MMOs) and some combinations will obviously be more optimal than others, depending on the composition of the rest of your army.
On this level, when you’re getting down into the nitty-gritty of battle, pulling injured units away, retreating ones close to death, spamming your various abilities and keeping track of all the control points on the map, Frozen Hearth is at its absolute best.
Great multiplayer, if you have the time to arrange it yourself
It’s probably why, when I previewed the game that I found Frozen Hearth so interesting, if only because most of the game’ s problems cease to exist when you’re not dealing with the dreary campaign and the dull AI. It’s not that the campaign doesn’t get up to speed eventually — you do eventually start to enjoy the big-scale fights, taking on decent-sized armies and beating back the Shangur.
It’s just that you shouldn’t have to play four or five hours to get to that point. And even the crown jewel of the campaign — the ability to play through it entirely in co-op — is flawed by the reality that the missions aren’t any more enjoyable with a friend. Instead, it just gives someone you can bitch to when you’re inevitably sitting back escorting villagers or waiting for the clock to run out.
Should you have a friend who has as deep a love for the game as yourself, you’ll be well served by the various multiplayer modes and maps. Assassination is really quite brilliant; I loved it when I previewed the game and it’s just as good here. Attrition can be fun although you’ll want to avoid maps with excessively tight chokepoints, unless you enjoy running into massive concaves of archer fire.
The infrastructure behind multiplayer isn’t particularly complex though. There’s no centralised online service, although you do have to authenticate online to launch the game. That lack of a lobby system is a real killer in 2012; it might be quaint to have to arrange matches with your opponent beforehand, but it’s an awful setup in practice and will really harm Frozen Hearth’s longevity.
A user experience that just isn’t up to scratch
And it’s not just the lack of a centralised service that harks back to a pre-WarCraft 3 age. A lot of the interface feels incredibly old-fashioned and inefficient. There’s a great degree of control to resize the toolbars, which is excellent, but having to press spacebar to jump back to a unit selection (instead of double-tapping) is a bit of an oversight.
More of a frustration is the inability to cast spells on units by clicking on their portraits. Typically I’d say this was giving the player too much of a leg-up, but it’s almost necessary given that most of the units are melee. Battles can often become a complete mess and you’ll often target the wrong unit. Adding a hot-key bar at the bottom of the screen wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
Another small disappointment is the lack of complexity in the control point system. Like Company of Heroes, holding a capture point gives you a set amount of resources, and you can reinforce your troops at the larger nodes. But allowing players to amass all three resources — wood, food and metal — from any node is sloppy and sacrifices a great opportunity to enforce some tactical variety in the maps.
Jack of all trades, master of none
In many respects, Frozen Hearth combines some of the best elements of your favourite RTS games. And while fans of Company of Heroes might not appreciate the hand-speed necessary to fully utilise your army, it won’t turn off fans of StarCraft, MOBA games and particularly WarCraft 3, of which this owes so much to.
But there are far too many instances where Frozen Hearth is lacking basic features that would have been expected of its heroes, let alone the standards you’d expect for a game in 2012.
That last paragraph hurts deeply, because the people behind Frozen Hearth are wonderful, wonderful human beings. I wish them all the success in the world and would love to see another great Australian developer among the giants. But they won’t find that success with Frozen Hearth as it is right now, and I can’t in all good conscience tell you to jump on board.
If the game finds its way onto Steam, and you can pick it up at a reduced price then the co-op campaign might be worth it. But it’s a hard slog, especially on your own.