Frozen Hearth – Hands-on with a locally built, ultimately spliced RTS adventure
Frozen Hearth – Hands-on with a locally built, ultimately spliced RTS adventure
Not so long ago, there was a call-out on Facebook to industry peeps for “the biggest RTS folks”. When such phrases are strung together, it’s difficult to not become self-reflective and overthink it all. I’m certainly a big fan of the RTS genre—a nigh-PC exclusive game flavour that has yet to be, and probably never will be, properly replicated on consoles—but have never had much success competitively.
I dug StarCraft II’s solo campaign but never ventured online; played the hell out of co-op skirmishes in the likes of Command & Conquer: Generals and Battle for Middle-earth; and still to this day have my arse handed to me in Company of Heroes against cunning human opponents and cheating AI.
If “biggest” translates to “most skilled and worthy” that’s certainly not me but if, instead, it means “have a love of the genre” that’s me to a tee. As it turns out, it was the latter, so I was invited along to have some hands-on time with Frozen Hearth. Perhaps most excitingly, this game is being forged by Sydney-based developer Epiphany Games and, I’m ashamed to admit, looks a whole lot better than what my jaded expectations were for a local RTS of which I’d never heard.
Originally envisioned as an MMORPG, Frozen Hearth went back to the drawing board and is slated as the first PC-exclusive entry in a proposed trilogy. The second title, Aki and Plizkin: Codex of Ancients, is intended as a multiplatform action RPG; while the final entry, Ámorrá: Teigh Suil, is envisioned as a full-circle return to the original idea for Frozen Hearth: an MMORPG. Granted, Frozen Hearth is closer to the MOBA stylings of Defense of the Ancients (DOTA) or League of Legends (LOL) than it is to any of the aforementioned RTS titles; albeit, the influence of many other strategy titles was evident in what I played.
The RTS/MOBA-savvy Junglist of 5-inch Floppy fame and I were the first two local journos to take the game for a spin. Before we jumped in, Sam Jensen—lead designer on Frozen Hearth—and Morgan Lean—game director—provided some background information and context on what was to come. His background in writing, Jensen talked about the importance of having a darker narrative meshed with Gaelic, Celtic and Eastern European influences.
Frozen Hearth’s story takes place in a land on the cusp of an extinction-level event, whereby warring tribes of the Danaan people (read: humans) must unite to fight off the common threat, the Shangur (read: frosty bastards). The key difference for Frozen Hearth’s storyline is that it’s about survival, instead of the usual conquest motivation. In fact, Jensen and Lean openly talked about the uphill battle of the Danaan in what may well prove to be an ultimately hopeless plight to stop the Shangur from covering their lands in ice. Winter is coming, indeed.
It was game time next, and Jung and I were loaded into the campaign that features two-player cooperative support. Strangely, the very first mission tasked us with incapacitating each other’s respective hero unit in the antithesis of co-op play: player-versus-player. The first task, though, was to pick a hero, with three core options influenced by the RPG likes of tank and healer, with three universal sub-categories favouring offence, defence and magic. I chose the tank, while Junglist went with the healer.
This introductory mission was simplified to bare basics, as we started out with our respective hero units and a stronghold with a prebuilt barracks. The barracks granted access to the basic spearman squad, with the bulk of combat duties falling to the hero. Like Dawn of War or Company of Heroes, resource management is as simple as capturing and holding nodes scattered around the world, which passively provide income. The nodes vary in size—small, medium and large—and while the larger nodes offer greater income, they also provide the added benefit of allowing you to replenish dead squad units. Handy.
Jensen and Lean talked us through the respective magic abilities for our heroes. Refreshingly, heroes gain experience by being actively involved in combat, not exclusively by scoring kills, which means that even if you’re getting annihilated, you’re still levelling up. This was particularly useful in multiplayer (more on this later), but it also meant I was able to turn a couple of initial skirmishes with Junglist into eventual victory. Granted, this was mostly thanks to the superior default health of my tank hero.
The next level was a co-op survival mission, as our respective tribes were forced to put aside our differences to fight the arrival of the Shangur scourge. What started out as separate defence sites eventually converged onto a single point. Because Jensen and Lean weren’t sure of Junglist and my respective skill levels coming into the preview, they had us playing on easy difficulty, which was a walk in the park.
Still, we got to make use of a variety of magic abilities: offensive and defensive buffs, area-of-effect spells and temporary invulnerability, to name a few. It was fascinating to take note of the spreading ice left by the dead bodies of the Shangur. The inverse of Zerg creep from StarCraft II, the ice slowed our Danaan units down; another point that would soon become relevant in our multiplayer session.
Next up we played a classic VIP mission, tasked with crossing from one side of the map to the other, all the while protecting a giant boar and (optionally) saving villagers along the way. The potential for this mission to be tense was there, but it was absent on easy difficulty. Thankfully, this marked the end of the easiness, and we were thrown into a skirmish match against two AI foes on hard difficulty.
This mode was a lot of fun, Junglist and I working together once again to take down two stubborn opponents. I got an early kill on one of the heroes, but was sent reeling when I tried to follow that up with an assault on its base. As we played, Jensen and Lean talked about the recent surprise discovering of just how smart the AI really is. Unlike other RTS AI opponents on harder difficulties, Epiphany Games is determined to ensure that its bad guys don’t cheat.
They may still be able to control multiple fronts in a way a human cannot, and they can see whatever their units see regardless of how dispersed their forces are, but they don’t actively seek map exploits and they can’t see what the player is doing unless they have units in line of sight. The aforementioned surprise discovery was in a match-up between Jensen and a hard opponent, which started performing false attacks, only to retreat and lure Jensen’s counter-attack into clever ambushes.
As for my match with Junglist, long story short, we won. The slightly longer version is I had selected a different hero who was killed at least once because playing a mage as a tank is an ill-advised tactic. Junglist dealt the most damage to the enemy base on the flank of the one I was attacking, which opened up the floodgates to a swift victory.
The real potential of Frozen Hearth, though, came when Jensen and Lean offered to take us on in a not-so-friendly round of Assassination multiplayer. One of many modes, Assassination tasks each side with killing heroes, with the first team to 10 winning the day. Felled heroes conveniently instantly respawn back at base; a feature that afforded Jensen two very early kills on me.
While Junglist was being kept busy with Lean on his side of the map, I was tasked with holding back an aggressive Jensen. Given that the two main resource nodes between our bases branched off a narrow path, the bulk of our battles took place on the pathway or on the narrow entrances leading to each respective node. Thanks to his early victories, Jensen had also laid down an impressive amount of debuffing ice by sacrificing troops and casting spells, and that was where the bulk of our battles took place. Unfortunately for me, this meant I was constantly on the back foot.
Because my hero was still earning experience, despite my losses, I was able to prove a contender in the middle-game. By levelling up my melee abilities, my hero also had the added benefit of faster movement. The stronghold also houses a store that allows players to buy various weapons and items to improve a range of abilities across three slots. I purchased three sets of boots to boost my hero’s movement speed, adjusting my tank tactics to hit-and-run attacks.
I have no doubt that the Epiphany guys were graciously taking it a bit easy on us, but there were a few tussles that felt incredibly satisfying to conquer. My hit-and-run tactics also meant that my squads of archers and spearmen were surviving for longer. As Danaan units earn experience (Shangur regulars do not, which encourages aggressive play styles) it was well worth my extra micro focus preserving their ranks, and the included retreat button—which will be familiar to any fan of Dawn of War or Company of Heroes—made single-unit squads scurry back to base where they could be replenished.
Towards the second half of the battle, I invested a big chunk of resources into improving the armour, attack and movement speed of my squads. After researching poison-tipped-arrows special ability for my archers, I was able to perform quick takedowns of Jensen’s hero unit by broadsiding him with this researched attack option. As he attempted to retreat, I’d hit him with my spearmen’s taunt ability which drastically slowed his movement speed and send my hero in to deal out massive damage.
As an RTS fan that’s never really had an interest in the DOTAs or LOLs of the gaming world, I was honestly surprised to discover how much fun could be had in a MOBA that still has more than a pinch of RTS flavour. While its focus on core fans may discourage newcomers, the reward on careful management of micro skills means that not only is it possible to pick abilities and spells that match your play style, it’s also possible (and rewarding) to reactively choose these based on your opponent’s moves. If you’re a fan of MOBAs or love RTS and want to have a look at what this whole MOBA craze is all about, this Aussie title may be up your alley...
Frozen Hearth is up on Steam Greenlight right now and will be available to buy from the 19th of this month.
Comments on this Article
Post Your Comment
Recent News Entries
The Weekly Update - Fighting Game Fun
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag hoists new trailer high
EA doing away with Online Passes
Grand Turismo 6 official, coming to PS3 later this year
Nvidia Shield available in the US in June