With so many local studio closures over the recent years, it’s refreshing to see a PC-focused title forged by an Australian developer. Frozen Hearth is the first title in an intended genre-stepping trilogy that walks the line between real-time strategy (RTS) and multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), with a stronger emphasis on the latter, but enough of the former to keep it from becoming a Defense of the Ancients clone.
The storyline puts you in charge of one of three Dunaan tribes (each one lending itself to a particular play style) on the cusp of an extinction-level event. The mysterious Shangur are invading the land, and it’s up to the fractured Dunaan people to put aside their differences and unite against the overwhelming threat of this frosty foe.
You can play the campaign on your lonesome, but Frozen Hearth’s campaign has been designed with co-op play in mind; even if the first mission does pit soon-to-be-allies against each other. Even in single-player mode, the first few missions are laughably easy, albeit with the caveat that wrapping your head around your avatar—the hero unit of the game who levels up and can unlock various passive and active abilities—takes a bit of familiarisation.
After the initial missions, though, the difficulty spikes, and the solo player will soon find themself in charge of a second army on the other side of the map, which requires split focus in a game that emphasises micro combat-level over essentially non-existent global-economy macro. This is intensely rewarding when you can balance both armies on multiple frontlines, but I soon found myself combining the forces into a single army. The challenge would’ve been appreciated more had there been an easier way to jump between points of interest. As it stands, using Spacebar to quickly move to units drastically affects the frame rate, slowing the game to a crawl as the map tracks to your units, instead of jumping to them. You can’t simply double-tap assigned numerical keys, either; you have to use Spacebar to move to any point of interest.
In terms of macro, much like Company of Heroes, you can capture nodes to earn resources, but capturing any node provides passive income for all three main resources, which essentially means you capture and forget, all the while enjoying the node’s line of sight (another frame rate influencer). At its core, this isn’t necessarily a negative thing, given the split-focus approach you’ll have to take to best the Shangur in terms of micromanaging not just your hero, but individual squads as you unlock/research their special abilities (that can quickly turn the tide of battle).
The larger your army, though, the trickier this feat becomes, especially when you’re micro-ing like a mofo, throwing magic around like Gandalf having an epileptic fit. The liberal use of magic also impacts the frame rate—despite the game not being overly pretty, even on the highest settings—and makes it impossible at times to track your units. While unit keyboard bindings take you so far, it becomes infuriating when you need to cast particular spells on specific units only to miss because of an awry click; this is at its worst when you find yourself healing enemies or making them temporarily invulnerable in the middle of a fight. This is the last thing you want to do when even Easy difficulty armies can be tough; a factor made even more challenging when there’s no option to save the game.
Campaign gripes aside, Frozen Hearth is at its best in skirmish or competitive multiplayer modes. In many respects, the campaign serves as training for these modes, but you’ll have to jump into the deep end to learn to play as the nefarious Shangur. The skirmish and competitive modes are where Frozen Hearth shines, with on-the-fly tactics that evolve based on what your opponents are doing. It’s just a damn shame there’s no server browser/lobby system at launch (this is reportedly coming early next year), which makes finding a game next to impossible unless you can externally organise a match with other players and connect via IP address. At least there’s full LAN support.
Frozen Hearth is the Dark Souls of the RTS genre: damn challenging, at times infuriating, but rewarding to the persistent multi-tasking player. It’s a shame there wasn’t a bit more spit and polish before final release, because when Frozen Hearth isn’t distracting you with oddities or omissions, it’s actually a rewarding experience.