is a slippery term. It can mean anything from “All the game is here, now we just need to tweak and balance” to “Here’s the basic premise, now watch us build it” and many points in between. Frozenheim
is all the way down the “basic premise” end of the spectrum. As a real-time strategy game, its current state of development aligns pretty neatly with the opening moments of the genre. Developer Paranoid Interactive
has laid down its base of operations, tapped a resource node or two, and is scouting the nearby terrain. But right now, in this laboured analogy at least, the production queue is empty. They’re hoping an audience is willing to watch them fill it and maybe make a few suggestions along the way.
So, Frozenheim should not be confused for a complete game. At launch it contains three modes, none of which are fully-featured. The Campaign features just two missions that serve as little more than a tutorial. Skirmish pits you against one or two AI opponents on one of a trio of hand-crafted maps. And the New Game option launches a continuous mode where the focus seems to be on maintaining your settlement, but it quickly runs out of steam once you’ve exhausted the tiny tech tree. All told, there isn’t very much in the way of capital-c Content at the moment.
But despite the lack of substance, Frozenheim does manage to stake a claim to being a promising game. The basics appear to be there, and they seem to be at least gesturing in the right direction. Whatever its failings, it does a reasonable job of painting a picture of what it could be in the future.
"The concepts at play here are pretty self-explanatory and utterly in line with what you’d expect to see in a Norse-themed city-builder...”
Regardless of the mode you’ve selected, play unfolds in much the same way. Your settlement is centred around a longhouse, your Jarl’s homestead. Within the surrounding lands you can build houses to increase the village population and an assortment of production buildings where your people can be put to work. Fisherman’s huts employ villagers to gather food, woodcutter’s huts to gather lumber, weaponsmiths to craft axes and bows, and so on. The concepts at play here are pretty self-explanatory and utterly in line with what you’d expect to see in a Norse-themed city-builder. Surprises are few in the tundra.
But it’s enjoyable to plot out your little village among the spruce and pine. Resource gathering dwellings, such as the collector’s guild or hunting lodge, need to be placed in close proximity to their respective deposits, near a seam of bog iron or amongst a small grove thriving with deer. Windmills require enough open space to cultivate farmlands while all villagers prefer a druid for a neighbour and a water well close by (in case of fire, oddly, rather than for drinking or cooking).
Depending on the terrain it can be quite tricky to fit all this inside the stingy perimeter in which you can build. Still, adjacency requirements are lax and there’s no need to build roads or optimise for efficiency, so you can get on with simply making your new home look good--or at least a little less like a mud pit. Later, as you explore the map and complete certain tasks, you’ll be able to extend the building radius from your central homestead. It remains compact, though, leaving your settlement to only ever occupy a small corner of the map, and is one of the reasons why Frozenheim remains more RTS than city-builder at this stage.
"All units, however, gain stealth bonuses when travelling through dense woods rather than open plains, making it possible to sneak up on bandit camps for a surprise attack...”
Exploring the map is best performed by your scout, one of a handful of military units at present. Scouts can see a bit further than other units, and are a little harder for enemies to spot. All units, however, gain stealth bonuses when travelling through dense woods rather than open plains, making it possible to sneak up on bandit camps for a surprise attack. The woods look impressive, too, their towering height and darkened floors effectively conveying the limited visibility they afford.
The only other terrain is the open sea. The land of Frozenheim, it seems, comes in just three flavours: tundra, woods and water. Ships are necessary to venture to other shores--steal a travelling enemy’s boat and he’ll be marooned--and there’s some basic ship-to-ship combat, but so far the naval aspect feels surprisingly undernourished given the importance of coastal raiding to Viking culture.
Land combat offers slightly more, if only for the presence of multiple unit types with distinct characteristics. Even so, the unit relationships are still quite basic--loosing archers from range while taking cover behind your shield-bearers as your axeman flank the enemy isn’t exactly Total War, but it gets the job done. Assigning groups is simple, ordering squads to hold or retreat is straightforward, and all told Frozenheim’s combat mechanics possess the virtue of clarity if not depth and complexity.
"Perhaps this stems from a seeming reluctance to venture too far into Norse mythology, a desire to keep things a little too grounded and down to earth...”
There are nods to the more mystical aspects of Norse life in that the discovery of runestones scattered around the map increases your power. Temples can be constructed in the village and, once built, can confer a blessing of your choosing--boosting production or travel speed at sea, for example. Such bonuses feel slight, however, the kind of incremental improvement that you aren’t really going to notice in the grand scheme. Perhaps this stems from a seeming reluctance to venture too far into Norse mythology, a desire to keep things a little too grounded and down to earth. If so, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Indeed, Frozenheim feels like it’s playing things too safe across the board. It’s not simply that it needs more content. It’s more that it needs more surprises.
The structures you can build and the units you can recruit all feel like the first things anyone would think of when making a city-building RTS about Vikings. And all the things you can do with those structures and units are the most obvious things you should be able to do with them. Of course, it’s early days and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to lay down a solid foundation. So far it seems as if Frozenheim is at least competent with the basics.
"Such things seem like they might be possible, or feel like they’re being hinted at, and it’s easy to get caught up in imagining what Frozenheim might evolve into...”
But the absence of something unexpected or novel is a concern. If maybe there was a military unit with some unique behaviour, or the economy forced some tough choices, or the passing of the seasons (I forgot to mention this earlier, but crops can’t be grown in winter) had some tangible impact on your settlement’s survival, then there’d be something here to get genuinely excited about. Such things seem like they might be possible, or feel like they’re being hinted at, and it’s easy to get caught up in imagining what Frozenheim might evolve into. For the moment, however, it all feels a bit too rote.
Emphasising the “Early” part of Early Access, on launch day Frozenheim’s version number was 0.0.1. A couple of weeks later it’s now 0.1.3 following a couple of updates that have focused mostly on fixing bugs and tweaking existing features. Winter may be coming, but version 1.0 feels an awful long way off.