Frozen Synapse Review

En-titledGreen ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again before rising to sprint to the next door ahead.  BANG!  A sniper shot through a window to his right felled him.  Try Again.

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and edged to the doorway ahead in a crouched position.  He leaned round the doorway to…KER-BLAM!  A shotgun blast threw him back into the room.  Try again.

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and waited, crouched with his sights trained on the door.  Brrapt!  He shot the shotgun wielding enemy as they passed the doorway.  Green edged to the doorway, leaned round the corner and dashed for his goal.  No deaths.  No nasty gunshots.  Perfect. 

Tactical shooteryFrozen Synapse is a tactical, turn based combat game in a style that will be fairly familiar to anyone who’s played X-COM or Laser Squad Nemesis.  The game plays out in singleplayer and multiplayer missions in which you direct a small squad by giving out intricate instructions to each member in a planning phase, that then plays out in a 5 second burst of action, before returning to the planning phase to plot out the next 5 seconds, and repeat until the match is complete.  Matches can take 15-20 minutes of plotting and planning, but when replayed in realtime last for all of 30 seconds.

What stands Frozen Synapse apart from it’s 1990s forebears is the ease with which instructions are issued (with a right click menu, or knowledge of a few hotkeys, offering everything you need) and a ‘play’ button that gives you the ability to view how events in the next 5 second chunk should pan out based on your current plan.

So, for instance, I can give my machinegunner instructions as per the beginning of this article and click play to see what will happen.  Ah, he gets sniped!  Let’s try something different then, what if he ducks?  That works, but then he meets that shotgunner.  What if he waits for him to round the corner first?…etc

The ability to plot actions for your enemies is what’s essential to the planning phases.  You can assume a sniper will stay still aiming in the window, but in actuality he may turn and move to a better position instead.  That shotgunner may run round the corner, but he may stay where he was and wait for you instead.  Which eventuality do you plan for?  There’s enough possibilities in the seemingly simple instructions available to mean you never actually know what will happen when you finally click ‘commit’.  Every planning phase centres around the ever present commit button, beckoning you to find out what is actually going to happen to your men.  Clicking it is one of the tensest moments in recent gaming as a short loading bar fills to reveal the outcome….

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and waited.  No one rounds the corner.  No shots from the window, and then out of the corner of his eye Green spots a rocket propelled grenade fizzing across the courtyard straight for his position.  Shit!  The rocket flies towards him and….it freezes in mid air, 2 feet from his face.  PLANNING PHASE

Presentation is key for an indie game such as this, requiring style over polygons to win you over, and mode7 have obviously taken great inspiration from some of the master indie developers.  Frozen Synapse is so reminiscent of Uplink that you’d be forgiven for assuming it was a new Introversion title.  In fact their upcoming game Subversion bears even more resemblance.  This is no bad thing though, and the crisp, functional style adds to the ease with which you command your troops.

The music, too, is excellent, and could be swapped for Deus Ex’s without anyone noticing.  In case you aren’t sure what that means, it means its very good!

The story's told through this mission hubThe singleplayer shares a similar cyber-punk edge, too, telling the story of sci-fi mega-corporations using the matrix-esque ‘shape’ to do virtual battles for territory across a future metropolis.  The 55 mission story is told through conversations and news stories told every few missions, which is often enough to break up the combat nicely without getting too in the way of the addictive need for more strategising.  The story doesn’t take itself too seriously and contains a few memorable characters, especially an AI with an amusing lack of concern for the wellbeing of your squad members, and some absolutely ridiculous names for people and places.  Case in point: your character is called Tactics, because “that’s what you’re good at”.

For a game that seems built for one-on-one tactical battles best played against other humans, the singleplayer makes a really good effort at striking off on its own, forcing you to take different tactical approaches to the usually careful, defence-led multiplayer skirmishes.  The missions comprise a healthy mix of objectives, from wiping out much larger teams than your own, frantic escort missions and mad dashes for strategic bonuses (like reinforcements, or just a big explosion).  My favourites being when you have to take out a huge team of snipers, say, using only 2 shotgun wielding grunts.

Ultimately, though, the singleplayer is going to be a warm-up to the main event: the skirmish and multiplayer battles.  Frozen Synapse is so crisp in its presentation, simple in its execution and satisfying in it’s 5 second outcomes that it is incredibly absorbing and difficult to drag yourself away from.  The seeming ease and simplicity of delivering your instructions, testing out a few scenarios and then clicking commit means games share that ‘just one more click’ addictiveness of the Civilizations and Football Managers of this world.  The tense pace of each game and satisfying impact of the firefights that break out share more in common with the Counterstrikes and Call of Dutys, than any fellow strategy games.

After clicking commit you notice yourself pull closer to the screen.  Each loss unleashes a muttered curse.  Each kill, a fist punch into the air.  And then 10 minutes later, win or lose, you’ll find yourself breathing a sigh of released tension, before clicking ‘find a game’ again.  Just one more before bedtime, you’ll say.  Just 1…maybe 2, more.

For a game so tense, and so fraught with hidden danger, you never find yourself frustrated when inevitable loss and failure arrive.  5 seconds is a long time when you’ve made the wrong move.  It’s plenty of time for a sniper to get off a shot.  Time for a rocket to launch and impact by your feet.  Plenty of time for a nimble shotgunner to run through two rooms, pop up by that window and blow the head off your prized machinegunner.  But every time that happens and you lose a squad member you never have anyone to blame or curse but yourself.  The tools are there in the planning phase to see what would happen if that sniper aimed that way, or that shotgunner ran through those rooms ignoring all hostiles, so you never feel cheated or fooled when it unfolds against your expectations.

It can’t all be perfect though, can it?  Well, no game is without its faults.  The main issue that will only start to show as you play a number of games, is the game is intrinsically designed to benefit a defensive strategy.  A still machinegunner will always shoot a moving machinegunner before the moving one returns fire.  A machinegunner behind cover will always beat a machinegunner out of cover.  And so the best players, and you may find yourself doing this, will always plump to have as many of their squad as possible standing or crouching motionless behind cover.  This can lead to some incredibly boring games, this following one being a classic example:

There’s more satisfaction to be had from playing more offensively, but there’s no satisfaction to be found losing game after game because you keep wandering into a corridor of fire.  The singleplayer, too, is initially a great antidote to this by forcing you to play more offensively to achieve objectives within a given number of turns, but as the game progresses more and more defensive tactics are required to win.  Equally a number of multiplayer modes are on offer to promote different styles of play, but if anything these mostly promote even more defensive play from the likes of ‘secure’ and ‘hostage rescue’.  Some may enjoy this but I just think it’s a shame the game rewards boring tactics the most when I find the greatest moments are when you’re hunting down a target, gambling on when to lower your gun and run across a room, or when to carefully aim and tip-toe.

This is just a small creeping concern though, one that hasn’t stopped me remaining thoroughly addicted to a game I’ve clocked up more hours on in the few weeks I’ve had it than any other game this year (aside from EVE online, but that’s more a lifestyle choice than a game).  Spending an evening in tactical duels, using the turn-based nature of the game to chain a few games at a time, is likely to be a regular feature throughout the rest of this year.  Even if they do become less frequent as the novelty wears thinner this is going to be one of those games, like Desktop Dungeons, that’s there waiting for me when I have a quiet half hour.  A 20 minute gap before bed that needs filling.  Just one quick game, I’ll think.  Just one quick game, and then another.  And then…just one more.  That’s all…


P.S.  I just had to post this, my greatest Frozen Synapse victory.  Note at the end of turn 1 I have 1 squadmember left, compared to the computer’s 4: