Review: Frozen Synapse
Frozen Synapse is a new indie title from Mode7. You take command of a squad of “vatforms” through “The Shape”, an omnipresent internet-like technology. It takes the turn-based strategy genre and injects some fresh vigour into its bones.
At its heart, Frozen Synapse is a TBS. However, you play in five-second segments of real-time play, planning out your moves then executing them simultaneously with the opposing side. It’s a chess-like experience requiring you to think several moves ahead, anticipating your enemies movements and incorporating them into your plan. During the planning stage you are able to do a test run of your moves, a dress rehearsal of your tactics against static versions of the enemy. In your first few missions you’ll make a fair few mistakes by planning out tactics that work great for taking out all the static opponents, only to find in reality the opponent moves down a corridor out of the way. But you soon get the hang of things, learning to use the test phase to check you don’t have a unit moving about in crouch all the time, or aiming the wrong way while moving.
Controlling your squad is pretty simple, just right-click where you want them to be and “add waypoint”. You can set commands on a timer, direct where they want to aim, make them duck behind cover and even ignore the enemy. Use delete or backspace to remove commands and space to play the test run. The controls are easily accessible with a right-click in a comprehensive menu allowing a wide range of tactics and manoeuvres. One issue I had was that tracking the movement of each of your units requires a run through of the five-second test turn each time, with no ability to scrub the timeline. If you want to see what your troop will do in the final second of a turn you can’t just hop to that final second. And while five seconds sounds like a short time, when you have six or more units it can start to build up quickly.
The campaign is a simple affair, essentially there to prepare you for multiplayer and explain the background to the game. The story covers a rebellion against a large overbearing corporation, Enyo:Nomad, creator of The Shape. One quirk to Frozen Synapse is that the maps change each time you reload a scenario. This means that each failure and repeat of a mission will be different, requiring you to hone your skills for every eventuality and not to ace a specific map layout. I’m the kind of guy who games by “if at first you don’t succeed: try ‘n’ try again”, and the changing layouts on failed missions did throw me off at first but you soon get used to it. While it does spice up each playthrough, adding in a fair bit of replayibilty to the campaign, it can make the difficulty vary wildly each time, with layouts favouring you or the enemy. Overall there are 55 missions in the campaign, usually played through in groups of three. At the end of each mission you are given a score and a rating of Bronze through to Gold depending on how well you did. I’ve yet to earn a Gold.
Multiplayer for Frozen Synapse is an interesting affair. You log-in upon loading the game and are connected all the time, meaning you can be challenged to a match at any point (dropping out of multi-player mid-mission, it’s easy to go back to where you left). You get a toggle in the bottom corner to swap between unavailable, up for a match and actively looking for someone to play against (not the actual names, but the options are quite wordy). Unlike Campaign you are not shown where the opposing team is on the map. Instead you get grey shadows with “last seen 6.3 seconds ago” instead, or maybe a small glance at the trajectory of a grenade. It really ups the tension, as you take quick dashes around the map to be able to see where they are. It does make the “ignore enemy” tool a bit harder to use though.
Going back to the chess-like experience of Frozen Synapse it even has a play-by-mail function, allowing you and your opponent to take turns whenever you’re able, and it will email you or your opponent saying that a turn is ready to be taken. I thought this was a particularly neat function, and allows you to easily have multiple games on the go. At the time of writing this review, the multiplayer servers are split into shards to handle the influx of new players, which requires you to log into a specific server and stick to it if you wish to keep your stats. They aim to solve this issue as soon as possible.
The visuals of Frozen Synapse are reminiscent of Introversion titles. The visual style conveys the idea of working within The Shape and does its job well. I’m not sure if it would change much if the graphics were any more detailed than the projected blueprints. Worthy of note is that the minimum required specs for the game are Netbook level, and given that my early playtime was on a netbook it’s true to its word. My only word of warning is that after clicking Prime and calculating the moves for the AI it can take about 30 seconds to calculate each turn opposed to about 3-5 on a decent gaming PC.
Frozen Synapse is certainly a very neat and tactical TBS game, certainly worth picking up for people who like strategy but are too slow to handle a zerg rush, or find games like Civilization a bit too big and time-consuming. It’s a perfect title for laptop gaming too. My only issue would be I feel its current price (£19 RRP in UK) is maybe a bit too high to attract any mildly curious gamers out there. It does make up for this by currently offering a free copy to give to a friend, meaning you could split the cost, but we are told this is not a permanent promotion.
Genre: Tactical Turn-based-Strategy game
Time: 5-10 hours of campaign depending on how good you are.c
Gripes: Its price may stunt growth of the playerbase
Get it for the: Tactical gameplay, low spec requirements, and quirky multiplayer features.