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Posted on Aug 3, 2011 in Electronic Games

Frozen Synapse – PC Game Review

By Anthony Micari

Frozen Synapse.  PC Game Review.  Publisher: Slitherine/Matrix Games. Designer: Mode 7 Games. $24.99 Digital Download $34.99 Boxed Copy – plus Free Extra Copy for Multiplayer.

Passed Inspection: Solid tactical gameplay that is engaging in both single and multiplayer modes. Strong AI. Ability to play and manage multiple online games at any one time.

Failed Basic: Graphics are stylized and serve their purpose, but I was left missing a more gritty, true to life atmosphere. Greater variety and customization of weapons would be a plus. Only the deathmatch game type can be played in offline skirmish mode.

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Every once in a while an indie game comes out which distills a genre down to its core and in the process, ends up seeming completely fresh. Minecraft did it for 3D exploration, Gratuitous Space Battles did it for, well, gratuitous space battles, and Frozen Synapse has come along and done it for turn-based, strategic action. I came across this game online early in its development and after exploring the website decided to support it by purchasing access to the beta version. Over past months I’ve seen the game mature, its options and features fleshed out, and now that it has been released I’m glad to say that I helped support it in its infancy. How fast they grow up and learn to spread brain matter all over the walls with a shotgun.

The gameplay can best be summed up as a top-down, turn-based version of Counterstrike, where teams of soldiers armed with various weapons must navigate the battlefield until there is only one team left standing. But this isn’t a turn-based game of yesteryear. Instead, Frozen Synapse uses the simultaneous turn mechanics that I first encountered in the then-revolutionary Combat Mission series. That is, rather than one player moving, then firing, then the other player doing the same, both teams input their orders to their troops and then submit their plans. The game then plays out these instructions simultaneously and lets each side watch the results. Afterward, depending on the outcome, plans must be adjusted on the fly to accommodate the changing battlefield.

A successful plan. Click to enlarge the image.

There are only a handful of different types of soldiers, and they can’t be customized in any fashion, but each serves its particular niche well. Shotgun soldiers are for close range, snipers take out enemies from afar, and machine gun units are fast and can fire long distances but are vulnerable in tight areas or when exposed in the open. Lastly, soldiers wielding missile launchers or grenades can be used to wreak havoc on the enemy and the terrain alike.

Despite the limited options, the randomly generated terrain creates a maze of rooms, corridors, and deadly crossfire zones that make each game fresh. Terrain consists of two aspects—walls and half-walls. Walls are used for cover and to comprise the various rooms and half-walls serve as windows or tables that can be used as good vantage points but offer minimal protection to someone standing. Height is set on one level, but half-walls may be used as partial cover to duck behind, so the fighting takes place in one-dimensional rectangular and square rooms. The walls and half-walls can be destroyed, not by regular gunfire, but by explosions from grenades and missiles. Worms this is not, but Frozen Synapse is going for a totally different vibe. Battles epitomize the saying that life is brutish and short. Matches typically last around five to ten turns. There are no drawn out firefights – the player either gets seen and taken out or uses superior strategy and some luck to get the bead on the enemy.

No luck here. Click to enlarge the image.

This is done by commanding soldiers and issuing a few basic orders. Double clicking on the map lays down a waypoint, which can then be right clicked on to open up a menu with some additional options. Units can be set to a ducking stance to increase aim and take cover, or can be ordered to engage the enemy on sight or ignore the enemy, thus allowing for mad (and often suicidal) dashes across open terrain or rooms. Each waypoint marker is flanked by two smaller icons. One allows the player to position the facing of the unit. In this way units can be made to effectively sidestep past open doorways or windows by moving in one direction but being ordered to face another. This also increases the reaction time should an enemy be spotted. The other icon opens a slider that allows the player to set up a time delay before moving to the next waypoint. This is particularly useful if the player feels the enemy is heading in their direction and wants to give them an opportunity to enter their line of sight before moving to the next position.

With these rather simple set of rules, the stage is set for battle after tactical battle. While one could argue that it can grow stale after prolonged play, the greatest thing Frozen Synapse has going for it is that it can be played in any fashion and maintain its quality. I’ve always been a single-player gamer, indulging in multiplayer gaming once in a while but generally eschewing it in favor of a strong single player campaign, but I enjoyed both equally in this game.

The campaign unfolds. Click to enlarge the image.

Frozen Synapse features an entertaining, challenging campaign. While the story is kind of out there it really serves its purpose of presenting a variety of different scenarios that teach a great set of tactics. Also, if the player loses a mission, the mission parameters are the same the next time around but the terrain will be generated differently, which means no memorizing the best plan of attack (add to that no saves in between turns and you have a game that doesn’t fail to create tension). In addition a series of tutorials, plus tutorial videos that are viewable online, mean learning the game is a cinch and the interface is minimal.

Outside of the campaign, players can enjoy instant, randomly generated skirmishes against a strong AI or choose to customize their own battle, fiddling with parameters like number and type of troops per side, turn limit, map width and height, and whether each team will begin on opposite sides or be randomly scattered about. The player can also delve deeper if they like, changing options like the frequency of doors or windows or the number of rooms that will be generated. Additionally each map that is generated provides a seed, a number that can then be input later or shared with friends to replay that same layout.

Two bad guys down. Click to enlarge.

I found myself much more interested in the multiplayer portion of the game than is usually the case. This is because playing multiplayer fit into my schedule. Once the player creates an account and joins a room (annoyingly, the same room must be joined each time to preserve your stats) they will find it very easy to issue or accept a challenge to another player. Once the game is started and the initial plans are made and submitted, the server stores the game progress. This means that the player can concentrate on one game at a time or have multiple games going. A notification is sent when one of the ongoing games has a new turn ready. It is essentially play by email without the hassle of attaching files. If the player has to run in the middle of a game, they can simply continue when they log back in. As an additional flourish, gamers who buy and register on the multiplayer server are given the opportunity to send a free copy of the game to a friend. This is a clever idea to help spread the word of the game and increase the multiplayer base. So far, finding opponents has been a cinch, so it seems to have worked.

There are a few different game types available. Extermination is a deathmatch style and can be played Light or Dark (in the former you can see the positions of the enemy, while in the latter they must be in your line of sight or else a greyed out icon shows their last known position). There is also a protect the hostage game type, a mode that tasks one side with protecting a zone of control or collecting the most boxes scattered around the map and then getting to an exit zone. But one of the most interesting is called Charge. In this game mode each player bids on how far across the map they think they can get one of their troops by selecting one of the lines which appears over the map. The player that bids on the line farthest from their starting point is the attacker and must get at least one soldier past that line and survive for at least three seconds. It is just a shame that all of these modes can’t be played against the AI in skirmish mode, which is limited to light or dark extermination.

While I usually would wax on about the aesthetics of a gem a bit longer, Frozen Synapse goes with a minimalist style. The graphical style of the game is one of Tron-like environments and soldiers that are red or green and look more like figures from posters that instruct one on what to do in the event someone is choking than flesh and blood. Effects include tracers for gunfire and a liberal splatter of blood upon death. As the single player story explains, you are not controlling actually military personnel, but rather semi-sentient beings that are a part of a digital battlefield. It’s The Matrix meets War Games, centered around a revolution against an AI that has gone out of control and taken over—I think.

The sound effects are basic, but gunfire and explosions pack a satisfying punch. The music is a techno-like soundtrack that just seems to go with a name like Frozen Synapse. One of my gripes with the game is that the tactics are so engaging and solid that I sometimes wished for a more realistic setting with soldiers in fatigues darting around real life battlefields. Perhaps a mod, add-on, or sequel will accomplish this, but in the meantime there you have it. Nothing too complex, but not overly simplified either. Frozen Synapse is a game that has the potential to entertain for a long time, whether played obsessively or in short bursts. But one thing is for certain– it is a labor of indie love that should at least be tried by players before final judgment is passed.

Armchair General Score: 85%

About the Author

A history buff and graduate of NYU, Anthony is otherwise an all-around big kid.  He has been gaming for close to twenty five years starting with his trusty Commodore 128.  A fan of all genres and systems, his apartment in Long Beach is being taken over by his game collection.  When he isn’t gaming he is helping to run his family’s three bridal salons in New York – which is nothing like a video game.

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