Frozen Synapse made a massive splash back at the Eurogamer Expo by delivering a fresh new take on the stagnating strategy genre- and we went absolutely nuts for it in our hands-on preview. The good folks over at Mode7 soon furnished us with an entry into the beta... and after getting my ass kicked many, many times, here's our impressions of how it's shaping up.
The premise is simple. At the most basic level, Frozen Synapse is a turn-based team deathmatch that's commanded from an isometric perspective, with attractive wireframe visuals providing a clear view of the battlefield. Small to mid-sized arenas are randomly generated, and each player is issued a random selection of units armed with different weapon loadouts.
Each player takes their turns simultaneously by issuing orders, stances and viewing directions to each unit. Complex waypoints and rules of engagement can be easily set with multiple clicks and intuitive menus- with the emphasis on intelligently choosing a unit's facing, stance and cover without fighting against a complex interface. When each player has submitted their turn, ten seconds of simultaneous action plays out as each unit moves along their waypoints and acts according to their ROE. Like any realistic shooter, a stationary unit in good cover will tend to shoot first and aim more accurately- and a single good hit will drop a target. Watching your manoeuvres come off perfectly- or fail spectacularly- is a genuinely nail biting experience.
Naturally the different weapons provide unique tactical opportunities and drawbacks. Machine gunners dominate the mid-range and can decimate unwary mobile opponents when crouched behind cover, but sneaky shotgunners are much faster on the trigger in tight quarters and on the move. Rocket launchers and grenades are an entirely different proposition, requiring players to manually aim where they want to place the explosive. Estimating where an enemy is likely to manoeuvre rather than aiming at their current position is a key part of dealing with the heavy ordnance, and requires more than a little practice. Trust me.
As well as the the standard deathmatches, Frozen Synapse offers a number of alternative gametypes that require much more than just running and gunning. But more on that later.
Play The Hand You're Dealt
All of this high strategy may sound like a horrifyingly complex experience with an enormous learning curve to match... but here's where Frozen Synapse takes its cues from popular card games that deliver quick and satisfying resolutions. Each battle only takes a few turns and a few minutes to complete, meaning that new players won't waste valuable time getting to grips with the mechanics and nuances. Win or lose, every single engagement offers valuable experience and understanding. There's no grind. There's no tedious turtling. There are only tense, fast-paced and exciting battles from the moment you issue a challenge.
The inspiration gleaned from card games doesn't stop there. Contract Bridge and Poker rely on making bids and wagers, and this provides Frozen Synapse with another interesting new twist. Several gametypes hinge around defending territory or advancing a certain distance through a narrow map, and each player gets to bid on how much ground they can hold or how far they they think they can push. The role goes to the highest bidder... but of course, the bigger the bid, the harder it is to accomplish the objective. Talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk is quite another.
The Social Connection
We've already seen that Frozen Synapse is a capable and unique take on PC strategy, but you might be surprised to learn that its biggest innovation isn't the combat. It's the connections. The tactical action is housed within a functioning social network that allows users to keep in touch, schedule matches and ogle each others' stats. The result of every completed match is saved along with replays, giving players the opportunity to mug up on their opponents' (or indeed, their friends') victories and identify potential weaknesses.
Multiple games can be held simultaneously, with the turn-based mechanics and social network allowing armchair generals to log on during a few minutes of free time- just like Facebook. Whether you only check it once a day or constantly Alt-Tab it in the background, Frozen Synapse will soon become a regular part of your online regimen right along with Twitter, Foursquare and gmail.
There are a few things we'd still like to see implemented before the Springtime release, including the ability to further customise profiles with pictures and statuses (that could possibly be unlockable rewards)... but at the end of the day, there's only one thing missing from the package. You. Frozen Synapse deserves an expansive fanbase of casual and committed fans to realise its full potential, and we're convinced that it represents an emergent viral phenomenon. Don't let it slip by unnoticed.
Frozen Synapse is currently available to preorder (with free beta access included) from Mode7. It's set for a January release for direct download and Steam. Note that two codes are included so that you can get a mate involved!