Developer: Mode 7 Games
Every once in a while, an unassuming game casually saunters out of left field and completely reinvents its genre. Freed from the restrictive bottom lines and marketing committees of the AAA industry, the Indie scene tends to provide these breakthrough hits - and it's up to us players to take notice and support these innovative new experiences once they land.
Frozen Synapse is one of those games. Rejoice, armchair generals, because strategy may never be the same again.
As you may already know from our beta preview, Frozen Synapse is a streamlined isometric strategy game that occupies an interesting middle ground between tense hardcore troop commands and fun casual thrills. Imagine a turn-based version of Counterstrike with a hint of Syndicate and you'll be somewhere near the mark. Each player controls a small team of operatives with randomly-assigned weaponry on procedurally-generated maps, making for an experience that constantly encourages users to switch up their tactics and respond to unpredictable situations. Controlling your units is as simple as designating waypoints, facing, stance and rules of engagement through accessible menus, meaning that players can focus on positions and high level decisions rather than grappling with a counter-intuitive interface. An crisp wireframe presentation provides a double punch of visual immediacy and mimimalist good looks.
Once each side has locked in their moves (which can be simulated beforehand), ten seconds of real-time action plays out as each unit goes about their objectives and engages targets based on their ROE. Since Frozen Synapse takes its cues from realistic shooters, a single shot is usually enough to down a target, and stationary units crouched behind cover have a distinct advantage against carelessly-positioned enemies out in the open. Each weapon, from devastating shotguns, medium range assault rifles and hilariously indiscriminate rocket launchers, presents a wildly different set of opportunities and drawbacks... and mean that you'll need to use each one effectively as you play the hand you're dealt.
This card game reference is no idle accident. Frozen Synapse also incorporates a number of elements from popular card games such as Bridge and Poker. As well as being "dealt" a random hand of weapons and maps, each player can 'bid' on areas to defend or an amount of land they think they can conquer. The player who bids the most gets to take on the objective, but the larger their offer, the more difficult it is to successfully complete their mission.
Most card games hands only take a few minutes play, and Frozen Synapse successfully does away with the tedious turtling and build-up that tends to dominate the strategy genre. Completing a round only takes a few minutes, and the turn-based style allows you to simultaneously engage in multiple battles and return to each one in your spare time. More on that later.
The singleplayer campaign is much more than mere foreplay and practice for the multiplayer shenanigans. Its surprisingly intricate storyline casts players as an AI controlling a squad of virtual soldiers, and continually delivers new challenges that resemble clever, cerebral puzzles as much as they resemble action-packed battles. The random map generation extends to the singleplayer missions, and working out how best to use your limited selection of operatives is a brainteaser in and of itself.
But at the end of the day, Frozen Synapse will build its legacy on the strength of its multiplayer. The entire experience takes place within an organically-growing social network that allows players to record their stats, chat with friends and make new acquaintances on the battlefield. Simply switching your status to 'green' lets other gamers approach you for a battle, and you'll also be able to manually search through the constantly-updating list of servers. Even though each turn only takes a few minutes to complete, each match can last for several days as opponents log on in their free time to complete their objectives. I have no doubt that lifelong friendships and bitter rivalries will be forged on Frozen Synapse's social network - and integrating the online community directly into the game itself is nothing less than a stroke of pure genius.
Frozen Synapse only has a single major issue, which is luckily something that Mode7 can improve over the coming weeks and months. The netcode is still a little patchy, and can result in substantial delays at logging into servers during busy hours. However, the developers are on the case, and it's likely that this will be straightened out as a matter of priority.
- A perfect blend of cerebral strategy and addictive mainstream appeal
- Innovative social functionality
- Practically perfect in every way
- A few netcode quirks
- Random map generation occasionally gives players an unfair disadvantage
- Some opponents will forget to finish their turns...
The Short Version: Frozen Synapse is the next logical evolution of the turn-based strategy genre. Mode 7 Games have created a perfect foundation for years of addictive tactical fun - and now, dear readers, it's up to us to get involved and ensure that Frozen Synapse becomes the phenomenon it rightly deserves to be.