Review: Frozen Synapse (PC)

Frozen Synapse
Genre: Simultaneous Turn Based Strategy
Developer: Mode 7 Games
Publisher: Mode 7 Games
Release Date: 05/26/2011

Frozen Synapse was really one of those impulse buys. This is quite rare for me as I might as well compile enough research to complete a master’s thesis before I place my hard earned money down for a videogame.

But when I saw Frozen Synapse on sale in the steam store, just a few screenshots sold me on the game. It looked that cool and I got two copies for twenty bucks. So if it was bad, at least I had the option of inflicting the pain on another person. What could possibly go wrong?

1. Story/Modes

Frozen Synapse comes with both single player and multiplayer modes.

Single player consists of skirmishes against the AI or a fifty mission storyline. The first is self-explanatory but the story requires some explanation:

It’s the far future. You are an entity called “Tactics” surfing “The Shape,” which is a futuristic Tron-like version of the internet. In the future, a corporation called Enyo:Nomad has seized control by using their massive resources and supercomputers to control information on an unheard of scale in a sort of benevolent dictatorship. You’re recruited to be part of an organization lead by Graham Nix, a former member of Enyo:Nomad who seeks to break their monopoly on power and institute true democracy. You do this by allying all the different resistance groups around the city, each with their own agendas and philosophies.

I’m not going to spoil it but at the very beginning you’re thrown into the middle of this power struggle with no idea what you are. Are you a human? A shapeform (An advanced AI)? You have no idea of the history of this city you’re fighting for as everything is given to you piecemeal which only serves to confuse the player.

I can see what the developers were aiming for: an “in medias res” opening that drops the player into a world of hidden agendas and philosophies about the future of human society, but right now it’s just a confusing mish-mash. Good Idea, bad execution.

Multiplayer is a dream though. It’s complete with a level editor, friends’ lists, leaderboards, live IRC chat, stats and replays. It’s really one of the most comprehensive multiplayer modes I’ve seen in a game. The only downside is that it is only one on one currently with no options for team play.

Story/Modes Rating: Very Good

2. Graphics

While the menus are well laid out and pleasing to look at, the actual design is similar to many “futuristic” games out there. It kind of reminded me of Uplink, the Introversion hacking game as well as Dues Ex.

The actual game takes place in what can be described as a weird Tron like world. Basically you are looking at the world through “The Shape” which is the game’s weird future augmented reality internet. Your units are bright green featureless humans and your enemies are red while allies are yellow.

While the game lacks in technical graphical ability (for example, units have no turning animation, simply switching direction abruptly), it makes up for it in artistic appeal. Bullets and explosions are bright lasers that streak across the screen and splatter blood when they find their mark.

The simplicity really actually helps the gameplay along, as you don’t have to wonder things like, “Does that barrel count as cover? What about those boards over there?” or, “Can the enemy see me through these bushes?” Because it’s easy to see everything clearly in Frozen Synapse, you are left with more time and vision to plan your tactics and no one to blame failures on except yourself.

Graphics Rating: Above Average

3. Sound

First things first. Frozen Synapse has no voice acting of any kind other than the female computer voice that announces your actions. While that’s to be expected in an indie game, I’m still a bit disappointed since the storyline seemed absolutely made to be voice acted with plenty of quotable characters.

The music on the other hand? I’m about ready to give it “soundtrack of the year” right now! The music is composed by nervous_testpilot (real name: Paul Taylor). I’ll admit to never having heard of him before this game but his electronic ambient music is an excellent effort all round and is now in one of my top ten game soundtracks of all time. I admit, it may not be to everyone’s taste, but no matter who you are, you have to admit that the music meshes with the graphics and gameplay perfectly. It really gets you in the mood to play the game and ratchet up the immersion factor immensely. Trust me, spend the extra four dollars or so to get the soundtrack edition of the game and pop it into your MP3 player. You will NOT be disappointed.

If you want to sample the music, get on youtube and search for the soundtrack. (My personal favorite is “Concentrate” )

Sound Rating: Great

4. Control/Gameplay

The best way to describe Frozen Synapse is with five words: Laser Squad Nemesis but newer.

Unfortunately, so few people have played Laser Squad Nemesis that the above description is meaningless to most people.

Frozen Synapse is a simultaneous turn based strategy game or a “we go” game. Both players issue orders to their units at the same time and when both confirm their moves, the game shows you the result of that turn. This takes about ten seconds to view. You can also let the game show you a preliminary result of your actions without committing the instructions and you can even move around your enemy’s units in this “test” mode to see his available options.

Your units also are free moving, they do not use grids or anything like that and can move as far as you want as long as they make it there in the ten second turn.

A great feature is how combat is resolved. There are no hitpoints or stats or dice rolling of any kind. All units die in one hit and who kills who is determined by four main variables: Sight, Cover, Movement and Aiming. A unit that can’t see the enemy can’t fire back so it will lose. A unit in cover will beat a unit in the open. A unit that is still during the turn will beat a moving unit and an aiming unit will beat a non-aiming unit. The priority the game gives is in the above order, for example, a unit in cover will always beat a unit that is standing still and a unit standing still will always beat a unit that is aiming.

The units also make this formula interesting: Machine Gunner, Shotgunner, Sniper, Rocket Launcher and Grenadier. The shotgunner is incredibly deadly in close quarters battle; he can even beat the standard machine gunner even if he is in cover! (The machine gunner needs to be still, aiming AND in cover to beat a shotgunner at close range). Rocket Launchers are not only deadly but can also blast away cover and walls, changing the landscape as you play and grenades can be bounced off walls eliminating the need for line of sight.

The controls are as elegant as the game itself. Intricate plans with time delays and corner peeking can all be done with one hand on your mouse and another on a cold beverage of your choice. The only problem here is that the game sometimes gets annoying when a lot of markers and units occupy a small area (No, “I want to pick the shotgun dude, not the waypoint marker!” for my RPG guy!).

All these elements combine to form an intensely tactical game that challenges your mind in the same way chess does: It’s easy to understand and learn but with hidden depth and hard to master.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Classic

5. Replayability

The single player storyline has over fifty missions and even after you are done, you can skirmish to your heart’s content with the AI.

The real meat of the game is in multiplayer though. I already mentioned how the game’s multiplayer modes and features are some of the most in depth in any game. The matchmaking is good and you can even play a single player game while you wait to be matched.

The real important bit is that multiplayer matches are play-by-email so you can have multiple games going on at the same time. You can even have games that you can leave, go to bed ,and submit the next morning (though unless you tell your opponent that this is going to be a long term game, they’ll probably be pissed).

Maps and units are also randomized every game so you’re always getting into a different style of game every match. One match ended quite quickly since both my opponent and I both had rocket launchers that we used to clear the battlefield. Another game we both received two grenadiers each and no rocket launchers which led to a long and very cautious game due to the abundance of cover.

The only downside is that unlike other games that receive updates and weapons on a continuous basis, doing something like that would ruin Frozen Synapse‘s carefully balanced classes.

Replayability Rating: Classic

6. Balance

The reason that Mode 7 has only implemented five different unit types is because any more would be redundant. They cover nearly all the bases in a tactician’s arsenal: All rounder, Short Range, Long Range, Demolition and Area Denial. Sure, you could add classes like a spy or faster scout-like unit, but in the end all that does is ruins the game’s elegant simplicity.

Frozen Synapse is about tactics and wits, not memorizing flowcharts, build orders or who equipped the best weapons. You and your opponent are dropped in a randomized battlefield with two identical armies and now must kill each other. It’s just you and your wits, no way to game your way out of this one.

The only complaint I have in this department is that sometimes the random map generator gives you a symmetrical layout and other times it gives an unsymmetrical one. In the latter, sometimes you might be at a disadvantage to your opponent (though sometimes, it’s just a matter of perspective, I’ve argued with people over who had the worse starting position several times!)

Balance Rating: Classic

7. Originality

I really can’t think of any strategy game like Frozen Synapse other than Laser Squad Nemesis. THAT game came out almost eight years ago and wasn’t a great sales success to say the least.

Frozen Synapse also builds on the older game with much more expanded multiplayer modes and online connectivity with the likes of twitter and youtube.

As far as storyline goes, it is similar to a lot of cyberpunk games such as Dues Ex where corporations have grown too powerful for their own good and even though it tries to forge its own identity, it ends up imitating too many of its peers too much.

Originality rating: Very Good

8. Addictiveness

You know those super smart dudes that play like six games of chess at the same time? I always thought those guys were way too obsessed with a single game.

Now that I can play several matches of Frozen Synapse at the same time, I finally see the light! Why limit myself to waiting for my slowass opponent to finish his turn when I can play three guys at the same time and always have some action going on? I NEED MY FIX!

And since all matches are basically Play-by-email, you can leave a match going for days and sleep on it if you don’t know what to do, even pissing off your waiting opponent who thinks you bailed on him and therefore might commit tactical errors in his rage! (Seriously though, inform your opponent if you want a long term game. Everyone is so nice and you don’t want to be the jackass of the community.)

Addictiveness Rating: Amazing

9. Appeal Factor

Frozen Synapse is an indie game without much in the way of advertising or hype. That being said, the game has been getting a huge amount of positive word of mouth and high review scores from various websites.

The fact that the game is so unique is a positive, when people see a gameplay video of a match in action, they can’t really understand how the game is played. However the music and graphics are very attractive, so they try the game and that hooks them.

It’s easy to find videos of gameplay since after every match you have the option of uploading it to youtube as well as making a mention on Twitter or Facebook. This forms a great self-advertising tool for the game itself.

Appeal Factor Rating: Great

10. Miscellaneous

Frozen Synapse comes in a bundle of two so you can give the other copy to another friend. While they claim this second copy is free I feel it’s included in the 25$ price tag. What about if we don’t want a second copy? Perhaps a single copy for 15$ would be more convenient for most people that don’t really want the second copy considering how many people can be found online at any one time.

I also wonder how sales are recorded. Is one sale considered two copies sold due to the bundle?

Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre

The Scores

Story/Modes: Very Good
Graphics: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Classic
Originality: Very Good
Addictiveness: Amazing
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: Great Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

Rainbow Six Meets Tron Meets Chess. Laser Squad Nemesis Meets The Matrix. Fire Emblem Meets Call of Duty Meets Uplink. There are really no games I can directly compare Frozen Synapse to. It MUST be played. If you’re a strategy game fan who hasn’t tried this game yet, you’re missing out on the best fast paced strategy game of this year.



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