Monday, May 10, 2010

Frozen Synapse Preview

Frozen Synapse, developed and published by Mode 7 Games.
Looks Good: Straightforward tactical gameplay with non-chance results, randomized units and destructible maps, several fresh game modes, genius real-time PBEM with in-game matchmaking, one purchase gets two copies, supports both Windows and Macintosh operating systems
We'll see: Single player campaign, AI, interface, stalemates

Writing a full preview isn't my modus operandi (the last one was in 2007), but I feel this particular game deserves more than a couple of tweets. Frozen Synapse is a tactical strategy game by the guys behind this game in the mold of X-COM (the real ones, not the new fake one), where you command a squad of military-type people in turn-based rounds of death and/or destruction. Right now, there is a single player skirmish mode against placeholder AI and a puzzle mode that provides location objectives and statically placed enemies. There are plans for a campaign before release. On the multiplayer side of things the game is much more developed. Since Frozen Synapse is turn-based, they have opted for a play by e-mail system, but this is where the game excels: all games are hosted on a remote server that automatically collects and distributes all of the turns. It’s an ingenious method that allows you to quickly advance through a game if both players are online, or take a while if you are not. The game notifies you if a new turn is available, and sends you an e-mail reminder if you are not actively running the game. You can have a bunch of unfinished games, though, from people quitting before the very end or just losing interest, and there is no way to reject an offer for a match; I expect both of these problems to be rectified before release, though, based on the developers’ comments. Frozen Synapse eliminates the mess associated with most PBEM games where you must manually send and load game files. The game also includes automatic (or manual, if you’d like) matchmaking, resulting in contests usually being formed in less than twenty seconds.

Frozen Synapse includes four game modes. Extermination is classic deathmatch, disputed places several boxes that must be carried off-map by either team, and hostage places two people that must be escorted to safety. Secure uses a defensive bidding system reminiscent of Name That Tune: each side draws the area they think they can defend from their opponent, and the person who bid the most must carry through with their threats, while the more conservative player must enter the area for three seconds. You can play any of these modes in “dark” (as God intended), which only displays units in your line-of-sight. All of these modes take place on random maps with walls and half-height objects for cover, all of which are destructible. The random maps are excellent in producing different situations each time you play; the occasional unbalance they exhibit is offset by the bidding mode and quick match times that don’t discourage easily. Other features include the ability to export a game to YouTube, a future addition of cooperative play, and an interactive tutorial along with online tutorial videos. The graphics are functional and reminiscent of an Introversion game (that’s a compliment), although the sound at the moment is quite minimal. Despite being an early beta, Frozen Synapse is certainly feature-rich and definitely playable right now. There are honestly rarely game-stopping bugs, just the occasional glitch that produces only minor annoyances from what I have experienced.

Frozen Synapse is a turn-based game where you issue orders to your units in a planning phase, and then watch the action play out in five-second-long simultaneous turns. You can test out your plan before you submit it, even moving enemies around to see the results. Since there are no dice rolls in Frozen Synapse, if you guess the enemy’s movements correctly, your test session results will be accurate. Before each match, you are given a randomly selected roster of units and must make do. These include the short-range shotgun, the medium-range machine gun, the long-range sniper, a grenade launcher (which can bounce off walls), and a rocket launcher (which can destroy walls). The amount of randomization in Frozen Synapse is great, leading to a different experience every time you play. Units are ordered around by double-clicking on the ground to issue a waypoint, and then right-clicking on a waypoint to issue more specific orders. The interface needs some more work to make issued orders more apparent (icons are very small) and the game easier to navigate. Units can aim (but makes them move slowly), duck or stand, hold fire, and focus or ignore a particular enemy. You can also introduce time delays to their actions to improve precise timing. The number of orders may be small, but they certainly cover the gamut of what needs to be done; I certainly can’t think of any additional commands that are necessary.

There is no health in Frozen Synapse: one shot is one kill. The victor is determined through the following advantages, in order of importance: using cover, not changing your stance, not moving, and aiming. You are also given an advantage if you spot your enemy first and certain weapons are given benefits at certain ranges. Whoever accumulates the most combat bonuses will win the fight every time: this predictable nature makes Frozen Synapse feel more fair. The advantageous use of cover does mean that games can result in stalemates, as neither party wants to move (as attacking always puts you at a disadvantage). Rockets and grenades can “remove” campers from their hiding spots, but if you weren’t given these units at the beginning of the match, you can get a less than exciting result. Thankfully, the levels are usually small enough where action is constant most of the time. Games don’t last very long (between five and sixteen five-second turns), so you never have time get discouraged at being dominated, or feel like you wasted hours of your precious time: just start a new match. $26 for a pre-order nets you two copies of the game, beta access right now, and both the Windows and Macintosh versions, to decrease your productivity even further. While the price is on the high end of the indie spectrum, the gameplay is well worth it; find a friend and each pitch in $13 and you're good to go. I've been playing and enjoying this game immensely, and it's not even done yet. Overall, I am very, very pleased and quite enamored with what I’ve seen so far: it’s more entertaining than a lot of “finished” games, and the entire package should be completed by the end of the year.