Friday, June 03, 2011

Frozen Synapse Review

Frozen Synapse, developed by Mode 7 Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Combat rules remove chance, simple but effective units and commands, brilliant server-based multiplayer, multiple game modes, randomly generated destructible levels, truly challenging AI, lengthy varied single player campaign, distinctive graphical style, multiplatform
The Not So Good: No difficulty settings for campaign, minimal sound design
What say you? One of the finest turn-based tactical strategy games: 8/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

As I’ve gotten older, my aptitude for twitch first person shooters has steadily decreased: I’m simply not as good at Counter-Strike or Unreal Tournament as I used to be. While slower-paced shooters are still enjoyable, I simply can’t keep up with the youth. I still like the underlying strategy of first person shooters, but can’t execute my tactics with the same precision as before. If there was only a way to experience the planning of tactical shooters without relying on my steadily degrading reflexes. Why, hello Frozen Synapse! This tactical turn-based strategy game was highlighted on this very site over a year ago while in beta, a rare feat for any game. Featuring a great mix of non-random combat results, randomly generated destructive terrain, and online matchmaking, I couldn’t resist taking an early taste. So, how has the game turned out?

Frozen Synapse has a distinctive visual theme that compensates for its lack of detail. Very reminiscent of DEFCON (must be a British thing), Frozen Synapse uses a computerized setting to implement blue hues and neon colors in a minimalist, but effective, manner. The unit animations are passable, and the weapons all have unique effects that look powerful. Frozen Synapse utilizes occasional blood effects (odd for units that are supposedly digital in nature, but whatever) to accentuate the combat. The interface is generally well-designed and has some slick transitions. The sound design also follows the minimalist theme, and while it’s not detrimental to the game, it doesn’t stand out, either. There are only a few repetitive audio sounds for each weapon and in-game events, and the background music is decent but too generic to be memorable. Still, the indie developers did as well as expected and ran with a unique theme.

Frozen Synapse is a turn-based tactical strategy game where you issue orders to little green men and hope they kill all the little red men. The game is played in a simultaneous manner: you give orders to each of your units and then they are executed in five-second intervals. Then, you can change or tweak the commandss for the next five-second round. It’s a good system that gives you time to think and allows for some robust multiplayer features. Turns for multiplayer games are stored on a central server, so there’s no need for manual e-mailing or saving; it’s a fantastic feature that really streamlines the process and eliminates all tedium from online competition. The game will send you an e-mail (or notify you in-game) when a new turn is ready to be played, so you can play multiple games at a time and switch between them as new turns are submitted by your opponents. Frozen Synapse will also search for opponents based on the game modes you favor, and you can issue challenges to specific individuals in need of a whooping. Keeping all of the games in a central location also means that stats are saved, using your wins and losses to track overall rating and daily leaderboards. You can also easily export your best efforts to YouTube. The multiplayer portion of Frozen Synapse features an amount of elegance not usually experienced in indie games.

There are five game modes to choose from in Frozen Synapse. There are more conventional options like extermination (classic team deathmatch) or hostage, where one team attempts to lead hostages from the center to the edge of the map. In addition, you can try to collect boxes scattered around a large map in disputed mode. There are also two betting modes: secure (how much area can you defend?) and charge (how far across the map can you go?), and the team that bets more has to do it. All of the modes can be played either “light” or “dark,” with all enemy units being shown at all times in “light” mode. The maps are randomly generated and destructible; you can seed the randomness with specific values for room sizes, object density, doorway and window count and width, lighting, and room shapes. You can also practice against the stellar AI in an offline skirmish mode, where you can tweak the map size, player squad composition, and turn limit. Finally, Frozen Synapse features a brief but effective tutorial that teaches the basics of the control scheme, and the game is available for both Windows and Macintosh operating systems.

Don’t want to embarrass yourself online? That’s OK, as Frozen Synapse also features a lengthy single player campaign. Consisting of fifty-five missions presented on a map, each scenario has a specific objective: eliminate all enemy units, rescue a hostage, defend an area of the map, escort a unit, or infiltrate the enemy base. Your goal must be completed within a time limit and each level layout is semi-random, which drastically increases the replay value of the campaign. The level designs are open, supporting a wide variety of tactics to achieve your objective; the availability of explosives further increases the mission diversity. Allied units might also be available to distract the enemy, although they are controlled by the AI and can't be counted on for much. The missions are tough (you are usually outnumbered, in addition to the AI being quite the competitor) and very challenging, but not impossibly so. Although I strongly suggest playing Frozen Synapse online (because it’s fun), there is certainly enough single player content to keep you busy.

There are five units in the game that are randomly assigned in the skirmish and online modes, each with different abilities and uses. The machine gun is the standard unit, useful for medium-ranged combat. The shotgun is deadly up close, but useless from far away. The sniper can kill things in one shot across the map, but takes a while to lock on to its target. Rocket launchers can take out walls, and grenade launchers can affect a large area. Overall, the units are well balanced in their specific roles and none are overpowered. Interacting with your units is accomplished using a series of commands, accessed by right-clicking on a unit or a portion of their path. First, movement waypoints are issued by double-clicking on a destination on the map. The game will automatically route units around walls and through doors, although you are free to adjust these paths if so desired. There are several orders to choose from: aim in a direction, check for enemies, continue without engaging (useful for quickly traversing past snipers), ducking behind cover, or ignoring specific enemies or sections of the map. You can also include time delays to coordiante movements between units. These relatively simple options give you wide flexibility in issuing your orders, and you are given the option to tweak things to the level of detail you desire.

Frozen Synapse features specific game rules for calculating the winner of each battle. Units who are closest to cover (windows, boxes) will win, then units that are aiming, then units that are stationary. This lack of chance makes the results predictable and satisfying. The game allows you to preview the results of each five second turn before submitting your orders, and you can even give spotted enemy units orders as well to predict how your opponent might move, and how best to respond to such actions. Each match takes place on large maps with many tactical options, from multiple paths to objects used for cover, and you’ll never play the same map twice (or even once, with destructible walls). Frozen Synapse also features a disturbingly good computer opponent (without resorting to cheats or superior numbers) that is quite skilled at varied strategies and is tactically aware of its surroundings. You can customize the AI intelligence and play style (aggressive, defensive), and I would say you’d have a better chance at victory online. I was pretty impressed by the AI, usually an afterthought these days.

Frozen Synapse is a fantastic game. The turn-based gameplay allows time for planning, and the clever server-saved matches can be continued at your pace. There is no luck in the world of Frozen Synapse: the use of cover, aiming, and clever positioning wins the day rather than reflexes or dice rolls. There are only five unit types, but they all serve their roles: the short-range shotgun, the long-range sniper, the all-purpose machine gun, and the explosive grenade and rocket launchers. Orders consist of waypoints accentuated with aiming, stance, and engagement commands that are simple but effective. The five game modes each carry a slightly difference pace and strategies, and the randomized, destructible levels ensure a long shelf life. If playing against humans is not your thing, Frozen Synapse also contains a diverse single player campaign and challenging AI for skirmish matches. Everyone even remotely interested in tactical games should immediately start playing Frozen Synapse.