Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Fray Review

Fray, developed and published by Brain Candy
The Good: A variety of weapons and items, good interface, the fog of war looks cool
The Not So Good: Units must be told to shoot even if enemies lie within their line of sight, must unlock most equipment, no single player content, bare tutorial, basic matchmaking options, restrictive non-random maps, stability issues
What say you? This simultaneous turn-based online tactical game lacks basic reactive intelligence and is missing several other key features: 3/8

My favorite game of 2011 (though I had been playing it for a year prior during the beta period) was Frozen Synapse, a perfect blend of fast, approachable tactical action. So it should come as no surprises that hundreds, nay thousands, of copycats have sprung up since that title’s unbridled success. Or, you know, one: Fray. Coming straight out of France is this simultaneous turn-based tactical game, where you give little orders to your little men to go shoot other little men. Just like my army of bloodthirsty hamsters that I…have…said too much about. Moving on.

The best part of Fray (sadly) is the graphics, which overall are just average (that should be a clear indication of what we are in store for the remainder of this review). The unit detail could be crisper with higher-resolution textures, and there are some noticeable animation glitches and artifacts (soldiers like to randomly dance after turns are resolved). The weapons range from convincing to silly, and the game doesn’t quite decide between realism and cartoonish sensibilities. The level design is futuristic, which means heavy doses of metal and neon: not exactly innovative but acceptable. The digitized fog of war is a really neat effect, the most memorable part of the game as a whole. The interface is also done well, with typical left-click select, right-click action conventions. You can also hold the right mouse button down for an order wheel, and the game provides a handy list of your four units for easy access. Fray also has a slick graphic representation for action lengths during a turn (also displayed beneath each unit name in the master list). The game does not make ammunition levels obvious enough, though. The sound design is very basic, with recycled effects for guns and movement, repetitive unit acknowledgements that sound more like grunts than actual words, and moody background music. While the graphics have some points of emphasis, the total package could use a bit more polish.

In Fray, squads of four soldiers vie for domination in an assortment of small arenas. The game only features deathmatch: the first side to seven kills (or after thirty rounds) wins. Games can support two or four players, either 1v1, 2v2, or a four-player free-for-all. Fray ships with thirteen two-player maps and seven four-player maps, all of which feature restrictive layouts that don’t leave much room for tactical flexibility. You can create a game or join one using the browser, but cannot play multiple games at once time (as in Frozen Synapse) as the time limit makes things move quickly enough to prevent multitasking. Fray does not have any single player content, which is massively disappointing (especially since it can be difficult to find opponents online) and tough on new players, as the only way to practice is to challenge people online. The “tutorial” is not interactive and not voiced, instead relying on lots of boring reading. Additional issues include support for only 64-bit operating systems, not saving the account password (so you have to type it in every time you log on), and occasionally locking up during turn resolution.

Your squad of four can have one of each of the game’s six classes: the short-range tank, medium-range assault, long-range sniper, camouflaged shadow, healing medic, or item-filled support. This restriction makes for a more interesting game, as you must enter the contest with a specific plan, and there is less flexibility in changing that plan once the enemy is sighted and the bullets start flying. The class determines the attributes (speed, accuracy, health, sighting) and weapons (shotgun, light machine gun, heavy machine gun, grenade launcher) of each soldier. You also pick a corporation to work for, which provides a very small additional bonus. Different classes also get specialized items to deploy on the field of battle: shields, reconnaissance, teleporters, fog of war generators, sentry guns, orbital strikes, mobile spawn points, and health. Problem is, experience-based upgrades lock out a significant portion of the game: you slowly earn new items and weapons over fifteen levels, and you can be up against squads that simply have access to better weapons. In addition, Fray does not extra bonus points for losing to a more experienced foe, so veterans continue to rack up the new weapons while novices lag further and further behind. This convention basically ruins the game for new players, removing all sense of competitive fairness.

Unlike most tactical strategy games I have encountered, units in Fray respawn after sitting out a turn, so the game plays out more like a frag-based first person shooter. Fray also has a timer (from 60 to 120 seconds) for each turn, so things move at a relatively quick pace. Units can be told to move, attack, use an item, switch weapons (or firing mode), change stance, or heal nearby units. Stances include normal, sprint (faster movement but you can’t shoot), offensive, or defensive. While it’s usually pretty easy to target enemy units, you can only choose foes that are within your line of sight, and since turns are resolved simultaneously, enemy units will routinely appear and disappear during a turn, so you’ll routinely shoot the wall the enemy moved behind. Confusingly, pretty much any object will provide cover, even if it’s a low wall that normal humans would be able to easily shoot over. Standing near specific units will also provide bonuses (damage absorption near a tank, ammunition supplies near a support, healing near a medic), and bonuses on the map can provide attribute boost and ammunition.

Just like in Team Assault, the first time opposing soldiers meet on the field of battle, they react just as they would in real life: complete ignorance. You see, units will only attack if you’ve specifically told them whom to shoot, and you can’t select any targets unless they lie within your line of sight. So your battle-hardened troops will walk right past newly-spotted enemies, finishing their move order as you instructed instead of actually doing something intelligent on their own. It just looks silly. A better game would have allowed the soldiers to shoot any enemy they see on contact, while allowing the user to specify certain enemies to engage (or ignore, if you so choose) once sighted. This level of flexibility and realism is simply not present in Fray, which instead relies on brain-dead units that must be hand-held through a match. A significant part of the game is guessing which enemy units will stay in your line of sight next turn (the answer usually is: none of them): since you must specify which units to shoot, and each action takes time, you have to guess and guess correctly, especially since your units will fire on enemies that are no longer viable targets (as they moved behind an object), and look really stupid doing so. Fray usually devolves into a game of chicken, with units moving in and out of cover while taking a quick shot at enemies that aren’t there. I usually close the main portion of a review by commenting on the AI, but since there is no AI to grade, our turn is over and we hit “submit”.

The lack of unit initiative really hurts Fray. When you watch two opposing units walk right pass each other and neither takes a shot, something is amiss. The game’s unflinching reliance on user input and lack of artificial intelligence definitely has some significant negative side effects, and the result is truly unconvincing gameplay. The game never feels fluid: while turn-based gameplay is intended to allow for careful thinking and uninterruptable consequences for your actions, Fray lacks the former (due to the turn time limit) and has robotic results for the latter, due to the mindlessness of your units. Soldiers can be told to move, attack, change their stance, or use some specialized class abilities like healing, but will never do these actions on their own and routinely do these things to invalid targets that have moved out of range. The classes are varied and carry an interesting array of weapons and items to turn the tide of battle, but only once you have unlocked them in the unfair experience system that rewards veterans with even more powerful weapons and penalizes novices for not playing enough. The handful of maps become repetitive and lack tactical flexibility in their designs. Fray also lacks a single player mode to practice with (more damning since the tutorial is a joke), features only online deathmatch, and prevents switching between multiple games. Bugs and animation issues also indicate an unfinished game. The problems are many in the near-future world of Fray, a fray I would not recommend becoming a part of.