Review: Frozen Synapse

Frozen Synapse is best described as a top-down turn-based tactical shooter….yeah. Kinda like a mix between Rainbow Six and Counter-Strike. It was produced by a small British indie developer, Mode 7 Games, whose only previous escapade in the video games business has been a sword-fighting game called Determinance. In other words, a fairly inexperienced developer. But, more importantly, is it any good? Definitely. Probably one of the best tactical shooters to be released ever.

Although not all that common in indie games, Frozen Synapse (FS) has a quite hefty and lengthy storyline. It takes place in a not-too-distant scary future, in which all the denizens of this brave new world are connected to something called the Shape. A bit like a more ethereal edition of the Internet. The player, appropriately named Tactics, together with a merry band of rebellious former employees, have to take down an evil company named Enyo:Nomad. Most of the story is presented in text-form, which isn’t the most appetizing form of story-telling in a video game so even though it is intriguing, I found myself skipping through the text-boxes a lot of the time, trying to get to the point that it’s really all about. The combat.

The first thing you need to get used to when playing FS, is the colors, and how their importance in your tactical deliberations. In particular the color blue Apart from the units, most everything in the game is blue. It is sometimes quite hard to figure out just which locales the game features, but it seems to range from mainly office buildings to, on one occasion, a church. Most of the time you won’t really care, and look mostly at the differences in color of the walls. A darker blue indicates that it goes from floor to ceiling, and thus covers a unit completely, while a light blue provides cover whilst allowing your units to fire over it. And cover is really one of the most important factors in a game that strangely resembles a more complex rock-scissors-paper. Because that’s all it, fundamentally, is. For example: A calm machine gunner behind cover will always, always, defeat a moving target.

In addition to the mentioned machine gunner, the player also has access to a variety of other units, ranging from close combat units, armed with shotguns, who are unbeatable on the short range, but easily taken out at long range, to sniper units, who time and distance to be useful. In each mission you will receive a certain amount of said units, and you’ll have to make the best of them. As these numbers are quite small, you will thankfully never experience huge charges of gazillions of units shooting wildly to all sides. In fact, if you attempt to use a trillion units in the multiplayer or skirmish matches, the game will often slow down to being practically unplayable.

Frozen Synapse

As one of the developers has written regarding luck in the game (paraphrasing), that …there is no luck, only hard mathematics. Emphasizing that the player cannot simply send his units aimlessly through the battlefield, but rather has to deliberate how he will approach the situation. Therefore, the battles can often be quite tense, requiring you to run plenty of simulations of the possible outcomes. These simulations can be run with both your own as well as the opponent’s units. An example could be: What effect will it have if my shotgun dude is aiming while he’s turning around the corner? Sometimes aiming or not aiming can decide whether you or the enemy is killed in the firefight.

FS - Map

In addition to the aforementioned single-player mode, which was only added to game later in the beta, FS also has a multiplayer mode, probably the main attraction, in which there are several distinct modes, such as the basic Extermination mode, kill all the enemies, the Secure mode, where one has to capture and retrieve a series of red-glowing boxes, and the Charge mode, where one of the players has to get past a predetermined line and survive until there are no more rounds. If multiplayer is not your fancy, you can play skirmishes instead, which are set much like the multiplayer matches, except the quite competent AI will never truly be as challenging as a human opponent.

Mode 7 has crafted a fine tactical shooter that is far deeper than what beholds the eye. In some ways, this is a perfect merger of casual and hardcore gaming, as the game doesn’t require you to sink countless hours at a time into it, but you can rather make your moves, and go do something else while the game considers its next move (Browse Nightmare Mode, for instance!). The developers have also acknowledged this in the multiplayer, where you can easily leap between games in play, and leave them to do something else. Or maybe just play a hundred games at a time? At the same time, the game can require a large amount of tactical deliberation, demanding a lot of analytical thinking from the player. But while you can accurately simulate the opponent’s moves, you can never truly predict them.

Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys tense tactical games, that require more from the player than simply superior numbers to win. Frozen Synapse is an interesting new take on tactical strategy that should be experienced. Support indie developers!

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    I didn’t like the fact that you could simulate your enemy’s movements in the simulation mode as well. It’s almost like cheating, it is. You don’t play chess and “hypothetically” move the other guy’s pieces while it’s still your turn <.<

    • Jonas Jürgens

      Indeed, that would probably be considered cheating amongst most chess players 😀
      But you still try to predict the opponent’s moves by weighing the different benefits of various actions against each other in chess, and try to counter his devious moves with your superior strategy! I imagine the player in FS to be more like a hyper-advanced artificial intelligence which can run all these mathematical simulations at the same time.

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