By now, I should have been given my own show on the Jesus network, what with all the evangelising being committed. To flog that analogy like racehorse mince, I’ll just say from the outset that if you’ve got a hankering for strategy, a soft spot for the independent game development scene and have *not* pre-ordered Frozen Synapse, then you’re an irredeemable sinner and nothing will save you from gagging over the buffet at Satan’s table. He’s serving cold seafood extender, which is a feat in itself – considering the real estate – but your sin is great indeed. What else is great is Frozen Synapse. Why is this introduction so tortured? Let me explain my giddiness.
We are deep within the darkest reaches of British bedroom developer country with Frozen Synapse. Across these rain swept lands lurk the likes of Introversion, Positech Games and Mode7 Games – the makers of Frozen Synapse. There’s a possibility you might have heard of Mode7’s previous title Determinance, a strange and awkward flying version of Gunz: The Duel meets Die By The Sword. In any case, they’re back with – no hyperbole – the personal indie game of the year, and it’s only in its beta phase. With a core team of three, this new creation is set to become quite an online sensation. But what is all the fuss about and why should you care?
Frozen Synapse is a turn-based squad-centric tactical combat simulator. Sound dry? Far from it. In fact, I am willing to say that if you like the idea of squad-based first-person shooters but hate the community or dislike the notion of massive time investments to stay ahead of the fourteen-year olds, this is the game for you. If you snub your nose and snort at first-person shooters in general from your ivory tower of self-styled superiority, this is the game for you. Of course, if you love a deep and enjoyable strategy game that doesn’t take more than fifteen minutes to play, then I shouldn’t have to sell it much more than saying “it is damn good”. But why try to channel enthusiasm onto action gamers, you ask? If it’s a strategy game, you say, the bearded men of this world will take good care of it. The justification for why I’m doing so is tucked up inside the gameplay.
Much like the wonderful Rainbow Six and to a lesser extent, the SWAT games of yore, half the fun was found in the setup; drawing up plans for your men to follow, pre-ordering doors to be kicked in, rooms to be swept and enemies to be subdued or dropped. Granted, it was pretty complex at times, especially when dealing with multiple floors. Frozen Synapse takes this very premise and drops it into simplistic-though-destructible arenas, wherein players duke it out using the excellent simultaneous turn system. What we have here is a concentrated strain of X-Com, Combat Mission, Jagged Alliance, Counterstrike, Flotilla, Laser Squad Nemesis, the aforementioned Rainbow Six and SWAT; and while those names might not mean a lot to some people, once played, you can see influence and inspiration – as well as experience wonderment and incredulity of it having taken this long for a game like Frozen Synapse to be made.
Controlling a squad is incredibly simple, intuitive and incredibly flexible. Selecting a squad-member, you assign movement waypoints and actions within the limit of five seconds blocks. Five blocks equal a game, which forces players to be mobile and inventive and, by design, somewhat negates camping. Select a squad member, mark their direction and movement via a very simply line method, assign their combat options, confirm your move and await your opponent to do the same.
That’s where the joy of Frozen Synapse’s multiplayer comes from – everything is at your pace. You can create five seconds’ worth of tactical movement so complex it would make the Spetznaz cry; running different turn scenarios as many times as you want – using the opponent squad’s last known positions to anticipate where and what your opponent may program. Alternatively, you can play the waiting game and hole up your troops, seeking that perfect ambush. Once you have planned your movements, it’s a case of priming – or finalising – the move. Your turn is submitted to the Mode7 Games servers and matched against your opponent’s. Once both turns are submitted and calculated, the outcome is returned and you watch your plan unfold in simulated real-time against your opponent.
It’s the best damn PBEM (Play By EMail) game out there at this very moment. The simultaneous move mechanic means you’re constantly assessing your squad’s movement and actions against a foe who just might strike anywhere, which sounds incredibly tense. It certainly is, but paradoxically, it’s a very relaxed game to play – a game that in turns last no more than thirty seconds can last for days, players submitting said turns when they want. The asymmetrical turn submission system works wonders and means you can engage in any number of games across all timezones.
And I’ve only touched upon the Dark Elimination mode! There’s offline battles against the AI, puzzle modes, defending locations, the works. You can choose to play Light Elimination, where you can see your opponent at all times – not just at their last known location.
To quote Kieron Gillen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun in his recent preview of Frozen Synapse, this could be the Indie circuit’s answer to Starcraft 2 – a comment he strongly advised against being taken out of context. I offer that whilst they are two very different games, Starcraft 2 and Frozen Synapse are re-energising deeper strategy gaming for mass appeal, much like tower defense. An ease of interface means anyone can play and understand the mechanics with minimal time investment. Another comparison is via gamers discovering and honing specific tactics to create higher-level manoeuvres, evolving and ensuring a consistent competitive scene. I would go so far as to argue Frozen Synapse has a bigger chance of resonating with primarily action-oriented gamers than Starcraft, based on the premise, flow and cross-pollination of gameplay tenets – especially those versed in the classic era Rainbow Six, Counterstrike or SWAT games. Big call, but it just might be the case.
I will not write much more because you should really see it in action. It’s the smartest, most enjoyable game I’ve played in a long time. I’ve got a number of games running at any one time, played over the space of a few days. It makes the perfect browser companion. Check your mail and twitter, work out the next turn, upload and you’re done.
If you pre-order, you get two licenses. This gets you and a friend into the beta immediately with a copy each of the full commercial title upon release later this year.
Frozen Synapse. I’m in love.