Reviews

Lumbarjack – Brainfreeze aka Frozen Synapse

Mode7 recently announced their upcoming game Frozen Endzone, which reminded me that Frozen Synapse is a thing that exists, that I have spent many hours playing and that I haven’t written about for you fine people. Let’s rectify that shall we?

Frozen Synapse is an asynchronous, simultaneous turn-based strategy game… which is an accurate, but extremely dry description. Frozen Synapse is chess for cyberpunk fetishists. Frozen Synapse is every terrible wire-frame CG scene from a sci-fi movie turned, inexplicably, into a tense and visceral gaming experience. Frozen Synapse is the purest distillation of strategic gunplay I’ve seen, and also the most considerate implementation of multiplayer in games I’ve ever come across.

To play Frozen Synapse you plot the course you want each soldier to walk, and on the line that they move along you can place a number of different actions. You can tell them to ignore all enemies for a slight speed boost and to ensure they don’t get distracted and start shooting outside of cover, you can also tell them to ignore just some enemies, tell them to focus on certain enemies, or even just to train their weapon at a certain point slowing their walking speed, but increasing their reaction time greatly and you can make them crouch to take advantage of short cover.
What happens next is that you press Play, and all your soldiers move simultaneously, going through the steps of the dance you just choreographed. Where it gets interesting is seeing how your opponent (be it AI or human) plotted their dance. Did you correctly predict their movements? If not, were your plans broad enough to adapt? If not, how many men are dead, and how the fuck can you turn this devastating turn into a victory?

It’s a game as much about precognition as it is about tactics. Your tactics might be superior, but if your opponent is unpredictable you can still find yourself outmaneuvered. The game gets its special sauce from the tension of waiting for your opponent’s turn to come back and playing the whole thing to see how it unfolds. Did they haplessly stumble onto your grenade? Were they close enough to that wall when the rocket struck? Did they all fall before the might of your shotgunning superman?

The rifleman is your standard shock trooper. The shotgunner moves faster and shoots faster, but if he’s out of range of the rifleman then he’s still dead. The sniper takes a long time to reload, but is deadly accurate, and the rocketeer and grenadier both behave differently again. Rockets travel in a straight line and can destroy walls, grenades can be bounced off walls, and their detonations won’t crumble structures.
If you looked at some of the screenshots you might be forgiven for thinking this is a simple game, but the strategy runs deep, and the potential at the start of each battle is almost infinite.

The singleplayer campaign has obviously had a lot of effort put into it, but it’s really just training for the multiplayer. The writing and dialogue is generally ok, even if the plot is very late 80s/early 90s cyberpunk. There’s an us, and there’s a them, and they have all the money and power, and we deserve better, etcetera etcetera. There could possibly be some twists further down the track, but I got distracted by battling human opponents and never looked back.

I’ve never been a big fan of multiplayer games in this post-LAN world. LANs were fantastic, but they were irregular. You could afford to spend 18 straight hours playing Counter Strike, Starcraft and Diablo II because you wouldn’t be doing it again for a month. These days online is everywhere, all the time, and games want us to be playing them for every waking moment.
When the market is dominated by competitive multiplayer and/or Free-to-Play games our time almost literally becomes their money, but as a weekend warrior I want multiplayer games that respect my time, and Frozen Synapse is one of the few that does. You make your turn, you submit it, and then you can go and do something else while you wait for your opponent. You can play a number of other games, go to the bathroom, go make dinner, take the dog for a walk – do whatever the fuck you want/need to do, and the game will be waiting for you when you get back.
I lost countless nights to Frozen Synapse, but they were still productive nights because I did all kinds of things around submitting my turns.

I really can’t recommend Frozen Synapse enough, and indeed I have even put my money where my mouth is and bought copies for friends. It’s a deep strategy game that’s still immediate and visceral enough to appeal to people who would normally shy away from TBS. Try out the demo, and if it doesn’t grab you immediately push through it until something clicks. It’s worth it.

Oh, I nearly forgot – the soundtrack is fantastic too. Interesting, detailed electro that suits the game world perfectly and could surely get a few spins outside the game.

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