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Frozen Synapse (PC) artwork

Frozen Synapse (PC) review


"Generally speaking, multiplayer matches consist of a few minutes of head-scratching, a bit of experimentation, a final check, a click of the ĎPrimeí button, and an edge-of-seat wait for your opponent to submit his or her next turn. Itís often sensible to go and get on with something else while the time ticks away, but itís difficult to do so when youíre so invested."



Welcome to The Future, 1990s style. This is an age in which virtual reality interacts with the tangible world, and where troops can be controlled via their shapeforms in a vast and complex VR network. This future is grim and paranoid, with mega-corporations getting a little bit too mega, while both resistance groups and rival factions do their best to battle for ultimate control. Youíre simply known as Tactics, and itís your job to send the little green men to their fate against the big red baddies.

Itís a fairly familiar scene, but getting into Frozen Synapse is a process that requires a hefty dose of patience. When you start out, itís tempting to set some basic waypoints, ordering your digital troops around the map in a fairly perfunctory way, itching to hit that ĎPrimeí button as quickly as you can. But you canít play Frozen Synapse like that. Doing so results in your menís blood being splattered all over the undulating blue world in an instant.



See, this is a simultaneous turn-based game which expects both players to spend some time fine-tuning their approach. Itís not as simple as telling your machinegunner to go over there and your shotgunner to sneak around that corner. You need to tell them when to go, how long to stop for, whether to stand or crouch, which direction to aim in, and whether to return fire or leg it to the nearest cover when shot at.

You also need to keep an eye on all your opponentís tricks, checking every sight line, analysing each previous turn, desperately trying to predict what your enemy will pick as their next move. Fail to be mindful of all the possibilities, make a single wrong decision, and the most likely outcome is a ĎMission Failedí screen.

Fortunately, you also have the ability to plot the moves you think will be made against you. You have no control over your opponentís decisions, of course, but you can predict them, set them in motion, and watch exactly what will happen when you hit ĎPrimeí if your guess was correct. It turns Frozen Synapse into a game of absolute precision, as you spend minutes on end trying to set the course of one unitís dash across a room, evading the punishing bullet of an enemy sniper.

In a multiplayer game, both players submit their turn before the action plays out. Depending on the circumstances, this may be a process that takes seconds, minutes, hours or - in theory - even days. The action will not progress until both players have submitted their five-second turns, no matter how long that takes, and youíre free to drop in and out - or have another set of games on the go - in the meantime.



Generally speaking, multiplayer matches consist of a few minutes of head-scratching, a bit of experimentation, a final check, a click of the ĎPrimeí button, and an edge-of-seat wait for your opponent to submit his or her next turn. Itís often sensible to go and get on with something else while the time ticks away, but itís difficult to do so when youíre so invested.

For a game with such relatively basic presentation, Frozen Synapse is rich in atmosphere. Itís a confident game in this respect, firmly sticking with its slightly outdated image of future technology. Itís perhaps because of this conviction that developers Mode 7 have managed to create such a compelling piece of fiction, even if it is often filled with the sort of babbling sci-fi clichť that would usually be a turn-off.

Far from being just a training exercise for the multiplayer component, the single-player manages to deliver a story thatís complex, gripping and even thought-provoking, with various characters popping up throughout to provide an alternative take on the events as they play out. This is a world in which peopleís moral and ethical beliefs rarely match up, but in many ways itís irrelevant: youíre a hired tactician - youíre there to do a job, and nothing more.

While multiplayer matches consist of three different game types played in Ďlightí or Ďdarkí mode (the former meaning you can always see your opponentís units, the latter meaning you canít unless theyíre in direct line of sight), the solo campaign switches things up with a variety of different objective-based tasks. None of them are especially novel - theyíre tasks such as gaining entry to a particular area, protecting a specific unit, or assassinating a high-ranking enemy - but thereís enough variety that things rarely feel repetitive, and the game keeps moving onwards at an agreeable pace.



Most of the maps in single-player, and all in multiplayer, are generated on the fly as well, meaning no match or mission will ever play out exactly the same way twice. Your routes will have to be different, your tactics modified heavily to meet the demands of your unit placements and the arrangement of walls and windows around them. Itís a game that knows how to keep things fresh and engaging, game after game after game.

It all adds up to an indie title thatís more self-assured than almost any of its peers, and all the better for it. It might riff on paranoid generic sci-fi, but it understands why that works as a genre. It might, at times, feel a bit like a turn-based Counter-Strike, but it easily matches that gameís tight, addictive grip. Whatís more, the masterfully paced learning curve of the single-player component sets you up perfectly for the online world, where youíll suddenly realise youíve learnt a lot more about tactics and strategy than you first thought.

And yet Frozen Synapse is perhaps at its best when everything goes wrong, youíre down to your last unit, and you set out on a ludicrous and desperate charge towards your target. As your enemyís rockets fly, and machinegun bullets spray your vicinity, you know a mad dash is never going to work. You try it anyway, because youíre all out of options. Nine times out of ten it ends exactly the way you feared. But that one time it actually works? Few games offer the same sense of baffled, triumphant achievement.

Rating: 9/10

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (June 03, 2011)

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