Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Frozen Synapse review

Frozen Synapse is the cure to Starcraft 2. This is a game for thoughtful combat, rather than clicks per minute and speed. It's about outwitting your opponent, rather than rushing him. Extraneous activities to tactics such as resource management and base building have been removed, leaving you solely with your soldiers, the environment and the enemy.

It removes issues such as unit balance by having everyone start with the same units. But it introduces an interesting dynamic in that the levels are not uniform, resulting in some one sided battles. But no battle feels completely unworkable. You're always left with the impression that you could have done something smarter, could have out-thought your opponent in a way that would have resulted in victory for you. The result is a crazy, high speed version of chess.

That description brings with it implications that may not be obvious at first glance. Firstly, you can perfectly predict who will win in a fire-fight given the conditions. This is not a game of real world tactics. A shotgunner, aiming as he rounds a corner, at close range will always out-shoot a machinegunner standing still. This helps solidify the idea that each unit has a place and a use. But it also means that it's not truly real world. Games like X-Com and Jagged Alliance held firm in their depictions of combat that reality was key. In Frozen Synapse, the game is key. The most glaring example of this, more so than the predictable fire-fights, is that rocket troops can't hit people, or more importantly, the ground. This forces you to be very judicial in the use of rocket troopers. This restriction in the system is what makes the game more chess than war game.

The basic mechanics of the game are very simple. You take your squad of men and plan for them to shoot, walk, aim, duck, etc. around the battlefield, all with the express desire to kill off your opposition. Like Laser Squad Nemesis, the twist is that the actions themselves take place in real time turns of 10 seconds. You spend time considering what you're opponent will do, where he will go. You're forced to think a move ahead. But due to the real time nature of what occurs, real world tactics begin to be used, like distracting an enemy with a running unit while a second ambushes him a split second later.

The music is ethereal which suits the visuals perfectly. It compliments the periodic action and the planning stages suitably. It feels like a lot of thought went into its composition, the effect of which is noticeable. This polish is clear through not just the music. The visual aesthetic is clean and clear whilst holding to its style.

The game is buggy however. Issues I've had so far are to do with the game temporarily freezing when reviewing a turn or bringing up the right-click menu. These issues, while annoying, are not detracting from the actual game experience, and I found myself more annoyed that they'd slowed down the experience more than anything else. What I'm saying is that the bugs are minor, and forgiveable given the excellence of the game itself.

Something that I'm sure that Frozen Synapse gets compared to, and probably took inspiration from is Laser Squad Nemesis. But the part that Frozen Synapse does so much better is the method of conveying turns to each other. LSN used emails, but Frozen Synapse utilises a central server that communicated directly with the game. The result is that you end up playing four or five games at once, maybe the single player campaign as well. This system also allows you to watch your own and other peoples games, letting you learn from your horrible, horrible mistakes.

The single player campaign is far more than feels like far more than a primer for multiplayer. There's a narrative taking place, with well defined characters and a general feeling of unease as you become aware that something is decidedly off with the world you're in. Almost like a conspiracy that everyone is aware of except you.

The writing is genuinely interesting. Playing through he single player campaign I actually read through all the text. Compare this with Mount & Blade where I have often ended up accepting ridiculous quests because I couldn't be bothered to finish reading the paragraph of text I was on. And generally, I'm a reader. Maybe that's more a comment on Mount & Blade though...

The missions work well within this narrative, and the A.I. is pleasingly intelligent most times, refusing to walk blindly around corners and into bullets. Though there was one game where it managed to kill almost all its own troops, this seems to be rare, and may well have been the results of it simply trying to murder me by blowing up everything in sight. Not the smartest of moves, but as I said before, this behaviour is rare.

I like to rate video games based on how much I'd be willing to pay for them, and Frozen Synapse would get £30 from, except they'd need to increase the price to get it there. And by the way, you get two copies with that purchase. One to give to a friend. How cool is that?

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