Frozen Synapse is a turn-based strategy game. While not the most unique or even the most loved genre, what makes FS good is being fast, fun and quite often: frustratingly funny. Forced alliteration aside, your name is Tactics, you control a unit of three to four soldiers through what is essentially an elaborate building complex. Conveniently, the insanity of the architects works to your advantage, providing cover, chokepoints and crossfire traps.
You are given a mix of different troop types. Obviously, each has its own advantages and disadvantages. A rocket soldier will spend most of his time firing wildly (or skilfully depending on your gameplay style) into walls to cause splash damage kills. However, a lone shotgunning madman can sprint around and can use his ‘close range’ skills to get the jump on most units. You also have a sniper, machine gunner and grenadier. Machine gunners are your bread and butter unit, the other two are like cherries on the cake, if cherries would never really add anything and not behave as you’d expect a garnish to behave. Gunners have very long range, but will fire with varying accuracy depending on their conditions. Herein lies the hook.
What makes Frozen Synapse a real barrel of Machiavellian primates is the depth of your modifiers. If you’re running into the open, see someone at maximum range and start blasting, and said someone happens to be standing calmly behind half a wall, you will fail. Badly. If you choose not to engage the enemy, you can run faster. You can crouch, pause or run around, engaging them on sight, or ignoring everything. This means that a head-on approach is generally not the best idea. Sometimes you can be lucky, but most of the time, you’ve just done it right.
Having said that, there are times where you may have the majority of your team destroyed on the first turn due to “lucky” rockets, but in theory, you should know better. And by you, I mainly mean me. I tend to forget how big the area of effect is and stand too close to walls and have been on the receiving end of an embarrassing amount of splashy death. I’ve managed to lose in a single turn because I’ve been a bit too reckless, and I’ve lost MANY, MANY FRUSTRATING GAMES where I clearly had the advantage. Funnily enough, this is the amusing part of the game.
In single-player, you set about destroying the Red team, as is the style at this time. Hippy, Girl, Corporate Man and Sarcastic Computer are somewhat amusing characters, but I have to admit, the story and banter outside the game never really grabs me. They do quip and jibe through the mission, and though Sarcasmo isn’t exactly the most original program, it has its moments. The single-player mode is something you can chip away at over time and the general pacing of the game ensures that you can pick up where you left off relatively easily. Though when things go well, and the game seems easy to get through, there’s always a sense that the odds are alarmingly even. Later missions are challenging to a point where they can feel extremely rewarding to complete.
Unlike action games, you can’t slam your face into the brick wall ’til it falls, you have to regroup and think again. The mission generator will change the layout, but you will always have the same objectives. I loved this. It makes players reconsider and rethink each time the mission is loaded, and never get to a point where they know a course of action is safe. Arguably, this is a lot more prominent when fog of war is introduced in later missions, but it’s a great touch.
The real winner here is multiplayer. The game seems perfect for fans of the genre. You can log on and have a kill session for a few hours, or you may choose to take a more casual/old fashioned approach. Because Frozen Synapse requires both players to commit a turn before the actions are executed, it’s perfect for email gaming. You can commit your turn, then leave to enjoy different fine arts. After a few hours, or even days of indulging a seldom accommodated scrimshaw fetish, you may have an email telling you that your Fellow game-player has taken their turn. Oh, capital! You can open your game, drop your monocle in shock as your team is promptly massacred, then start it all again.
What’s lovely about finishing a game is the implied social aspect. You can post to YouTube, watch other people playing and ‘like’ their games. It’s quite entertaining to see complete strangers try to out-think each other and try to follow their thought process. There is a little annoyance in this where you can only watch one turn at a time. Of course, in your own game you’re still limited to turn by turn play, and it’s a nice idea to watch this way to get an idea of what’s going on. That said, the voyeur in me would KILL for a ‘play entire match’ button of some sort. Sure, there’s the YouTube feature, but you know, it’d be nice. For me.
Music-wise, Frozen Synapse uses a lot of ambient techno/electronic-style background music. Probably the kind of tunes you’d expect to hear in the elevators in Tron. Though I can’t say I’ve had [surl=http://www.frozensynapse.com/soundtrack.html]the soundtrack[/surl] creep its way into my usual playlist (yet), it’s definitely excellent for a bit of thoughtful ambience. I’ve tried playing with my usual array of metal playing, and unfortunately the lapses in concentration I suffer usually ensure the pixelly demise of my troops. The rest of the sounds aren’t particularly impressive, nor are they really sub-par. They’re basically generic gunfire, and to be honest, this isn’t a bad thing. It may have been nice to have some nice PEWPEW, FWOOOOOOOOSH and SQUELCH sounds, but it does not detract from the excellent gameplay.
Frozen Synapse definitely isn’t particularly cutting edge; the graphics are simple, sound somewhat average and a story that’s only mildly interesting. It is an excellent casual game, however, and it’s been done very well. The game has a lot of longevity in instant skirmishes and the ease of possible updates, but the fun and allowance for prolonged casual multiplayer games will hopefully see this as a Steam fave.