Thursday, June 2, 2011

-REVIEW: Frozen Synapse-
this one is all melty, did i get a broken one?

Title: Frozen Synapse
Developer: Mode 7
Platform: PC
Release: Released! Find it on Steam or Desura
Price: $24.99 (+ extra copy) (no longer $19.99 from dev, sorry :( )

It’s all jagged-rebel-X-fallout-star-alliance-com-tactical-command-tactics! TACTICS! Plus Neon Chess

rocket soldier 2 to shotgun 6

There’s a certain solace in the game of chess that occurs at each round once you’ve completed your move. It’s a small joy that forms the basis of the more intense joy that eventually overcomes you once you win. Being able to see, bit by bit, a proposed masterplan come to fruition is more than exhilarating; it’s intoxicating. It’s really no surprise then that if you take that same mechanic and put it into a video game, you’ll get a pretty good video game.

 Add to this a bit of mystery and a whole lot of randomization, and what you’ll have is Frozen Synapse, a semi-turn based, semi-realtime tactical game with nods to games like the original X-Com series, Rebelstar Tactical Command, and Jagged Alliance.  In Frozen Synapse, you are Tactics, a rare, beautiful creature, presumably equipped with above-average Brains and near-adequate Grit, commanding armed meatbags of near-zero Brains and super-human Grit. They will do exactly what you tell them to. No more, no less.  The hybrid nature of the game plays out by executing the planned moves of each player simultaneously: once you and your opponent set your paths and commands, executing them (or “Priming” in the game’s terms) sets into motion both players' moves.  You are allowed a preview, but it doesn’t take into account your opponent’s actions, completing the element of mystery and adding a layer of complexity to the existing tactical focus. There are a number of different game modes, but most all of them can be completed effectively by eliminating all of the opponent’s pieces.

Before someone gets misled, I want to emphasize that even though I used those other games as a basis of comparison, Frozen Synapse contains no unit progression. You don’t build an army in this game. It’s much more about the tactics themselves than it is about creating a group of commandos or completing a storyline. The singleplayer campaign, though nicely written and well-thought out, doesn’t keep track of your performance but by a per-mission score. There are also no real unlocks that I’m yet aware of. It’s a very bare-bones package, but those bones are like the strong, rigid, tough beefy beef bones of a beefy bull skeleton of a bull that ran 10 miles a day and ate only whole grains and the lean meat of its beefy beef bull predecessors.

all brains, all brains, no brains, some brains, no brains

The degree of control you’re given over these meatbags varies largely, based your willingness to micromanage them. You can plot waypoints manually, or simply double-click the destination and it will plot the course for you. Along the pathways you have a number of options available through the right-click menu that are essential for victory. Your meatbags are intensely stupid; any command apart from “shoot enemy on sight” must be configured by your hand. It sounds tedious, but smart menu design and simplified actions make issuing commands and setting tactics a breeze. Even with 5 or more units, I took no longer than 5 minutes per turn.

There are a number of keyboard shortcuts that make issuing these commands more artful, but using the mouse alone is more than adequate. It’s a perfect game for portables and cramped spaces, especially when you’re looking for something of a real-timey action-type fix as opposed to a traditional turn-based game. There is something magically satisfying about priming a move and then observing as this strange neon ballet of bullets and bodies unfolds in 5-second snippets.Once a mission is complete, you can even watch the entire battle unfold in a single lengthy neon ballet of bullets and bodies. I really like that phrase.

There are 5 different unit types, each with distinct advantages and disadvantages. We have the standard fare mid-to-long range rifle, the short-to-mid range shotgun, the long-range sniper, and two explosive units (rocket and grenade) who only fire manually (a good choice due to their destructive nature). These two units offer different methods of destruction, creating additional tactical considerations. What’s more, these explosive units are capable of destroying cover, making them prime targets for the enemy. And don’t think they won’t know who’s who: units are accompanied by obvious symbols as to what type they are. The interface and appearance of the game is rife with attention to detail, making it even easier to do what you’ve been tasked with: tactics!


please resist the urge to rub it against your face
The menus are amazingly well-designed. Pseudo-tab style buttons coupled with clean lines and a focus on usability over style make navigating about easy (once you’ve found all the buttons). Drop down menus are smartly placed and list browsing is painless. What’s really amazing is how they’ve managed to eliminate loading times from moving in and out of the menu screen and the game screen. Having tested this game with both a computer with an integrated (intel) and discrete gpu (GTX 470), I’m really impressed at how smoothly it transitions in and out of games.

The game, while not particularly multiplayer-centric (with a 55-mission singleplayer campaign), has an excellent server browser and a number of social integration tools built in: export to facebook, twitter, and youtube, which all require your basic info to link to your Frozen Synapse account. Oh, right, I forgot to mention, you have to log in to play multiplayer games. You cannot get by with steam friends lists or manually entering IPs. The games are hosted on servers (which have been sharded recently, meaning your profile and ranking are server-specific), but, as I mentioned before, finding a multiplayer game is rather painless, and I can’t imagine it would be any more difficult to find a friend.

well I mean, I didn’t want THAT many friends

There is a slightly strange phenomenon that occurs though once you start getting into multiple matches. It’s the “Words with Friends” effect. The first time you start a game with a friend, you’re enthusiastic and anticipatory and gleeful and all that giddy stuff. And then you imagine how awesome it would be to have more than one game going on so you start accepting challenges or making challenges left and right. And you’re playing a couple games at a time and you’re feeling super productive and witty and fantastically cool because you’re beating everyone at the same time. And then you look at the clock and realize you missed dinner and haven’t taken a shower in 2 days because the games…keep coming back. Rematch, rematch. Rematch. Your game with tex556 is ready. Ok, cool, let me go--YOUR GAME WITH PKENDEL IS READY (would you like to go there, stay here?) wait no, let me finish this mo--VALDRES HAS CHALLENGED YOU TO A GAME, ACCEPT? Damnit wait! I just need to prime this move and-TEX556 IS WAITING FOR YOUR MOVE, GO THERE<>STAY HERE? Ugh. Oh, sweet, got an email. Anything to get me away from this game for a second—Subj: Frozen Synapse -- YOUR GAME WITH VALDRES IS WAITING FOR YOUR MOVE.


Alright, so there is a slight downside to having a game that integrates itself into your email and your social networks (I’m pretty sure there’s a way to turn off e-mail notifications, but in-game these notifications also pop up periodically).  But these notifications aren’t unnecessarily verbose or persistent. It’s just a bit jarring at times when you’ve got more than 3 games going on at once (note to self, do not start more than 3 games at a time).

a tactically sound choice, sir

Frozen Synapse is a bit on the pricey side for an indie title, but I almost want to say it’s justified  (but I won't, because it isn't) because of the multiplayer implementation. I don’t know if any one remembers the game BREACH (by Atomic), which purported to be a multiplayer game, but it was atrocious. Not that the game itself was extremely bad, but that the multiplayer implementation was totally borked. If a game’s design is focused on multiplayer, then there needs to be a substantial amount of effort to ensure that multiplayer works. With Frozen Synapse, multiplayer just works. Thankfully, the singleplayer also works fantastically, because if you’re one of those who hates social networks (but finds them necessary evils in order to reach more people with your particular opinions because apparently everybody else LOVES social networks), there are plenty of meaty options in the Skirmish Generator to keep even the most enigmatic Wargamer busy. But be warned: this is an RPG-free game. There is no real progression of your individual units and hence no real motivation for keeping them alive apart from earning a better score.

Pick it up if you’re itching for some old-school tactical command and you can stand neon glowy dudes supported by an easy electronic beat, otherwise, wait until it goes on sale to get your tactical fix.

Check the Video commentary here! Now featuring my voice! woohoooo