Review: Frozen Synapse

Developer Summary

Frozen Synapse is the ultimate tactical game on PC and Mac.

It brings the simultaneous turn-based strategy genre bang up-to-date and lets you give detailed, accurate orders to your squad: classic gameplay with a modern interface. Plan your moves, test them out, then hit the “Prime” button: both you and your enemy’s turns are executed simultaneously. Competitive-but-intuitive multiplayer and a huge single player campaign mean that Frozen Synapse will give you hours and hours of tactical delight.

What We Think

When I first started seeing previews of Frozen Synapse I thought “Turn-based tactical strategy? I love it! Hmmm … not sure about the graphics, but as long as the gameplay is up to snuff I’ll think about picking it up.” Then it was released and I saw the price-tag and decided to pass. Later, I saw all the reviews giving it such high praise and thought perhaps it was worth the asking price. Finally, it came across my desk for review and thought …

Was I playing the same game as all the other reviewers? They wrote not only positive, but glowing reviews of this? THIS? I was left scratching my head. How was it that one of the most tedious and uninspired games I’ve played in a long time was being called ‘genius’?

Frozen Synapse Screenshot 1

The Aesthetics

I think, when it comes to games, aesthetics fall into two categories: first, how the game looks and feels and, second, the story and characters portrayed within that environment.

As to the first, Frozen Synapse reminds me of Tron. No, not 2010 Tron. 1982 Tron. It’s all glowing neon walls and things exploding into sparkly little pixelated bits. You may like that look, but to me it smacks of a dev team that couldn’t afford a good graphic artist, so they went for artsy. Granted the character animations are smooth as Flash in contrast to Tron’s truly abstract avatars. It may have something to do with the difficulty of randomly generating a more realistic environment, but no matter how you cut it, it just looks bad.

Story and character don’t really factor into multiplayer too much, but they’re an important part of the single-player experience. Frozen Synapse tells the story of…something about corporations and virtual presence and…oh hell, I don’t know. I’ll be honest with you: I attempted to read all the text and dossier information between missions, but I couldn’t get more than half a paragraph in before I wanted to tear my eyes out. Someone clearly wanted to be William Gibson or Rudy Rucker, but got stuck somewhere between their thesaurus and Psych 101 text. It’s all just so pretentious and overbearing.

The Mechanics

All right, let’s get down to the brass tacks. A game can look as crappy as it wants to and we can skip all the text, as long as the game itself kicks ass. Am I right?

Frozen Synapse is a tactical turn-based strategy game and, in my opinion, we don’t see enough of them these days. When one does come along, I find myself wanting to be as positive as possible, but in this case I can’t help but be critical.

In a single player environment, you want a certain level of complexity. You want troop choices. You want multiple weapon options. You want tech trees. Why? Because, if a game is boiled down to you making the one obvious tactical choice, why bother playing it? And that’s where Synapse lies. The computer is going to make obvious choices and you’re going to make obvious choices in response. The cruelly determining factor isn’t going to be how smart you are, but rather the computer’s random number generator.

Randomness plays such a major factor in Frozen Synapse that it can’t be overstated. Building and troop placement is done in a semi-random manner that can quickly make or break a game. There’s nothing worse than having a key troop start the game in a place that virtually guarantees his death in turn one, or places him so far away from the action that he’s useless till turn 3 or 4. It factors in so heavily that you can often determine how a match will end before the first move has been made.

You may not be able to see any statistics, but they are obviously in play here and have a level of randomness built in too. How else can you explain how troops with the obvious tactical advantage die to sitting ducks? And when there are percentage chances, I want to see them.

In multiplayer, the problem is almost reversed. A successful game of multiplayer Frozen Synapse plays like anti-tactics. First you must determine the most logical course of action and then do anything but that. Likewise, you must determine what your opponent will do, then realize he will do anything but that. If either of you do what makes sense, the conclusion is almost forgone before you start, so it becomes a game of “Who can best simulate a group of drunken fratboys staggering home from the bar?” as your troops dip and dive, stop and start, and otherwise bounce around the field of play.

I’ll admit, some of the multiplayer modes are conceptually interesting, but with the underlying mechanics being so weak it’s almost insulting.

I found the interface to be rather annoying too. Too much zooming in to play around with the tiny controls on troops, then zooming out to get a better look at what was going on. No mouse scrolling? No mini map? The game virtually ignores the fact the you own a keyboard, in favor of putting all actions on a right-click context menu. Meanwhile, the right click could have been efficiently utilized for facing of troops, rather than all the zooming in and out.

The Conclusion

So there you go. Pretentious art and writing, a clunky interface, and a level of simplicity and randomness that makes playing almost pointless. If there is a silver lining here, it’s that Mode 7, makers of the game, have repeatedly stated that the released game is only the beginning and that there will be regular improvements, based on feedback from players. And there IS potential here. With a few extra layers and tweaks this could be a great game. Until then, I wouldn’t shell out $5 for what is currently offered, let alone the exorbitant price they’re asking.

Get Frozen Synapse on Steam

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ 

4 thoughts on “Review: Frozen Synapse

  1. Unfirtunately your review is terrible. You didn’t play this game enough it seems. The only random things in this game is the starting positions in multiplayer. Even with a disavantage in positioning, you can turn it to your own favor.
    There is NO A SINGLE paper rock cissor situation either. Every fight situation is pure mathematics.
    I don’t care if you bash the game (btw, you are the only reviewer to do so, you may think about it πŸ˜‰ ). but you should at least investigate a bit deeper into a game before reviewing it…
    The only points I agree with you is that the price tag is quite high (was at least, not sure about how much it costs right now) and the fact that they aren’t improving the game any further (eventhough it’s pretty solid like it is)

  2. KT, did you just recently discover the game? Perhaps they’ve changed things, but every single level of the single player game was randomized when I played through it. Where one, or more, of your units was placed. Where one, or more, of the buildings was placed. Where all of the attacking units were placed. Not necessarily all of those things at once, but at least one of them was true in each mission.

    You’re right, it’s pure math. Of course, that random number generator doing some addition there is math too. I can’t count the number of times I had a unit, from corner cover, attack a unit with the same weapon who was standing in the open lose a fight. If it was like you’re idea of “pure math” you’d never watch you’re unit miss, would you? The game calculates a percentage chance that each unit hits, then rolls a random number for each of them to see if they succeed. Sometimes the better man loses.

    As for other reviewers, what can I say? I’m the sole voice of reason? Seriously though. I try to review a game on the merits, not whether I personally liked it or not. Were the visuals good? Not really. If you like cheap 80’s throwback it’d be OK, but this is a tactical combat game, not Robotron. Was the gameplay good? Exactly the same as a billion dull games that have gone before it. Was the story good? Not unless you like pretentious psychobabble. I played the game for many hours and I didn’t hate it, it just isn’t good.

    Keep in mind my closing paragraph though. Perhaps, in the four months since I wrote the article, Mode 7 has ironed out the gameplay issues I had? I’m not willing to drudge through the game again, but from your recounting, maybe they have.

  3. Man, I know I’m late for the party, but I will agree with KT. Of course, you’re entitled to your opinion; you played the game, had your experience, formed your own impressions and have all the right to dislike it and I have none to tell you what to think and like, but I too reserve my right to disagree with your review and I believe you made a lot of points that were off-target. I don’t know which version of the game you played that things could’ve been so different, but it can’t have been earlier than that of the demo I first played.

    I agree the story ain’t much and it can get murky, confusing and delve too much into techno-babble, although I am impressed they put that much effort into it and that for a game that centers around multiplayer, they actually made a 55-mission long single-player campaign. Personally, I went through it and didn’t find it that bad for a cyberpunk story; it’s true, it’s not terribly unpredictable, and it uses cliches of the genre like the big evil corporation controlling people, or technological progress advancing to the point of taking over people’s lives, the splinter underdog group that fights against it, the nature-loving and tech-hating hippie terrorists etc. I also agree the graphics is indeed a subjective issue that most reviewers have pointed out, and I for one liked the DEFCON & Uplink feel to it, but I can see why others would complain about it. And the pricing strategy is questionable at the very least.

    So far, no issues to contend with. But it’s your impressions of the gameplay that baffle me. I’m with you that a game needs the right amount of complexity, but I find it ridiculous that you complain about the lack of tech trees in a game that’s all about tactical action. This isn’t Galactic Civilizations II or Master of Orion; this game has a lot more in common with chess than either of the two titles mentioned above, or the 4x genre in general, and neither does it claim more than that; that’s why you play an entity called ‘Tactics’ in the game. Do you have tech trees in chess? No, but that doesn’t mean chess isn’t engrossing, complex and challenging. And have you used the skirmish generator? Because then you’d know you have a lot of freedom in customizing the squad structure and troop composition for both your squad and the enemy team. You got five weapons to choose from: machine gun, shotgun, grenade launcher, sniper, rocket launcher, plus the shield unit in the expansion. For comparison, chess has 5 unit types: pawn, knight, bishop, rook, and queen, besides the king. Does that mean chess overly simplistic? No. Quite the contrary, it’s still a very complex game, even though unlike Frozen Synapse, the level design and troop placement is always the same. The random, procedurally-generated levels here are part of the tactical fun, in my opinion; sometimes, you’re lucky and the opponent gets the short end of the deal, sometimes you’re the one who gets it, sometimes you’re on equal footing. And if you don’t like it, you can restart the mission; easy. But that’s what tactics are all about: doing the best you can with what you got in different circumstances. In real life firefights, how often do troops find themselves on equal footing in terms of positioning?

    Furthermore, also in tune with what KT said, there is no luck here, only cold, hard tactical logic. You make the right decisions, you win. You make a mistake, it was nobody’s fault but your own, given that you can test out your plans at your whim. If your plan goes awry, you can’t blame broken game mechanics; only that small thing you forgot to factor in. Each factor has a priority in determining who wins out in a duel. Shotgun nearly always wins at close range, snipers kill you in one shot if you stay too exposed but it takes time to aim, machine guns work best at medium-to long distances etc. Then, there’s the question of which troop sees the other first – if yours sees theirs even if theirs is behind cover, you have a higher chance of winning; there’s also the issue of whether the troop was moving or not, there’s aiming versus free movement and so on. It’s complicated math, for sure, but if you pay attention, you’ll see certain patterns. In fact, you don’t even need to play several games for that. You only have to try out different scenarios in the planning phase of a single game.

    And I for one haven’t found the AI that predictable. Granted, it’s a machine, so you won’t get the chance to see the devious creativity the human mind is capable of, but it’s still better than the AI in most titles I’ve played, and still a tactically competent and fairly strong opponent; it doesn’t get too creative, but it is capable of holding its own and using tactics; I’ve rarely if ever seen it do suicidal blunders and it did surprise me on more than one occasion. Speaking of creativity, I guess that’s what you referred to when describing multiplayer matches. In fact, why would anyone do the obvious choices? The whole purpose is to confuse your opponent while balancing offense and defense; it’s your mind against his/hers. You have to bait and lure the opponent without getting yourself too exposed, do the counter-intuitive and unpredictable without doing something stupid. I haven’t played multiplayer thus far, but I’ve watched videos on YouTube and while troop movement wasn’t always clear, it wasn’t stupid or random just for the sake of being random; players usually didn’t stupidly expose or sacrifice their troops, and each move had its purpose, just like that random pawn you move on a chessboard to serve you well 3 turns later. In the end, it all comes down to the skill and experience of the combatants.

    To sum up, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way. I realize it won’t make you change your mind, and I wouldn’t want you to either. Tastes differ, and no-one has the right to tell you what to like. I didn’t write all this to tell you what your opinion should have been; it’s just my take on why I believe your review didn’t accurately portray the game and why it doesn’t really do it justice. You could consider it a counter-review, if you will. πŸ™‚

    Cheers,
    Praetorian

    1. Praetorian – thanks for your response. Would certainly consider the counter review you mention, but your comment will certainly cover any need for it. It will remain here with the original review for all to consider in contrast to Patrick’s take on it. Perhaps he may even reply…

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