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’?
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.
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.
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.