7 Jun 2011

Chilly bits: Frozen Synapse

I had previously thought Mode 7 Games' newest development to be a fairly unassuming title based on a few screenshots I'd seen posted about the interwebz over the last few months. To me it had looked a little sterile. The art design seemed initially striking, but also perfunctory, as if it had fit the bill for visual functionality and was then painted blue for no very good reason (blue=future?). I was afraid that the game might lack depth of character, that it would turn out to be a one trick pony.

Preconceptions sure are funny things.

Frozen Synapse in motion is entirely at odds with what shots of the game appear to represent. The turn-based tactical combat is not as coldly functional as the blueprint stylings suggest, but compellingly graceful. When two opposing sides really get down to it - teasing each other out of cover or desperately attempting to predict their competitor's next moves - it quickly evolves into a carefully choreographed game of cat and mouse in which neither side knows who plays the cat or who the bastard mouse until one of them invariably ends up all dead.

If you've ever played Laser Squad Nemesis, you'll be instantly familiar with the various components that bond together to form the main multiplayer experience. If you haven't played that particular gem, then here's a quick precis: It's a turn-based team deathmatch strategy game in which two players simultaneously plan out their moves for the following game turn from a top-down perspective. Following this, both plans are submitted and played out together in real time... for just five seconds. People die. The process repeats. More people die. You win! Hopefully...

Admittedly, this summary doesn't quite do justice to the wealth of tactical options available as you progress from one procedurally generated map to the next. The controls are genuinely a piece of cake to figure out, but pulling off stupendous double-bluffs does require time to learn. The old adage of being easy to learn, but difficult to master has never been so true tediously shoehorned into an article about some game or other.

Multiplayer operates across a number servers on which you can find a game through a fairly speedy matchmaking service. Most of the games you join won't be finished any time soon because people are welcome to post their turns and then find something to do that isn’t meticulously planned virtual warfare (fools!). Any subsequent turns are then resumed at their leisure and you'll be notified by email when another five second snippet of bloody battle has been agreed on.

Surprisingly enough, there’s a fairly decent single player campaign included with the game. I was aware of this prior to purchase, but was pretty certain that it would amount to a number of increasingly deadly AI face-offs with little attention paid to what might drive a lonely player's interest. Happily, I was wrong. Mode 7 Games have worked hard to give this portion of the game some personality. Cyber-punk is the order of the day plot-wise and sure, it's derivative and contrived and fits snugly inside the simplistic visual stylings, but it's also well written and fleshed out enough to provide a welcome breather between firefights. The missions are varied and often surprising: straight fights, hostage rescue, escort and protect missions or the classically underrated slaughter-all-civvies crapshoot (here's looking at you, CoD:MW2) form but a handful of what you can ultimately expect. Delightful stuff.

So, to the serious part: It’s important to mention that the game, although functional and offering full single and multplayer options, does require some more work from the devs. It’s not game-breaking stuff by any means, but in terms of streamlining the UI and ironing out the various niggling bugs or total omissions, Mode 7 clearly have tasks to perform in evolving this promising and addictive TBS into something truly unmissable for a wider audience. Any annoyances are worth working through though, because Mode 7 appear to be entirely on the ball, taking commentary from the community as to how the game should grow and implementing changes accordingly.

Truly, any faults aside, I can’t express how happy I am that a talented team has reborn this crusty old genre and made it so absurdly accessible and compelling. Hats off and all that...