Platform:PC, Mac Publisher:Independent Release Date: Late 2010
Why the hell it’s called Frozen Synapse, we don’t know. By all rights it should be called Wholly Awesome Tactical Planning Game, because that’s what it is. Frozen Synapse sounds like the technical name for when you eat too much ice cream.
Then again, a lot of really good games come with totally silly and irrelevant names. BioShock sounded like a game about a gardener who keeps getting struck by lightning, for example - and don’t even get us started on The Witcher. Those both turned out to be pretty good games though, so we’ll not spend too much time dwelling on whether the little men you command in Frozen Synapse do indeed have cold heads.
Instead, we’ll concentrate on the game itself because – and we’ll mince no words here – it is totally bloody awesome.
We've got you surrounded!
The premise of Frozen Synapse reads like a multiplayer version of the original Fallout or X-Com games, though redone with graphics borrowed from TRON. It puts you in control a team of soldiers who you issue orders to from a top-down perspective every five or so seconds. You tell who to go where and who to kill who, then when you think your plan is ready you commit to it by pressing the ‘Prime’ button – and then there’s no going back. Your opponent does the same, plotting out a plan of his own and pressing ‘Prime’ when he’s got it how he wants it. When you’ve both indicated your readiness then you get to watch events unfold.
It’s at this point that things usually start to fall to pieces. Your opponent, if you can see him, will move in a way you didn’t anticipate or will have an extra sniper appear from behind cover. Sometimes it isn’t a disaster and your teams will simply move in opposite directions, fleeing for the nearest cover and not bothering to fight. Other times you might have forgotten to give an order to one man, creating a gap in an otherwise watertight defence and leaving prayer as your only recourse.
Then, after the turn has been played through then you’re back to the planning phase once more and the process repeats. It keeps going until a victory condition or time limit is reached – usually five to seven turns or until one team is wiped out good an’ proper.
Explained like that Frozen Synapse sounds incredibly simple and unremarkable – in many ways we suppose it is, but that’s just the bare bones. As soon as you sit down to play the first level then it’s immediately obvious that things go a lot deeper than just securing chokepoints and luring enemies in. Much of the game is randomly generated for starters, so you never know whether you’ll be starting in the open with a trio of shotgunners or safely inside a building with only a lone sniper.
Then there’s the deeper tactical elements to consider too, such as stance, position, weapon, speed and range – every one of which carries a pro and a con. Keeping your soldiers crouched, for example, may give them an accuracy bonus and let them hide behind cover, but it’ll slow them down too. On the other hand, standing will let you move more quickly but you’ll take longer to aim – but increased speed might be worth the sacrifice if it means you can get into position early and spot the enemy before he turns. It’s all about using the right tools for the job.
Already, Frozen Synapse is sounding more complicated and interesting than the initial, simple explanation – but therein lies the beauty; Frozen Synapse is built on the old adage of ‘Easy to pick up, hard to master’. So, while you can still jump straight in and play even if you skip the tutorial thanks to a basic point and click UI, the game is so difficult at the high-end that it’ll probably be kicking your ass for weeks to come.