“Why did I do that? What in the name of all that is holy have I just done?”. That’s my brain hours after I’ve committed myself to a move on Frozen Synapse. Long after I’ve turned my PC off, those little green men inching their way to what is surely impending doom still haunt my thoughts.
No game has done this to me in years. Sure, I’ve got deeply into some games, who hasn’t? I’ve sat pondering my next moves on Civ or a Total War game long after I’ve stopped playing. But nothing else has given me this sickening sense that I’ve done something horribly stupid for which I will pay dearly. Frozen Synapse does because it’s is utterly brilliant.
Frozen Synapse is a simultaneous-turn-based game from indie developers Mode7, in which you control a squad of armed chaps against another squad of similarly armed gentlemen. The way this actually plays out is that you log-in, spend a few minutes perfecting your tactics for that turn, and then ‘prime’ your move. After you’ve done this the game sends your turn to the server and, if your opponent has also taken his move, you then watch your disastrous plan play out.
That’s a pretty simple way of describing things, mind you. Despite the seemingly basic interface and visuals, you have an awful lot of control over your squad - you can build up complex attack patterns and test them all out before actually committing to your plan. You can also simulate enemy moves in the same way you set out your own. Sometimes you’ll find yourself really getting into this and taking ages over a move, as you plan out several ‘What If?’ scenarios.
The combat mechanics add to this simplicity/depth. They’re fairly basic ‘rock, paper, scissors’ mechanics at heart; man in cover beats man in open beats man on the move, but they create all manner of tactical nightmares. Especially when combined with different weapons (shotguns; machine guns; snipers; rocket launchers; and grenade launchers).
All this adds up to a deeply tactical and tense game that never feels unfair. Well, apart from some dodgy start locations (randomly generated). Every time I’ve been taken apart I’ve either known why and learnt from my mistakes in each subsequent game, or I’ve been beaten by a far better player. I’ve never felt cheated by the game itself.
Even getting beaten by a tactical genius has its upside as you can watch any game – not just your own, ANY game – and see exactly what your opponent did. This is an invaluable learning tool and it helped me greatly. I genuinely feel like I’ve got better each time I’ve played it. And when you do get it right: oh my word! It feels so satisfying!
There are a variety of game modes from straight up death match (called Elimination) to hostage rescue, and some other odd ones in between. All of these can be played out in Light or Dark modes. Light mode means you can always see your enemy, whereas in Dark mode you can only see them when one of your squad has a clear line of sight to them.
The meat of Frozen Synapse is without doubt its multiplayer element. You don’t have to be online at the same time as your opponent, as the game will email you if there’s a turn just been taken in an active game, but it does add to the game to be able to chat to your nemesis as you play. This way of handling multilplayer means that you can have several games on the go at one time, and flick between them at your leisure. I LOVE this approach.
There are single player mode as well, including a surprisingly well fleshed out campaign mode. I was just expecting simple AI skirmish modes so was pleased to see the campaign mode with a full story behind it. Playing through it certainly hones your skills and adds even more personality to the game, even if there are some utterly brutal difficulty spikes. There is also a skirmish mode, natch.
Cosmetically it’s also on top form. It looks the part – very clinical and sci-fi-y – and it sounds astonishing. Seriously, Frozen Synapse has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a game. So good, in fact, I listen to it on my mp3 player – something I’ve only ever done once before in over 20 years of gaming.
There are a couple of flaws, I suppose. The difficulty spikes in the single player game are beyond ridiculous. The menu also needs some work, particularly the slightly irritating pop-ups from other players asking for games. The interface, although powerful, takes some getting used to – the tutorial does an OK job, but practice is the only way to learn how to use it properly. It’s also prone to the odd bug – I’ve got stuck in more than one wall, despite the game usually telling you in advance that it’s going to happen.
Crikey, that was serious review! Hopefully those 835 words convey just how damn good this game is. If not, perhaps this will: this game is damn, DAMN good. I absolutely love it, and with a bit more polish (which I’m convinced it will get over the coming months) you can consider that score up there even higher. It's utterly brilliant and you should buy it right now - you'll even get a free copy to give to a chum! Everyone wins!