Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Number 9: Frozen Synapse

Seeing this game for the first time, I was in two minds. On the one hand, I love a bit of deep strategy gaming, and the minimalist presentation with its cyberpunk trappings really caught my eye. However, it was a PC/Mac only release, and I had yet to find a game that would run well on my 4-year old Macbook, so I dismissed it as something I'd never have the chance to play. Luckily I eventually read that it would run just fine, and thanks to my pal Kilted Moose I was given a free code for a Steam copy. The next two weeks were a bit of a write-off.

The description "Simultaneous turn-based tactical squad shooter" just rolls off the tongue, but it (sort of) sums Frozen Synapse up. Players take their turns to move their units and fire on the enemy, and when both turns are submitted the action plays out. Players don't have to be on to take turns at the same time, so you can flit between several matches while you wait. You can test out how your tactical moves will play out before submitting them, so a single turn can take hours as you consider all the possible approaches.  As such, games play out over ponderous days, but in the end are over in less than a minute of fast-paced action. There's a hefty single-player campaign for getting used to the game mechanics, but it's in the online multiplayer that the game thrives.

For every mission you're given a number of units, each representing one of the 5 weapon classes: machine gun, shotgun, rockets, grenades, and sniper. These units all have their strengths, weaknesses, and a wide variety of tactical uses. For instance, the shotgun can take out people up close and at speed, so it's perfect for clearing out small rooms; but it's got a limited firing range, so can't hit distant targets. The rocket launcher can be used to destroy walls, and has a large blast radius; but it takes a long time to reload, and the unit is slow moving, so can find itself exposed in a fast-paced game. The balance between the units is part of what makes the game so compelling, and you'll quickly find yourself preferring a tactical approach with one over the others.

Several game modes are included, but most of the time is spent in Dark Extermination, where the opponent's units are hidden unless in your line of sight. It leads to incredibly tense battles, as you nervously approach each corner with caution, and are terrified of making a break across open ground. It's here that the beauty of the unit balance becomes clear, as each player starts with the same randomly generated types, so there's no unfair upper hand. At the end you can view a replay of the battle, and see exactly what your opponent was doing and how they maneuvered around the level. A built in Youtube uploader means you can share battles with the world too. So you can enjoy four different videos of me getting my ass kicked and laugh.

Put simply, Frozen Synapse is an incredibly engrossing and rewarding game. It reminds me of Advance Wars in so many ways: the near-perfect unit balance, a lengthy campaign, endlessly enjoyable multiplayer, wonderful presentation, and addictive as all hell. I don't get the chance to play many strategy games (they rarely work well on consoles), so I was really grateful for this one. If you fancy a game you can find me under Westendweegie, and if you haven't already then I heartily recommend you pick up Frozen Synapse and give it a go.

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