Frozen Synapse: firing on all cylinders

June 14, 2011

Do you love Chess’s analog nature? Chess by mail? A chessmaster playing 25 people all at once, rotating around tables? What about the board sitting on the living room table that has a move made on it by your opponent only once or twice a day? How about leaving the game for as long as you want, having as much time as you want to ponder a move, or simply being told when it’s your turn while you do something, anything else in between? A game like this would still be competitive, while exacting no demands on your time and done at the pace you want.

Such is Frozen Synapse. Frozen Synapse is a turn-based, top-down-view strategy games that gives you a randomly generated and positioned handful of gun-wielding units inside a randomly generated room filled with walls, tables, and ledges, and your objective is to either hold sections or eliminate the enemy using machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, or grenade launchers. Those are the only types of units you’ll ever get, with most games only giving you two or three types total. You’ll see where your opponent’s guys start, then you don’t see them anymore unless your units do, top-down style.

The unique catch here is that, unlike in Chess or any other turn-based game, you take your turns simultaneously. You map out each unit’s trajectory meticulously, from where they aim to whether they engage on sight or not, to which way they are facing at the end of their destination, with an infinite number of waypoints you can set to say which direction they go. You can have them aim as they walk, slowing their walk. You can have a unit double-back. Their abilities to move, wait, stop, and aim are mathematically infinite. Every turn you map your units actions out and you can hit space bar to see what it will look like. Learning these processes is a little awkward, a necessity in order to have the freedoms you do, but it is like a riding a bike and impossible to forget once you get the hang of it. You can also map your opponent’s decisions as well to see exactly what would happen if they do exactly what you think they are going to do.

They usually never do, of course, which is what makes matches so exciting and full of comeback potential.

It feels like Frozen Synapse‘s developers, Mode 7, must have thought about what people hate most about multiplayer games and then developed a game that got rid of all those problems. Griefing by leaving isn’t an issue as the game is turn-based and all games are automatically saved and easily accessed by a smooth interface. You can accept a new game in the middle of a game if you are quicker than your opponent. I don’t know what the maximum number of games you can have is, but it is at least six. You can also upload your games with ease to Facebook, Twitter, and most impressively, YouTube. It is amazingly easy. In fact, here is one of two matches I played against the same opponent while I was writing this review. Again like Chess, you can view what happens in matches in their entirety. There are leaderboards, an IRC chat, a list of all players on the server, and every single game played can be viewed by looking up players and viewing their match lists.

I haven’t even started on the single-player campaign. It’s fifty-five levels, also randomly generated with some key parts of the levels staying the same for the objectives’ sake. There is a lot of writing for during and in-between the missions, similar to Starcraft (it is all text-based). The levels and their objectives are challenging and great at teaching you principles, tricks, and strategies.

I hope this game sells a million copies because it deserves to be more than a cult hit. It needs to because the main issue with it right now is it’s server limitations. It used to all be on a “grand server”, but now you must pick a server that only holds 50-250 people at any time. All your games and stats are kept on each of those mini-servers too, making leveling your character and advancing the leaderboards problematic. On the plus side, Mode7 repeatedly has kept on top of those issues, keeping the game playable and giving status updates in the server. Other times, though, the server simply can’t be reached. Hopefully by the time most of us are done with the single-player campaign these issues will be resolved.

Frozen Synapse is one of those shrinking species of games that bestows both spectacular single and multiplayer options. It also is fun to play for ten minutes or two hours at a time. Plus you can buy a second copy at a discount. Each game is a thrill and provides endless points of speculation and analysis. If you have ever liked strategy at any level, even only casually, Frozen Synapse is guaranteed to thrill and stimulate.

Pros: Simple concept, tons of replay and social options, large and engaging campaign

Cons: Server issues, tutorial is a little weak

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.