Frozen Synapse is a turn-based game with a distinctly tactical focus and a thrilling one-versus-one combat. It feels a lot like chess, but with rocket launchers. Unlike the traditional back and forth of other turn-based games, Frozen Synapse's turns play out simultaneously in five seconds of real-time action. There are only a handful of units, each with a specialised weapon and movement speed, but they are all equally deadly in the right circumstances. As a result, this game not only revolves around how many or what type of units you have, but also how you use them. Careful planning, shrewd tactics, and the ability to anticipate your opponent's next move are the keys to success, especially in multiplayer. Almost every match in multiplayer is a harrowing battle of wits, and every victory leaves you feeling powerful and exhilarated. Although it doesn't have high production values, Frozen Synapse demonstrates that graphics don't matter when the gameplay is this gripping.
The best-laid schemes oft go awry ...
Success in Frozen Synapse depends on careful tactical planning (and, sometimes, a nearly supernatural sense of intuition), but it is also very easy to learn and play. First off, there are just five unit types. The roles of the machine gunner, shot gunner and sniper are pretty self-explanatory; the grenadier lobs grenades and can angle them off obstacles; the rocket launcher blows up walls, which turns anything nearby into a fine, red mist. You control each unit's basic movements by right clicking to set waypoints on the map, and it's equally easy to add more detailed instructions. For instance, you can direct a soldier to aim in a specific direction as he moves, order him to wait a couple of seconds before moving out, make him crouch, have him engage any enemies he bumps into or, alternatively, tell him to ignore enemies to expedite a mad dash for cover. At the same time that you plan your own moves, you can also plot out possible moves for visible enemies, and watch how these encounters play out in real time. This ingenious feature puts all of the next turn's possible permutations at your fingertips. Once you're happy with how things look, it's time to end your turn and tensely wait to see the results of your decisions. Only when you and your opponent have both submitted your orders do you find out whether your shot gunner flanked the enemy sniper, your machine gunner had adequate cover or if the enemy anticipated your every move and picked off your forces one by one.
Multiplayer is where Frozen Synapse really shines, thanks to the natural tension that comes from matching wits with a human being. There are five diverse game types, each of which can be played with or without a fog of war. Extermination, which is basically a death match, is by far the most popular mode, due to the simple fun of hunting down and destroying your enemy. However, there are four other modes that, while less popular, are still worth checking out. In Secure, opposing players bid to defend swaths of the map, and if you bid to defend the larger area, then you must keep your opponent from getting a unit into that zone. Charge also uses a bid system, where you pick how far towards the enemy's side of the map you can advance while surviving through the end of the match. Disputed is like Extermination, but with the addition of glowing red boxes. There must be something important in them, because the score is based on who can escape the map with the most boxes. If box collection isn't your thing, you could just kill off the other team, which also counts as a victory. Finally, there is a Hostage Rescue mode.
Regardless of the mode you pick, the map, your starting units and their positions are randomly generated, with the exception of a couple of modes that let you determine where your forces start. This randomness can lead to some frustration, especially when coupled with a matchmaking system that nonchalantly pits total newbies against battle-hardened veterans. On the whole, however, it keeps the game lively, and you can always challenge a specific person or go into the advanced set-up to create a scenario more to your liking. Technically, Frozen Synapse is a play-by-email game, but you receive notifications in the multiplayer menu whenever you need to take a turn in a game, so the only time you'll receive any clutter in your inbox is when you're actually logged out of the game.
Frozen Synapse's long single-player campaign serves as an excellent trainer for multiplayer, as well as an explanation for why the little green men have to kill the little red men. Most of the missions have objectives similar to the multiplayer modes: you escort VIPs, pick up keys, defend areas from enemy infiltrators, storm enemy strongholds or just wipe out every enemy on the map. The difficulty in the campaign comes from the fact that you are often significantly outnumbered. As for the plot, it is fairly standard cyberpunk fare: a corporation has taken over all aspects of life, and its CEO is the land's biggest celebrity, as well as its head of government. Unfortunately for him, a group of radicals take issue with his rule, and launch a rebellion. Your mission is to command little green rebels against the vicious red stooges who serve this wisecracking despot. Every so often, you get a chance to read dossiers about the world and its factions, or talk with some of your compatriots (it's a one-way conversation, as they just pour their hearts out to you). The writing is occasionally clever, which is an added bonus.
In the past five seconds, two good men died. In the next five seconds, someone's gonna pay.
Graphics in Frozen Synapse get a minimalistic treatment. During missions, your entire world comprises mazes of solid-blue walls and some light-blue areas that represent tables, windows and any sort of cover that can be shot over. The units are poorly defined homunculi, and they can be difficult to differentiate if they are bunched tightly together. Yet, Frozen Synapse's simple visuals are appealing, because they add to the purity of the tactical battles. As far as sound goes, the effects aren't particularly memorable, and there is no voice acting, but the accompanying mellow electronica soundtrack is excellent, and helps soothe the spiritual wounds of watching your entire team explode.
Frozen Synapse is a great game, thanks to its elegant mechanics, the depth of its tactical gameplay and the tension of trying to get into your opponent's head. Minor matchmaking issues and the occasional disadvantageous starting location are only minor blemishes on an otherwise engrossing experience. While some may find the visuals too Spartan, on the whole they are a great fit, and they accentuate the game's unique tactical focus. Overall, Frozen Synapse is well worth its US$14.99 price tag, and, as an added bonus, purchasing it gets you an additional copy to give to a friend, which makes it one bargain you won't want to miss.