Frozen Synapse plays like a futuristic board game lit by pulsing neon. It doesn’t get your adrenaline pumping like big-budget action games, but if you’re the type of player who likes to sit back and out-think your opponent with the leisure that only turn-based games allow, there is plenty here for you to get excited about.
The obejct of the game is to battle an opponent; the missions or matches take place between two players on a randomly generated map viewed from a bird’s-eye perspective. Every side is given a number of units, each defined by the weapon it’s carrying; a machine gun, shotgun, grenade launcher, sniper rifle or rocket launcher. There are a variety of goals, like infiltrating/protecting a given area, or assassinating/escorting a specific unit, but invariably every scenario comes down to outmaneuvering your opponent, getting the drop on him before he gets the drop on you.
Don’t be fooled by the machine guns and slick visual design. Frozen Synapse has an old school pace and feel. Very old school—we’re talking chess, or any number of German board games. The point of the game is to think and test out many possible strategies using the game’s robust and ingenious user interface before finally committing to a plan. If you’re not prepared to endure slow, meticulous plotting, you’re not prepared for this game.
My initial impression of Frozen Synapse was that it satisfied a craving that is rarely catered to these days, but that the down time between turns in the multiplayer mode made it almost unplayable. This, as I soon found out, was the wrong impression, as the game is clearly designed to encourage players to have as many matches as possible going concurrently.
The ideal way to experience Frozen Synapse is to start multiple games, play a turn in one, hop to the next one that requires your attention, then hop back, and so on. This way the game is still methodical, but you always have something to do while your opponent is figuring out his next move. In some situations, it might be several hours before you get to play the next turn in a particular match. This might sound odd, but it’s not an issue if you’re approaching this game with the appropriate mindset. You have many other players and a lengthy single player campaign to keep you busy until then, and once you’re familiar with the mechanics you never feel lost when you’re dropped back into an ongoing match, even if it’s been days since your last turn.
It’s a unique experience first and foremost because of the deep and infinitely repayable tactical gameplay, but almost equally impressive is the smooth, user-friendly networking infrastructure which fosters the online competition that is the heart of the game.
There is no doubt that Frozen Synapse is an aesthetically cohesive package. Its vector graphics style is hip and serves the game well by keeping the playing field neat. It can also get stale after a while. This is especially true during the game’s single player campaign, which is another relatively weak part of the package. It’s very long, and it offers some interesting scenarios, but these don’t feel as special as they should because inevitably all the levels are composed of random configurations of the same abstract blue blocks. A little visual variety would have gone a long way to help keep things fresh.
I also had issues with the AI. Granted, I am by no means a great Frozen Synapse player. In fact, it’s a great testament to the game that I could still enjoy it after losing to other players, repeatedly, and to a shameful extent. However, when losing to the AI I often felt cheated, and when I won I often felt like I’ve discovered an exploitable weakness in the AI design as opposed to discovering the superior strategy. The way things are, your time is better spent playing against human opponents, with the single player serving only as a last resort to keep yourself busy when no one else is available (an unlikely situation, given the current traffic on the servers).
It did, admittedly, take me a while to tune into the game’s rhythm. I’ve been thoroughly trained by modern games to receive instant and constantly increasing gratification, so I was a little bummed out I didn’t get an achievement, or a perk, or new armor after my first kill, which didn’t come easy.
After I took a few deep breathes and stopped trying to play the game like something it wasn’t, I discovered that it was something truly special. It’s a clichéd but appropriate phrase in this case: they don’t make them like the used to. Frozen Synapse is so enjoyable, it makes you wonder why.