Conventional wisdom has it that turn-based strategy games must be slow-going, involve squares and/or hexagons and come down to a war of attrition as two sides slowly chip away at each others’ health bars. Mode 7 thinks that such traditions aren’t necessary—a match in Frozen Synapse can last mere seconds. Any successful hit means immediate death and movement is measured in real-world time, not abstracted shapes.
This indie squad-strategy game proved a hit on PC, and on paper at least it’s a natural fit for iPad. Moving and aiming alike are a matter of dragging and drawing lines and arcs to usher about your small team of silent, spectral soldiers, rather than fiddly precision tapping. There’s even an option to see a preview of the likely outcome of your planned actions before you resign yourself to them. While the battles themselves are over quickly, you’ve got all the time in the world to plan them, if you feel you need it.
Set up your orders based on a combination of where you know your enemies are and a best guess as to where they might go to next or where others still might emerge from. Press Commit and a few moments later you’ll see if your plan paid off. Sometimes Frozen Synapse is a stressfully tense cat and mouse game, with each player (or an AI opponent) trying to second-guess each other or stubbornly refusing to leave a hiding place. Other times it’s all over by the end of the first turn, if someone with a rocket launcher gets in a lucky shot while the other player is insensibly clustering all his units together.
Each side has just a handful of soldiers, and while heroic recoveries from certain defeat are possible, generally speaking a side with diminished forces won’t last much longer. There’s a singular horror to thinking you’re safely creeping past a window, only to suddenly see an enemy swivel towards you and loose a shot micro-seconds before your guy can.
Frozen Synapse is at its best in asynchronous multiplayer, with each player able to send orders and review turn outcomes at their leisure, like the play-by-email games of yore. Singleplayer’s not bad though; a cyberpunk storyline about cloning and digital existence is a bit wibbly but manages plenty of otherwordly atmosphere, while the AI can present a decent challenge to non-veteran players.
Unfortunately the game is laid low by its iPad interface, which clutters the stark, neon-silhouette visuals with a spew of cramped-looking words around the periphery. It’s trying to stay minimalist, but it does wind up looking rather like someone forgot to place buttons over the placeholder order text. Fair enough, it’s got to cram a lot into a small space, but there must have been a better way.
The interface isn’t great, but you’ll get used to it, especially once you’re deep in the pits of despair or heights of euphoria that accompany these high-speed, high-stakes micro-wars. Slick, no frills and monstrously absorbing, Frozen Synapse is multiplayer where victory is reward enough—no need for GameCenter bragging or hollow unlocks, this is a pure test of skill and intuition.
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