c_rakestraw's Frozen Synapse (PC) review

I am the master of clicking on stuff!

You get game requests a lot if you log onto the right server.

The plan's perfect. You've run your units through it a thousand times, checking for any openings your opponent could use to dismantle your attack. There's nothing more to do -- nothing except prime your turn and watch the events unfold. In the seconds between, anxiety starts building. What if you missed something? That rocket launcher might be able to get a rocket off before that shot-gunner of yours is able to reach him. And what of the sniper? Are you sure you set your units up to stay out of his sights? The wait becoming all the more agonizing as doubt begins to settle in.

Then the game finishes assimilating the data, and the turn plays out.

It's those moments -- the suspense of whether or not you're carefully laid plans succeed or fail -- that embody the experience Frozen Synapse harbors. A turn-based strategy game from developer Mode 7, Frozen Synapse delivers a fantastically deep and intuitive game of tactical warfare. This is turn-based strategy at its best: immensely challenging and unforgiving while retaining a low barrier-of-entry thanks to an easy-to-understand user-interface.

In strategy games, the UI is everything. Information needs to be displayed upfront and with as little complexity as possible. Frozen Synapse, despite looking almost inscrutable at first glance, does this splendidly. The first point of interest lies at the bottom of the screen. A rectangular window, which contains video player controls and an archive of all the turns as well as a way of swapping between units, rests there. It's the game's most important tool, for its employment in strategizing is invaluable. By right clicking anywhere on the map after selecting a unit, you can bring up a command list. The game presents a wealthy suite of options to command your troops with, ranging from simple actions like moving, attacking, and crouching or standing, to more nuanced maneuvers like delaying actions for a few seconds, ignoring or focusing on certain enemies or areas, or setting units to attack on sight or not. A handy tutorial gets you acquainted with the basics quickly, but you could easily figure out how to work all its systems without it if you so choose. (The names of the actions say it all, really.) With the basics down, learning the advanced stuff is easy. From there you can focus your efforts squarely on scheming.

When laying down your plan, the player controls are key. With them, you're able to preview your actions and adjust them as necessary. What makes this stand out is that you can see the results of your strike before you submit them, allowing you to more easily detect errors than you would were you simply imagining the outcome. Setting down a plan for the enemy units is the key to using this feature advantageously, for like a game of Chess, a lack of foresight is all it takes to be quickly defeated. Attempting to divine what your opponent's actions are allows you to create more near-bulletproof strategies by opening your mind to previously unseen avenues of attack. Examining the situation from both sides is a necessity to play effectively.

A quick side-note: The game has an underlying rock-paper-scissors system at play that determines who wins in any given conflict. So, say you set a unit of yours to aim toward an enemy unit mid-movement. In that scenario, the enemy will win because standing units always win against moving units. When two moving units engage each other, however, the winner is determined by who sees whom first.

That rocket launcher unit up there is gonna be dead come next turn.

Most of your time will be spent in the campaign. Here you work with a resistance dubbed Petrov's Shard to take down a corrupt corporation called Enyo:Nomad, who has managed to quietly seize control over the settlements of Markov Geist, the stage for which this all takes place. You are Tactics -- an expert tactician who is called in to lend your particular brand of strategic prowess to aide the resistance. The story is told primarily between missions through conversations and dossiers; the former serving to advance the proceedings while the latter expounds upon the back-story. It takes place in a near future type setting, where a communications network turned virtual reality known as "The Shape" pervades every aspect of life. It's through The Shape that you interact with the inhabitants of Markov, it's landscape presented to you as a sea of electric blue, lighter shades signifying walls and other architecture, punctuated by silhouettes of red and green, representing the units you command and fight against. (Green being you, red being the enemies.)

The campaign takes you through 50 missions, each a wholly unique encounter thanks to the randomly generated maps. Your goals remain the same -- neutralize all foes, defend or capture a certain spot of the map, collect data keys, or escort someone to safety -- but the means through which you meet them are never the same. So if you happen to get stuck on a certain mission, you can't just reference a guide and succeed instantly; you need to do the work yourself, keep at it until you've finally figured out the correct approach. This makes each battle hugely rewarding, as it is your own abilities that bring you to victory. To craft a perfectly executed plan, achieving your objective in just a few turns, grants enormous satisfaction. Never does anything you achieve feel like it was a result of luck. It's always a result of having the superior strategy.

That especially applies to the multiplayer. Though it's far from the most active player-base out there, Frozen Synapse has a healthy, dedicated community to compete against online. The modes available are the same game-types from the campaign, meaning you'll already be familiar with them all to some degree if you play through the single-player portion. Each mode has a light and dark variant as well; dark variants preventing you from seeing your opponents until they're withing your units' line of sight, and light letting you see those actions at all times as usual. Dark variants force you to employ a much greater degree of caution, for any slip up can (and probably will) result in your immediate failure.

One of the first mission from the campaign.

Most impressive about Frozen Synapse is its atmosphere. The music lends an appropriate level of tensity to the action, making you feel the weight of every move you dictate. Its electric, synth-heavy tracks capture the mood perfectly: slow and calculated, with enough bombast reserved for the more fierce moments. Frozen Synapse moves between compositions without much thought, simply queuing up the next track as the last one finishes, but each one is suitable for whatever stage of battle it is you're engaged. Whether you're just starting a new skirmish or are in the final throes of battle, the music always achieves its desired effect: to make you feel the pressure of combat. Subtle changes in tone between them instill it to varying degrees, but they're all designed with the intent of driving home the pressure of commanding a small unit of soldiers against unfavorable odds.

One track in particular stands out. Titled "Concentrate," it epitomizes the feelings and thought processes of planning perfectly. Beginning with a low hum, punctuated by the sounds of a piano-like instrument before working in the percussion along with a few light beeps and boops, aiding the slow, calculating procedure of a tactician. It eases you into the coming battle, lulling you into a relaxed, clear-minded state to instill the right mind-set to rationally approach a situation. After suffering losses, its sudden wind up immediately calms the nerves and prepares you to make a comeback. It's not uncommon for a game to be well scored; composing a soundtrack that correlates the entire theme, setting, and aesthetic, however, isn't.

Frozen Synapse is an achievement. It pushes the turn-based subset of strategy games forward by balancing complexity and simplicity, accessibility and depth. It's a game that strategists both amateur and veteran alike can enjoy. With the sheer quality it displays, it's almost hard to believe it was made by a small indie developer. And yet, there it is. Frozen Synapse is without a doubt one of the best strategy games to come out in years, one that you owe yourself to try.

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