By Mento 6 Comments
06/05/12 - Game #6
The source: The Frozen Synapse Humble Indie Bundle.
The pre-amble: A cyberpunk turn-based strategy game, in which the player is a sophisticated AI/human hybrid that has been acquired by a conglomerate to provide tactical support to their units in the field: mindless "vatforms" that are bred purely for armed combat that respond to your commands. At least that's what I was able to gather from the single-player Campaign. This is, at heart, a competitive multiplayer game where the goal is not just to maneuver your units into tactically-superior positions, but also predict the opponent's movements and respond accordingly.
The playthrough: Wow. This is one of those games that requires more than a few hours of your time, at least while you're still learning the ropes. You're given a suite of tactical options with your little wireframe cyberpunk dudes, including all sort of really specific commands like "don't shoot here, keep moving, turn around, engage the enemy as they pass by your covered position". Your units don't have any sort of higher brain function, according to the absurdly in-depth Gibson-esque backstory that appears to be entirely optional, so you sort of need to compensate for their basic programming in a few spots. It's fortunately not overly complicated to figure out the basic commands, but it starts getting deviously clever when you're required to accurately prognosticate on your enemy's movements. Allow me to explain:
When setting up your "turn" (that is to say, how the next five second increment will play out), you give all the units under your command a chain of directives: move here, aim in this direction, shoot that guy, etc. You can then hit the "play" button to see a preview of how the turn will play out. However, enemy units will just stand there in the preview and get themselves shot and just be generally passive. It's only when you commit to your plan of action that the enemies get to do all their fancy maneuvering and tactical trickery. More often than not, at least one enemy unit will do something you weren't expecting and you end up suffering a dead unit (or worse). It reminds me of Vandal Hearts II a little, where you'd enter all the commands in this vacuum of not knowing precisely (but eventually being able to guess) how the enemy's simultaneous turn will go; it was only after inputting those commands and watching both your turns play out concurrently that you see just how you managed to surprise (and get surprised in turn by) the opponent. It was a really cool feature of that game and I dig that it's being used in a slightly more cerebral virtual dystopian tale than VH2's rather hilariously poor take on the sort of medieval political perfidy that Final Fantasy Tactics and Game of Thrones are far more deft at handling. But I digress.
Despite my preceding endorsement, I'm not entirely sure this game is for me. I could never get into the Tom Clancy tactical shooters because I'd keep getting impatient and be forced to repeat whole sections of the game, frequently getting jumped by units I had no prior knowledge thereof - which I believe is largely the point, as you're supposed to be balancing cautiousness with direct action. I can definitely see the Hannibal-like appeal in a plan coming together, but getting there can often be too much of a chore spent in trial-and-error frippery. There's also the whole cyberpunk aesthetic as well; I've never particularly been into hackers and corporate espionage and "the grid" and all this ghost in the machine business, though it's certainly birthed some engrossing fiction in the past. Provided it stays the heck away from cyborg dolphins and Cookie Monster viruses, at least.
The verdict: In the "Maybe" pile. Its level of complexity needed more time to assimilate than the scant few hours I gave it.