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Posted On 2/16/2012
I'm a big fan of turn-based strategy, a genre that, like so many others, the mainstream game industry no longer supports because of its insistence on aiming for millions of unit sales, which TBS games never achieved. But games like Jagged Alliance 2 and X-COM UFO are, in their own way, among the greatest strategy games ever created.
In a way, Frozen Synapse is doing what Laser Squad Nemesis did: take the basic dynamics of turn-based strategy into an online, head-to-head multiplayer environment. LSN is, unfortunately, no longer extant, but Frozen Synapse is a worthy alternative.
In Frozen Synapse, you control a small squad of marines in a Tron-like environment; there's some hugger mugger about how this is transpiring in cyberspace, a transparent attempt to justify an inexpensive approach to the graphics. There are several different weapons: the standard machinegun, a shotgun that's powerful at close range but useless otherwise, a sniper gun with long range but which requires a long time to aim, a grenade launcher, and a rocket launcher that can take out walls.
Rather than the open landscapes of games like Jagged Alliance, combat occurs in a closed, indoor area with walls; the feeling is of arena combat. You plan 5 seconds of movement and combat for your soldiers, and can revise and fiddle with the plan to your heart's content, until you commit; at that point, your soldiers do as instructed, and the opposing side also moves and shoots, executing their 5 seconds of instructions.
The control scheme takes some getting used to, but is smooth and very flexible once mastered; units can provide covering fire, pause during movement, aim in a different direction from movement, and so on. Unlike Laser Squad Nemesis, which had some random factors (particularly in determining the path of a grenade), everything in Frozen Synapse is deterministic; the uncertainly lies in the actions of your opponent, not in the system itself.
Many turn-based strategy games can be slow moving, taking hours to complete a mission; because of the small size of its arenas, the small number of soldiers on each side, and the desperate lethality of its weapons, Frozen Synapse plays very quickly. A typical battle is over in ten minutes or less.
There's a single-player campaign with designed levels; but the game shines in online play against real opponents. This involves selection of a basic battle type; the game generates the level algorithmically, providing a high degree of replayability. The units assigned to each side are also determined algorithmically.
The turn-based nature of the game increases, rather than decreases, the tension of play; in a FPS, if you get slagged, you shrug it off. In this game, you invest energy and intelligence in trying to out-think your opponent and plan carefully -- then watch as it all turns to crap, because they did something you hadn't anticipated. In some ways, it's a more accurate depiction of small unit tactics than FPS games.
The graphics get a little tedious over time; the game's palette is invariant, and the graphics by nature minimal. But it's a fine, well-tuned, and compelling example of turn-based strategy combat at its best.
Frozen Synapse was a 2012 IGF Nominee in the Grand Prize and Excellence in Design categories, and won in the Audience Choice category.