Frozen Synapse 2 Review
Frozen in the Past
Seven years ago, the original Frozen Synapse offered up something rare: a gameplay concept that was new and unique, but also very well executed. At the core of the game’s success was a clever twist on turn-based strategy gameplay: you and your opponent take your turns at the same time, therefore you are constantly trying to predict their actions and play accordingly, rather than react afterward. This made for some rather compelling gameplay in multiplayer in particular with two players constantly trying to out-think each other and predict the next moves. With the release of the sequel seven years later, this twist remains the most notable aspect of the game, with the developers Mode 7 opting to keep the multiplayer formula pretty much unaltered while making some larger changes to the singleplayer with some mixed results.
Despite the lengthy amount of time that has passed since the original Frozen Synapse, it seems the developers assume most people checking out the sequel are already familiar with the formula. The tutorial whips you through the gameplay basics before introducing some of the more advanced mechanics via the dubious method of small-font text boxes and highlighting UI elements. The actual matches play out extremely similarly to how they worked in the original. You and your opponent are plopped onto a randomly generated map containing rooms, doors, windows and other objects that might be used as cover. From an isometric perspective, you must place a small group of soldiers in the level, and give them orders for their next move. You can give extremely detailed orders, placing waypoints to have your soldiers take a specific path, aim in a certain direction, or even speed up or slow down their movement. Generally speaking, the goal is to predict the moves your opponent will make and out-maneuver them to achieve whatever objective the match dictates.
Despite having played the original game quite a bit (albeit many years ago when it launched), I found myself feeling a bit lost emerging from this rather insufficient tutorial. I had only a vague idea of how some of the new mechanics worked and when they should be used, and even less confidence in how to effectively use new soldier types since the tutorial skipped this entirely. Hoping to get a bit more practice with the gameplay before facing off against human opponents, I decided to check out the new singleplayer campaign, dubbed City Mode. This mode represents the biggest changes compared to the previous game, as it mixes 4X strategy elements with the typical tactical matches. You take control of a faction within a procedurally generated city, serving as a sort of police force who must stop hostile incursions while also dealing with other factions who don’t always get along with you or each other. You must defeat hostile incursions and work with other factions to obtain funding to grow your forces and take over additional buildings within the city. Though you are required to deal with incursions, which factions you choose to help or ignore is up to you.
Unfortunately, this new singleplayer mode suffers from the same problem: the tutorial is woefully insufficient. If you opt to see it, you will get walked through a few basic steps, before the game dumps a huge amount of info on you via, once again, a series of small-font text boxes, with writing that tries to be tongue and cheek but fails due to how ineffective the tutorial is at doing its job. Instead, I had to rely on experimentation and trial and error to make sense of the City Mode. Once I felt like I had a grasp on the basics, I mostly found the strategic aspect a cumbersome layer that mostly gets in the way of the actual tactical encounters. In some ways, this mode can be compared to recent XCOM games, as any soldiers you lose during missions will stay dead.
It is clear that the intent of this mode is to give the individual missions a greater context, and make you care more about losing soldiers in your ranks. This ended up back-firing for me however, as the nature of the gameplay makes it very easy to suffer losses even during successful missions. The save system only lets you restart encounters from the beginning, and I found myself constantly restarting missions, and even restarting the campaign, in an effort to get a better result. There is an ‘easy’ mode that can be selected when starting the campaign, but what this actually does, once again, is not explained. Further, the time spent between missions in the strategic layer mostly consists of waiting for time to progress and reading through, wait for it, seemingly endless small-font text boxes that comprise the game’s storytelling, decision making, and exposition. You will constantly receive calls from other factions or your own, and very little of what they have to say is particularly interesting or well written.
It is a shame that this mode has so many failings, because the missions themselves contain some interesting scenarios and unique mechanics. One of the core mechanics of the series is that after you give orders to your soldiers, you can watch a ‘preview’ to see how they will be carried out in practice before committing to the plan. Generally, enemy soldiers will stay in the position you last saw them in during these previews. However, during singleplayer scenarios, if the enemy soldiers haven’t spotted any of your soldiers, the previews will show you exactly what they will do next, letting you meticulously plan your first attack. There are also other unique mechanics, such as using special grenades to incapacitate certain enemies without killing them, or missions where you need to escort a VIP. You can also extend the length of each turn to have your soldiers carry out their orders in their entirety instead of just a set amount of time per turn. Had the developers included the same missions in a more linear list in the same way as the original game, the singleplayer would have been far more enjoyable, and a more useful means of learning the ropes.
So it is up to the multiplayer then to carry the experience, and fortunately this aspect is much more successful. Matchmaking works smoothly, and you can even determine if you want limited time for each turn or not in a given match. If you don’t specify a turn time limit, you can leave a game at any time and return to it later, or even play multiple matches at once if you don’t want to wait for a slow-moving opponent to finish constructing their next set of moves. Perhaps the only annoyance with the matchmaking is that your filters aren’t saved, and defaults to search for only the most basic firefight mode. From the multiplayer screen you can see a list of all players online, and can challenge individual players to a match if you would rather skip the matchmaking altogether.
In terms of mode variety, the most basic mode, firefight, sees both players starting with their soldiers in a random configuration in a randomly generated level. This is how you can experience the game in its most pure form as you must play the hand you are dealt in terms of unit types and positions, and adapt to a variety of situations. One Turn mode gives each player only a single turn to plan out their moves, while other modes are more structured; in one, both players select an area of the map to defend. Whichever player selects the largest area they think they can cover will get to defend, while the other must attack. To win, the attacking player must simply get one of their soldiers into the defended territory for a few seconds. In one memorable match in this mode, I was attacking and had only a single soldier left alive while my opponent still had all four. My opponent chose to go on the offensive with two of his remaining soldiers, which I managed to predict successfully. After killing these two soldiers by hiding my unit in cover, I was able to run into the defender's territory and duck behind cover to win. These types of moments make the multiplayer exciting and unpredictable.
Each available mode can be played in one of two ways: light or dark. In Light mode, both players can see their opponent's soldiers at all times, meaning you only have to predict their next moves each turn. Dark mode is more challenging; you can only see other soldiers if you have direct line of sight. Otherwise, you will only know the last-seen location, and must make more elaborate predictions about your opponent’s moves that might span across multiple turns.
The new soldier types also add a bit more variety and unpredictability to proceedings compared to the original game. Flamethrowers can fill a significant area with deadly fire that will roast friend and foe alike, while the minigun-wielding turret units are very effective defensively when placed in cover. I found the new melee units somewhat suitable during the solo campaign where I could quietly sneak up behind isolated enemies before they had spotted me and silently dispatch them, but in multiplayer they were less effective.
Some new gameplay mechanics also allow for even more granularity in your tactical planning. In addition to aiming in a specific direction, there is now an aiming ‘diamond’ that appears, with soldiers gaining an accuracy bonus when shooting targets within this diamond. This is extremely useful if you know an enemy soldier is waiting behind cover and you want to target them as soon as possible. You can also adjust the speed your character moves, which affects their shooting accuracy on the go.
The downside to this increased granularity again circles back to how poorly the new mechanics are explained, and the lack of opportunities to practice with them offline. It seems the game currently has a small but dedicated community, and early matches might be extremely frustrating if you are facing off against a more experienced opponent. At the start of each match, you see the win/loss record of your opponent, and I was matched against players with dozens of games under their belt in my first matches and promptly lost to them. Some kind of skirmish mode with bots would go a long way to mitigating this problem. I did find that playing the ‘light’ variants of game modes to be helpful early on, as I could watch how more experienced players approached situations and learn from them, but newcomers to the series or those who haven’t played the original in some time will be in for a rather steep learning curve.
One aspect of the sequel that hasn’t seen much change is the visual design. The blue-tinted maps with green and red soldiers are rather plain but make it easy to see what is going on, though the user-interface seems to have resolution scaling issues as playing at 1440p exacerbated the already small font size found in the UI and dialogue boxes. The procedurally generated City map has a bit more color variation but has a similarly minimalistic style to the tactical matches. It is also worth noting that the game seems to suffer from some stability issues as I encountered a number of crashes, mostly during singleplayer. The menus can feel generally unresponsive and there are a lot of short load times between turns. On a brighter note, the synth-laden soundtrack is a highlight and definitely helps evoke the near-future urban streak that runs throughout the game.
As someone returning to the series after a long break since the launch of the original Frozen Synapse, I feel the sequel did more to push me away than pull me back in. Despite my familiarity with the core mechanics, the game does a poor job of explaining itself, especially its new singleplayer City mode which I was never able to fully engage with. If you have the patience to get past the initial hurdle of learning the game, the multiplayer retains the elements that made the original so compelling, with refinements to gameplay and lots of modes to test your tactical skills. As an introduction to the series, I would still recommend going back to the original, but for veterans looking for a deeper and more fleshed out iteration on the multiplayer, this sequel might be worth a look.