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A Communal Evening With: Frozen Synapse

Frozen Synapse came out at the end of May, but in order to avoid it getting lost in the utter madness of E3 we’ve held this Communal Evening With back until now. The games Tim and I talk about were played in early June, and as a result I now cringe at my naive tactical ineptitude. That’s actually a good thing. As this article will show, you can’t just bluff your way through Frozen Synapse. Mode 7’s turn-based tactical shooter is relatively straightforward to learn, but rewards both the inventive tactician and the experienced veteran.
At the time of playing the game, I was neither.
Peter [Parrish]: I suppose before we get into a game we should talk about what Frozen Synapse is.
Tim [McDonald]: Yes, let’s do that.
Peter: It’s a wonderful update of turn-based shooters like Laser Squad or X-Com with small squad mechanics and impeccable presentation. And instead of the old ‘action points’ system where each of your little dudes could do a certain number of things, there’s a much smoother, simple-but-deep waypoints system.
Tim: Each “turn” lasts 5 seconds, and you plot out your moves via waypoints. Both your plan and your foe’s plan play out at the same time. You plan, you click Commit, and then – for five seconds – your little guys run around
getting shot in the head. Then it pauses and you repeat the process.
Peter: Basically, the videos we put up here will only show the action portions. All the behind the scenes planning stuff will remain behind the scenes.
Tim: Indeed. Oh, one other thing I want to point out. Frozen Synapse really isn’t luck based at all. In terms of early placement and troop composition, yes, which can put you at a disadvantage – but accuracy and whatnot aren’t based around the roll of some internal die. Troops in cover are more effective than troops out in the open. Those who’ve been sat in a corner aiming for a while will zero in on their targets faster than those who’ve just charged around the side. All of this factors into whatever plans you make.
Peter: That is all very important. Well mentioned!
Tim: Thanks! It also looks very, very pretty. Not exactly high-tech, with your 4D polygons and whatnot, but it’s got a clear-cut visual and aural style that works wonderfully.
Peter: You mentioned to me that it looks like an Introversion title, Tim, and that’s exactly right – if you’ve played Defcon before, it has the same kind of cool blue palette. It also reminds me of what early ‘virtual reality’ worlds looked like except, well, not shit.
Tim: I don’t think I’d accuse Mode 7 of “borrowing” the style, though – it’s just something that looks good without being system or time intensive, and the “futuristic control panel” feel fits the theme.
Peter: As ever, thanks to Mode 7 for sending me a freebie Steam code of this. Plus a soundtrack too, actually. Once again, Tim already owned a copy because he actually spends money on games.
Tim: Yes. I played Frozen Synapse’s beta a year ago. Which is what Peter will use as either an excuse when I win, or a way to mock me when he wins.
Peter: Yes, yes I will. Tim was just saying he’s ranked 385 in the World. The WORLD, people. I’m ranked nowhere. I’m the underdog. It’s like Man Utd vs Crippleton Under 9’s XI (have I milked this enough yet?)
Tim: Although I still haven’t played all that much. At time of writing, I’m sitting on 15 wins and 4 losses, which would perhaps imply that the leaderboards need work because there’s no way I should be ranked that highly despite having only played 19 games. (Have I made enough excuses for when I inevitably lose yet?)
Peter: I think we’ve both made our early excuses now, yes.
Tim: Now, I suppose it’s time you try to kill me.

[note: In all of these videos, Tim’s guys are green and mine are red]
[video2=2266]
Mid-game chat highlights:

Tim: Be careful you don’t duck your rocket bloke and make him fire point-blank range into cover or anything.
Peter: That was far from ideal.
Tim: Yeah, I wanted to get all three of you.
Peter: You’ll never take me alive! … wait

Post-game analysis:

Tim: In the vein of all the best football commentators, “So! What went wrong?”
Peter: It seems so easy to say “everything,” and yet … Looking on the positive side of things, I made it to Turn 2. I think it’s evident that I needed to spread my guys out more on account of you having a rocket launcher dude. Who landed a rocket on the head of two of my guys almost immediately. I got a rocket shot off too, but clearly you had predicted this and moved out of the way! Or got lucky, whatever.
Tim: A bit of both. I sent off that rocket figuring at least one person would be sat around down near your starting area, though I wasn’t expecting to kill more than one of you.
Peter: Once it was 3 on 1, I was in a bad situation, but I still managed to fuck up by
trying to move my machine gunner into better cover instead of just hunkering down a bit (although that would’ve got me killed too probably).
Tim: Hah. Well, I planned to circle around with my grenadier, as I didn’t want to risk him out in the open, and try to get my machine gunner down to the same cover. It was just blind chance that mine was in a better position when yours popped into view. That could easily have gone the other way at that point, and then it would’ve been machine gunner against rocket launcher-er.
Peter: Let’s quickly mention that we’re playing ‘Dark’ versions of these multiplayer modes. You can do Light/Dark for all modes, but Dark is the most fun because it means you can only see enemy units with a line of sight. The rest of the time, they’ll vanish from the map (though you can try to guess where they are by moving ‘ghost’ version of them around yourself). However, in the videos you’ll get to see all of our terrible troop movements.
Tim: Indeed! Fog of war, and all that. And yes, during your planning phase you can move enemy troops around to see what’ll happen if your opponent does . Which lets you plan for contingencies. I like to make a plan, and then see how badly things go if my opponent does the exact opposite of what I want them to do.
Peter: And when you do that, you will be WRONG.
Tim: Doubtless! Hey, you’re now rank 4575. You’ve shot up.
Peter: By killing no-one and losing all my soldiers. I like this system. It’s like it’s saying “congrats, you can move your guys around.”

[video2=2267]
Mid-game chat highlights:

Peter: whatever you think I’m doing, I’m probably not.
Tim: You’re bluffing!
Peter: Maybe! I don’t know what about though.
Tim: I’m slightly worried that you have at least one shotgun soldier that I’ve yet to see.
Peter: I HAVE TASTED BLOOD.
Tim: You have PLANS?
Tim: …hahahahahaha

Post-game analysis:

Tim: That could’ve gone either way. My shotgun troop was set to Continue on Sight and literally walked past your shotgunner. About two steps away.
Peter: The ‘Dark’ option made this one pretty hilarious. Your shotgunner never even showed up for me. Until he shot me next turn, obviously.
Tim: Just in case you didn’t know, I was deliberately… quiet… when you mentioned
“did we just walk past each other?”
Peter: Talk us through your tactics here, Tim. I KNOW YOU HAD SOME.
Tim: OKAY YES UM. I could just ask you, once again, “So! What went wrong?” but I’d prefer not to wear down those keys too much.
Peter: Damn son. So cold. To answer that quickly, what went wrong was I made the fatal error of thinking “Huh I’m doing pretty well.” Also I thought your surviving shotgun guy was on the other side of the map.
Tim: My Cunning Plot was to encircle you as best I could – I want to set up a machine gunner in the little building up north, as he had a good view of the open space, with a shotgunner defending him next to the door. This didn’t go entirely to plan, though. My machine gunner down the left got cut down rather quickly, and the big view of the open space didn’t help much because you didn’t set foot out there once you worked out where my gunner was. You took out a shotgunner, and from there I basically shoved my survivors over to the right-hand side of the map. I wasn’t sure where your shotgunner was, but then you clearly weren’t sure where mine was, either, considering they managed to walk within inches of each other without firing.
Peter: Haha, yes.
Tim: I think that illustrates how planning can screw you up. I could’ve taken out that
shotgunner much faster if I hadn’t set mine to “Continue on Sight”, which would’ve let me circle around to deal with your machine gunner.
Peter: I was trying to cover too much ground – the open space near the middle and both ‘corridors’ down the side, and got caught out by your machine gun dude.
Tim: Didn’t matter in the end, but it could’ve done.
Peter: I guess we should say a quick word about the different gunners.
Tim: Sniper rifles are long range, machine guns are mid, shotguns are short, grenades and rockets are explosive. Grenades are fairly short range, but can ricochet and whatnot. Rockets fire in a straight line until they hit something, which can cause them to go flying off the map.
Peter: At which point they accidentally blow up someone’s dog or something.
[Click through to page 2 for the rest of the matches]
{PAGE TITLE=A Communal Evening With: Frozen Synapse page 2}
Tim: As we’re about to switch, we should do a short interlude about game modes.
Peter: Yes, good point. Those last two games have been Extermination, which is easy to explain – you kill everyone.
Tim: Next we’ll play Secure, which is a sort of Capture-And-Hold. You each “bid” on sectors of the map, which you reckon you can hold onto without your enemy getting to them. Whoever bids the most land is on defense – if an enemy manages to get a troop onto that land and keep him there for a few seconds, he wins. Whoever’s more arrogant gets to play defense.
Peter: So I shall attempt to hold a small window box.
Tim: Charge is sort of like Secure, except it’s a long horizontal map, and you each bid on how far you think you can get your troops. Again, whoever bids the furthest into the enemy territory has to get a troop past that line and keep them alive. Another one – Hostage – is something I think we’ll discuss when we play it.
Peter: That last defeat means I’ve fallen to 5500th place or so. Woe is me
Tim: I’m rank 314 now, on the leaderboards. I think I’ve got you to thank
for this.
Peter: There’ll be an inquest into whether I was giving you easy kills to boost your rank.

[video2=2268]
Mid-chat chat highlights:

Tim: I’M ON DEFENSE? I BIDDED TWO AREAS.
Peter: Nice attempt to escape.
Tim: WHERE ARE YOU?
Peter: I could ask you the same.
Tim: down the south end of the map, looking for you. Honest.
Peter: Excellent!
Tim: … seriously where are you?
Peter: I am the night.
Tim: You’re Batman with a machine gun?
Peter: … yes, that doesn’t seem quite right does it.

Post-game analysis:

Tim: Are we going to use that one in the piece?
Peter: Sure. It’s kind of silly, but that’s half the fun.
Tim: What the HELL were you doing for the last 45 seconds?
Peter: Dicking around, mostly.
Tim: you kept seeing me, but I didn’t stick around long enough for you to take aim.
Peter: Yes, it was rather frustrating. Maybe I should stop trying to play this like Thief.
Tim: You had the range, but you didn’t really use it. Mind you, I knew you had the range, and had no intention of hanging around waiting for you to shoot me at a distance. You had to come in close sooner or later. I just didn’t know where.
Peter: Yeah, I kept seeing you pop your head out, but not for long enough for me to mow you down. So I decided to keep creeping closer and then just go for it at the end (hoping I’d played sufficient mind games that you’d be in the other room or something).
Tim: Yeah, I was basically flitting back and forth between the two rooms.
Peter: The excitement! Ok, let’s play some Charge.

[video2=2269]
Mid-game chat highlights:

Peter: You’re planning something intricate …
Tim: Always.
Peter: RIP, little green dudes.

Post-game analysis:

Tim: SO! WHAT WENT WRONG?
Peter: I don’t know! Well, actually I do. I forgot the rocket launcher guy can’t hit low objects while standing up.
Tim: Yeah, he needed to duck to blow up the barricade my sniper was hiding behind. That might’ve changed the match significantly.
Peter: Tactical error!
Tim: I was incredibly cheeky and managed to get a person to the very far end of the map.
Peter: If I’d ducked though, I’d have hit the thing right in front of me. And then died hilariously. Oh wait, no, I wasn’t hiding behind anything. Damnation!
Tim: Hahaha.
Peter: My pitiful grenade launch in the wrong direction at the end is amazing.
Tim: Joys of Dark Mode!
Peter: Reminder to everyone that this is Dark mode, so I really was firing blind.
Tim: I love Charge.
Peter: Alright, let’s slaughter some hostages in Hostage. In this mode, the person trying to save the hostages has to give them a full escape plan (which they can’t deviate from) and the opponent has to kill the fleeing hostages. However, he can’t shoot them until they leave a special safety area.

[video2=2270]
Mid-game chat highlights:

Tim: Err. So the hostages are yours?
Peter: I … guess so?
Tim: Are you trying to get them to the right…? I don’t know.
Peter: Can’t help feeling that giving me a grenade launcher for this mission was a foolish decision.
Tim: Oh hell, I’ve just realised something.
Peter: I call that move “The Battleships Gambit”.
Tim: Okay, apparently the starting zone is that little blue square in the middle?
Peter: Haha, I can’t even tell if this is going well. It’s going .. something.
Tim: Me either!
Peter: Ok, it’s going badly.

Post-game analysis:

Peter: I’m sorry hostages, I was the wrong man for this mission.
Tim: I’m sorry hostages. You tried to run away, so I shot you in the back.
Peter: That hostage bungling apparently improved my reputation and rank (amongst people who take hostages).
Tim: I just hope no-one who’s actually GOOD reads these articles, or they’ll challenge me and then they’ll find out I’m actually terrible.
Peter: Whereas look, I’m obviously crap, you don’t want to bother against me.
Tim: WENT WRONG WHAT? SO.
Peter: You bastard. Well! Everything actually went pretty great there. Until turn 3.
Tim: That first turn was actually really good for you.
Peter: Then you started popping out with your rocket dude and my machine gunners couldn’t get a lock on him. Also, I guessed incorrectly with my grenade launcher chap, so I narrowly missed instead of taking him out.
Tim: The big problem, I think, was my machine gunner. The one who was hanging back. After you’d taken out the first two I realised he’d have to run like hell to cover the exit. He was originally covering the front, like the rest.
Peter: One hostage was shot next to the green line, and then the other was doomed as I’d given him orders to leg it so there was no way I could stop him walking into bullets.
Tim: Yeah. I have to say, that grenade was very, very nice, though. The first one, I mean.
Peter: It was a bit of a ‘I’ll try to sink your battleship’ punt, but thanks!

Tim: So how’ve you found your time with Frozen Synapse? Considering, uh, I beat you a lot. Although I suppose that’s not entirely surprising – I’ve got rather more experience.
Peter: It’s an excellent game and one which I’ve kind of been looking forward to
(without realising it, somehow) since Laser Squad back on the Spectrum.
Tim: Yeah, I love it to death.
Peter: Me too. Even though I lost every game.
Tim: It’s pretty much the exact game I’ve been wanting for years and years and years. It’s really well-done turn-based strategy. With decent internet play, and what’s essentially Play-By-Email, and a community that – presumably because the game doesn’t cater that much to the twitch-gaming teenagers – is friendly and mature and pleasant.
Peter: It feels so modern too. In the sense of “man, why did nobody make these changes to a turn-based game earlier?” It seems so simple and obvious to switch out ACTION POINTS for the waypoint thing they have here and yet (unless somebody else did already do that) only Mode 7 figured it out.
Tim: Yeah, it works marvellously well. It’s perfectly catered to the Internet, too. I dunno how it runs on lower-spec systems, but it’s the sort of thing I’d love to install on a netbook and take with me. I could easily fire off a few turns when bored. Admittedly, luck kinda plays a part in terms of the random generation of maps and which troops you get, but I don’t think I’ve seen an “unwinnable” game yet – as long as you have two soldiers remaining and you’re smart, I suspect there are ways to win. Perhaps less so, with one.
Peter: Frozen Synapse is a terribly clever name too, reflecting the stop-start nature of the game.
Tim: It certainly evokes the visual style, which we’ve mentioned already. All cool blue-ish hues.
Peter: Yeah. A lot about this game is very smart. Which is, perhaps, why I lost all of those games. I think ‘cerebral’ is the wanky term I’m looking for here.
Tim: I think I mentioned this before, but I love that you don’t need to worry about impatient opponents – if your current foe is taking ages, you can go start another game and play that while you wait. You can take all the time you need to contemplate moves. Unless you’re, say, trying to write an article about it.
Peter: Haha.
Tim: Would you do anything to improve the game?
Peter: Well, I can’t really comment on the single player (haven’t played enough of it). But I honestly have very few complaints. Yes, there’s the potential balancing aspect, but that just doesn’t bother me. If you’re handed a game which seems ‘unbalanced’ it’ll be even sweeter when you win. And it’s quite likely you’re only assuming it’s unbalanced due to inexperience anyway.
Tim: It all comes down to the brain, I think.
Peter: Right. Can you out-think your opponent? And, like chess, always be a step or so ahead. I need to go and practise more so I’m not humiliatingly defeated so easily in future.
Tim: I honestly can’t think of much I’d like to see done differently. One global server, perhaps, rather than all the splits. Slightly re-tooled leaderboards, maybe.
Peter: Basically, if this were a proper review, and assuming the single player is up to scratch, it’d be ending up with a high 9.
Tim: Yeah. I mean, I’m honestly struggling to come up with problems. There’s still tiny elements I dislike with the UI but the long and short of it is that it doesn’t matter. It’s one of the best turn-based tactical games I’ve ever played.

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