Preview: Frozen Synapse

By Kieron Gillen on April 19th, 2010 at 12:25 pm.

Tip 1 for Frozen Synapse: don't stand near walls

Give me 1200 words. I’m going to make you pre-order something you’ve never even heard of.

Well, I’m going to give it a shot anyway. Frozen Synapse is the second game from Mode 7 Games, the British Indie behind the innovative but overambitious wire-fu sword-fighting game Determinance. It’s basically the logical collision between Laser Squad Nemesis, Poker and Contract Bridge, complete with a beautiful post-Introversion retro-future aesthetic. Plus tiny flashes of Worms and classic-era Rainbow Six. And other stuff.

Here’s the trailer, which highlights a lot of its merits.

Much like Laser Squad Nemesis – which, if you don’t know, is what the Gollops did after being burnt by the mainstream industry with X-COM – each player controls a small group of soldiers. Both players – either human or AI – give orders, which play out simultaneously. Repeat until everyone is dead. Frozen Synapse differentiates itself with its speed. While abstractly a play-by-e-mail game, the turns are so pacy and the games so short, you’ll probably play them simultaneously. This where the card-game influence comes in; the games cut directly to the action and puts you in a tactical situation that demands immediate life-or-death decisions rather than turns of cautious exploration. In basic play, both sides get a random selection of weapons. The level is also randomly generated. As are the soldier’s positions. While line-of-sight kicks in later, you initially know all your opposition’s starting placs. In other words, you’re immediately put in a position where decisions are critical, demanding you work out what on earth the opposition is going to do. Like poker, it’s a game about being dealt a hand and then working out what on earth you want to do with it.

Its smartest move is cutting that randomness – which should give the game its variety – with mathematical precision in the actual combat. Like the early Rainbow Six, you plan out your orders for the turn via waypoints, and can press play to see them in action. Unlike Rainbow Six – and Laser Squad Nemesis – there’s no random chance of missing. If you select the angle for your rocket-launcher to go flying through space, it’s not going to deviate and blow yourself up. Since there’s so much in the set-up which is unpredictable, the precision here strikes me as key. You’re even able to actually enter in orders for your opponent when planning. So, if you think the opposition’s soldier is going to do a certain thing, you can make that little fella do that and see if your soldiers’ action will take him out. In other words, if you actually do know what they’re going to do, you’re going to be able to work out the absolute perfect counter. The game, of course, is working out exactly what that is.

And in a handful of turns at most later, it’s all over. Buildings are rubble. Corpses are everywhere. Someone’s a winner, and it’s time for another game.

Tip 2 for Frozen Synapses. Shotguns are deadly close up. But you knew that.

There’s all manner of player-ranking stuff – cutely, there’s a ladder based on strings-of-victory, which is very much an all-or-nothing high-turn-over of who’s actually best – the most inspired game mode is defence, a more advanced approach than standard skirmishes. After the level generates, in an approach shamelessly lifted from Contract Bridge, each player takes turns to say how much of the level they think they can prevent their opponent from entering. So, if there’s a long open stretch on the right and you have a sniper, you may figure you can position the camping bastard at the top and just pick ‘em off. Whoever bids the most – as in, thinks they can keep the most territory, has to do it.

As well as adding another strategic level to the game, it’s cleverness is that it side-steps the major problem with auto-generation. That is, making the computer create levels that are fair to both sides. By handing over the balancing to the player, it ceases to be a problem. This is classic indie thinking – turning a drawback into a strength. A level is tricky to defend? Players, if they have any sense, bid that they can hold onto less. Set up perfectly for mowing down the oncoming troops? Players say they can defend pretty much everything – and if they don’t bid as much as they think is feasible, it’s their opponent who’s going to get the chance to reap the rewards. And if your challenge is nearly impossible… well, it’s the player’s fault for bidding stupidly.

Having only played a couple of games in the pub on Mode 7’s laptop, I’m in love with both the potential and the actuality of this. And I can play it right now. Their current plans are a little Mount & Blade – as in, if you pre-order the game, you gain access to the multiplayer beta immediately. In the coming months, as well as improving the MP experience based on feedback – seeing Paul scribbling down my point that adding a “turns since this sighting was made” marker to the figures would be helpful shows how responsive they are – they’re working on the full single-player component of the game. Now, it’s puzzles and AI-skirmish, but they’re planning to integrate something with a lot more narrative. Personally, were I them, I’d go systemic and jump into the hole created by the lack of a faithful X-COM… but I’m excited to see whatever they make. But the key thing is that I’m excited by what already exists, almost don’t care if any Single-player ever gets made and am drumming my fingers until my Beta key arrives so I can take on Alec in devastating hyper-speed tactical battles. Expect micro-reports forthcoming, especially because you can upload your games to Youtube with a single click. Instant bragging.

(In fact, between the ghost modes, the replay uploads and general slickness, I’m tempted to say something like “Indie-strategy’s answer to StarCraft 2”. Though if Mode 7 quote that out of context, I’ll punch them on their communal nose.)

The pre-order starts today, for 17 quid, 19 Euros and 26 dollars. Which is leaning towards the top end of the indie, especially for a pre-order. However, when you pay, you actually get a second code to give to a friend. In other words, it’s effectively eight quid fifty. That’s got to tempt you.

Tip 3 for Frozen Synapse. Shoot the dude.

What could go wrong? Well, the game could be enormously buggy and crash all the time, but seemed impressively slick from my brief experience. The team may all die from Iceandic-Ash-provoked pneumonia, and the game will never get completed. The final complete Single-player campaign may be nob… but, as said, that doesn’t take anything away from the multi-player. Oh – and it may actually not have as much variety as you’d hope from the random generation system. I’ve only played a couple of games, after all. But only time is going to tell on that one, and the games I’ve played are enough to make me want to play more. In fact, need to play more. The main reason I’m writing it as effusively as I am, is a note to self. If there’s someone like me out there, he or she would want to get in on this early.

Most of all, this reminds me of one of the very first interviews with a game developer I ever read. It was with Julian Gollop in – I believe – Your Sinclair, talking about how he hated that strategy games have this stuffy reputation. He couldn’t see there was a reason why you couldn’t make one which played with the pace of an arcade game, without losing any of its intrinsic intelligence. And with Rebelstar, Chaos and Laser Squad, he proved it.

Frozen Synapse screams 21st Century Gollop, and I think you’re going to love it.

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105 Comments »

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  1. Cinnamon says:

    I think that they would do the game a disservice if they concentrated mostly on multiplayer or if people who talk about it only talked about the multiplayer. The largest group of people who want a game like this want a strong single player game whether it is significant 4X style campaign, which I think would be a mistake for an indie to try, or a something more like Gratuitous Space Battles.

    • Vinraith says:

      @Cinammon

      Yeah, and it doesn’t sound like SP here is going to be up to snuff. In particular, I don’t see how the AI could properly handle the bidding process, which would mean it’s always starting from a serious disadvantage.

  2. JuJuCam says:

    I have heard about this, though. I thought I heard about it from here…

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      JuJuCam: You probably did. Adding the “probably” puts the sentence on two lines, which doesn’t look as neat. Went for the rhetoric over being anal.

      KG

    • Pod says:

      NEWSJUSTIN:

      KG holds a grammar-grudge.

      NEWSPREVIOUSLYKNOWN:

      This game, when first spammed about on RPS, made me a bit wet.

  3. Zanchito says:

    Oh, boy, a heir to Laser Squad!!!

    *pre-orders*

  4. Premium User Badge

    HermitUK says:

    Failed on both counts, Mr Gillen. Not only had I heard of this already, I also preordered already.

    Unless this is some sort of counterwise article that influenced me before I read it.

  5. M says:

    I thought Alec got sent off to see this! Anyway, thoroughly excited about this already. Really love the way they’ve handled planning.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      He’s see them in Oxford it for someone else. I met them in the pub in London. This is how we roll.

      KG

    • M says:

      I see! You don’t need a reason to interview these guys. You don’t need a backhander from the man. Bloody Alec and his corporate shackles!

      Anyway, good. Good writes.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Carlisle Dave says:

    Is there actually a PBEM part to the multiplayer? Because that would make it in an instant pre-order if there was.

  7. Pie21 says:

    Lies, you just made me pre-order a game I HAD heard of (on RPS, of course).

  8. Ian says:

    This looks pretty interesting, actually. Dunno whether I’ll pre-order but it’s definitely one I’ll be keeping an eye on.

  9. Mario Figueiredo says:

    I never (that means never) pre-order. Anything. But I must say I’m totally impressed and have it no bookmarked and will wait for the release date. Thanks for letting us know.

    And certainly I would never pre-order a tactical combat game where single-player mode is still nothing much more than a promise. Having or not a SP campaign in a game like this doesn’t bother me much. I’m really only concerned with AI. Because that is what will dictate my interest in the game.

    As for the multiplayer mode… have fun with it.

    But yes, this look way too cool. The clean approach to graphics is also an amazing decision by the developers. I personally loved it.

  10. Henry says:

    Pre-ordered this and cant put is down. Multi player is excellent! You wont regret buying this.

  11. rxtx says:

    Looks pretty good – I can imagine the creeping dispair as you enter the action phase only to see your perfect plan going more and more wrong before your eyes, and not being able to do anything about it until the next turn

  12. Hentzau says:

    Oh, so that’s why I couldn’t find the preorder link on their website a couple of days ago.

  13. Alexander Norris says:

    Do I win anything if I’d heard of this ages ago when they first started releasing updates on the game’s progress on modDB?

    Anyway, it looks lovely, I adore wego systems (much more fun that igougo, as far as I’m concerned), and I like Rainbow Six. The only thing stopping me from pre-ordering is a) I’m broke and; b) I’d like to wait until NS2 or Overgrowth are out before I plonk another large sum of money down on an indie pre-order.

    (Although really, it’s 75% a) and 25% b) – if I suddenly have money, which is admittedly not bloody likely unless manna falls from Heaven in the form of a job, I’ll probably try to find someone who’s interested and split the pre-order cost.)

  14. ThePinkNinja says:

    Lone note of dissent:

    I’m throughly unintrested in this game

  15. user@example.com says:

    £17, and you get two copies.

    You’re worse than LewieP, Gillen. Worse than LewieP. I need that money for weird PDF/POD RPG books and wargames!

    • Vinraith says:

      @user@example.com

      So… you can’t buy a single copy? That tells me everything I need to know about the single player, thanks. It’s a shame, too, this one looked like it had potential.

    • user@example.com says:

      Oh, come on, that’s just crazy. You get a free code for a friend, just like that Knytt guy’s commercial game, and that was pretty solidly single-player. The single-player mode isn’t IIRC that heavily implemented in this beta version, but they’ve been talking about it.

      Also, I hear if you buy the Orange Box they FORCE you to buy second copies of Half-Life 2 and Episode One!!!

  16. Erekton says:

    It’s a great game, can get a fair bit addictive when your playing with friends, played alot of games last night with my brother who was sat next to me, was a good laugh and one of the best squad games I’ve played in a while, the variety is great. I’d highly recommend it if you want to keep yourself busy and need a change from other games

  17. DavidK says:

    Strewth. Every time I come to RPS, I end up spending money. KG, my wife would like a word with you.

    Don’t get the poker reference, though, except in the most abstract sense.

    • Premium User Badge

      Arathain says:

      My guess would be the randomly armed squad. Which makes it a game of making the best of what you have. It’s a touch tenuous, but hey, it goes well with the much better Bridge analogy.

  18. Mungrul says:

    Tempted, but not really stoking my fire.
    First off, I still prefer this kind of game single-player; the single player here seems to be an afterthought. Secondly, I’m definitely not a fan of this new weird spin on turn-based games. Give me the old-fashioned consecutive turns and overwatch / opportunity fire, and I’m a happy bunny. And I’m not even going to get this in the new X-COM :(
    Valkyria Chronicles, Silent Storm and Sentinels are the only games in recent years that have scratched that itch for me, AND I NEED MORE SCRATCHING.

    SCRATCH ME RPS!
    My leg may even start to twitch uncontrollably.

  19. Tei says:

    I probably must buy this. I must be ready for wen the FBI, CIA or the NASA break in my offices. I must train myself, repeatly until perfection.

  20. Pani says:

    This + an extra dimension + a very specific IP + exp = NECROMUNDA!

  21. Premium User Badge

    AndrewC says:

    I must compliment the writer on the excellent spelling of the first sentence.

    However the last sentence appears a touch vain.

  22. Dinger says:

    Will it be released in time for the twentienth anniversary of Robosport?.

    Second note: to guarantee good coverage:
    A. determine when exactly K.G. is behind in his quota of RPS articles/coming up on a deadline.
    B. Invite him that afternoon to a pub to see your new game. None of this septic office crap.
    C. Demo the product over a few pints. Continuing purchasing beer until the enthusiasm level is about to peak.
    D. Send him home with two hours to do the write-up.

    Come to think of it, why don’t more companies engage in this sort of P.R.? writers + pub + refreshment + YOUR PRODUCT HERE.

    Third note: I am not interested in reading posts that say “I am not interested”. Nor am I interested in seeing you masturbate. I don’t give a damn about you.

    • Lewis says:

      For the record, these preview sessions were done a couple of weeks ago now.

    • Dinger says:

      Yeah? Musta pulled up one pint short. I rest my case.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      >> Come to think of it, why don’t more companies engage in this sort of P.R.? writers + pub + refreshment + YOUR PRODUCT HERE.

      Being the case he actually talks about the game and explains its mechanics, the PR stuff is mostly writing style to me. I ignore it. Much like when I realized the promo video had no in-game sound neither it was voice narrated, I decided to run it mute. I wouldn’t let a cheesy musical score get in the way of my own pre-evaluation.

      I actually think he did a good job explaining the game. I’ve seen much worse PR in RPS. And I’m a relative newcomer. Less than an year.

      >> Third note: I am not interested in reading posts that say “I am not interested”. Nor am I interested in seeing you masturbate. I don’t give a damn about you.

      You want meaningful posts in a WordPress comment box? And on a gaming blog/news site? You’ll have more success exploring the RPG elements in Just Cause 2. And I, for one, will make sure I throw my own occasional useless comments too.

      The whole thing moves this way: They hype, we follow… or not. In the middle there’s this general idea our opinion actually means anything to someone. And this happens because… this is going to shock you… we actually read other people comments.

  23. Rosti says:

    Like others, I’d heard about this ‘un from RPS before but seriously KG you didn’t need all those words for me to pre-order – it’s turn based Rainbow-Six-of-my-youth with an Introversion-y font and visuals. And they’re called Mode 7, for crying out loud. I have every reason to love these people!

    (Also, it’s reminding me of the summer I spent with Warhammer 40K: Squad Command as my travelling companion. Good times/Death to the unclean, etc.)

  24. Sobric says:

    Sounds amazing! The RPS Steam community might be a nice place to look for a game…

  25. Lu-Tze says:

    Bought it. Beat Kieron. No regrets.

  26. innokenti says:

    Mwahahaah.

    Yeah, this has been pretty damn awesome so far. Even if I only got a tie with Kieron (I think I got a tie. Or it may have been a loss… I’m not entirely sure).

    This has tonnes of potential for being the most delicious tactical turn-based cake of them all. Omnomnom.

  27. roy7 says:

    I never played Laser Squad Nemesis that I can remember, but did love X-COM. Is LSN still active?

    • Zwack says:

      LSN is still active, albeit much quieter than it used to be. It’s a shame because, with a bit of continued developer interest, it could have bestrode turn-based strategy like a colossus. As Julian Gollop doesn’t have the time/interest to continue working on it and won’t release the code so it can be taken over by its players it’s steadily dwindling. There’s still enough players to get a decent game out of it though.

    • Premium User Badge

      Arathain says:

      I played it quite a lot a few years ago. It’s one of my favourite games of all time. It has unparalleled scope for tactical cleverness, and the finest gaming community I’ve encountered before or since.

      I’m pretty sure I played Julian Gollop at one point, when we were testing the Greys. That’s my gaming celebrity encounter.

  28. BobbleHat says:

    Not my usual thing, but this looks really quite fun. Anyone know what the music is, or is it composed for the game?

  29. Tauers says:

    I received newsletter today. Intant pre-order :)

  30. Ovno says:

    Yes Sir!

    I will buy it now Sir!

    :)

  31. Squishy says:

    If they finish their game this time and not let it lie around in beta coma like Determinance I’ll buy it in an instant.
    So no, no preorder … a postorder

  32. malak says:

    This game is excellent! Very addictive to.

    Squishy, not sure what you mean there – I played determinance back when it came out and they didnt do a preorder with that game.

  33. Gumbomasta says:

    Been on an X-com re-visitation recently and now this finally drops. This looks awesome. Combat is reminiscent of Combat Mission games and Laser Squad Nemesis. I’m a huge fan of tactical strategy and I’ve been lamenting how no one has been designing simultaneous turn-based combat like the Combat Mission games – until now.

    I think my dream RPG would have simultaneous turn-based combat like Frozen Synapse. I hope the devs can drop the combat mechanic into other game types. A modern RPG using the Frozen Synapse combat engine would be pure manna.

    In short, reminds me of Knights of the Chalice gone Introversion / Combat Mission. yes! Will buy!

    • user@example.com says:

      >Knights of the Chalice
      >Introversion
      >Combat Mission-style turns

      I would love a dungeon-crawler done in this style, even more so if it had options for co-op and competitive parties against an AI or human DM. Or DMs, for dungeon-on-dungeon monster-fightiness.

      This style of turn-based combat would be wonderful in a swords & sorcery or gygaxian setting.

    • Wolfox says:

      I’m a huge fan of tactical strategy and I’ve been lamenting how no one has been designing simultaneous turn-based combat like the Combat Mission games – until now.

      You do know about Flotilla, right?

  34. Nosgoroth says:

    Congratulations, mission accomplished. You made me preorder. That’s half my savings away.

  35. y2rich says:

    Damn you KG. Anyone want to go halves?

    • undead dolphin hacker says:

      I’m game… very much doubt anyone I know would want to even try this.

  36. Tom O'Bedlam says:

    Nice, game ordered. If I write a 1000 words in my dissertation today I’m allowed to play it :)

  37. Drummer_si says:

    YES!!! Necromunda HAS to be made!

    I tried making it in Darkbasic without much success as I didn’t realise how complex it was when I started!

    BUT YES!!! NECROMUNDA PC GAME *MUST* BE MADE!!!

  38. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    Its the month of X-COM like things. A good month indeed.

    As a succesor, will you have to pay monthly for this games multiplayer? Or is it going to be free all the time?

    Also, the second code. Is that just the beta multiplayer? As in i preorder, i can get a friend to play the beta, but only so long as its beta?

    • Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

      Silly me, the second question is answered on their website.
      And its a yes, its basically a two game pack, for 18.99 euro.
      Im gonna preorder this if i can convince my friend to a randomly generated X-COM multiplayer game (Thats not gonna be hard)
      Well played, K.G.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Peter: The first question is also answered somewhere on the site – it says it’s free for all time, basically.

      KG

  39. Premium User Badge

    El_MUERkO says:

    Bastard!!!

    I didn’t want to spend any more money on games this month :/

  40. drygear says:

    I hadn’t heard of it, and I would preorder it if I wasn’t broke. Maybe when my tax refund comes in.

  41. Drakkheim says:

    Ooh Goodie you sold me way before word 1200! This will keep me from buying the UFO:Afterlight/Aftershock/Aftermath collection just to get a modern X-commy fix in.

    er.. damn.. gamersgate has the UFO trilogy for $20 USD.. now I’ll have to get both.

    That’s what I get for trying to remember the full titles of things..

  42. TheMoo says:

    Sold!
    Truely Kieron you are a master salesperson

  43. y2rich says:

    Anonymous Coward said:
    I’m game… very much doubt anyone I know would want to even try this.

    Well I’ve got someone else on another forum that is interested but if they don’t come through then its yours.

  44. Tinker says:

    Perfect timing. I was trying to find info for this game yesterday because I was craving this kind of game. All I could remember was the art style and turn format, needless to say my search was fruitless. Imagine my joy to see that not only an article on the topic but to see that I can get a hold of a playable preorder!

    You’ve proven to be my gaming news heroes once again!

  45. Mr. Brand says:

    I think one of the developers mentioned having played Necromunda while talking about boardgames of note he’d played. Guess there could be some influence :)

  46. Ovno says:

    Bought it earlier been playing it all day, its bloody brilliant =D

  47. Tei says:

    Is this game PBEM? people takes AGES to submit his turns.

    PRO-TIP: don’t drop grenades on your foot.

  48. Jesse says:

    I’ve been waiting to hear more about this game, and then I almost skipped this story because ‘Frozen Synapse’ doesn’t ring any bells. I suggest the title be changed to ‘Glowing Tactical Top-Down Manshoot 2010′.

    • tim11 says:

      Based on what I’ve seen so far, the card-game influence comes in since the games cut directly to the action and puts you in a tactical situation that demands immediate life-or-death decisions rather than turns of cautious exploration.
      _____________
      vigilon security

      .

  49. Kieron Gillen says:

    DENBY: WHAT ON EARTH IS YOUR FASCINATION WITH EXTERMINATION GAMES! DARK EXTERMINATION! MAN UP!

    KG