Hut Hut Hut: A Frozen Endzone Preview

By Alec Meer on March 19th, 2013 at 3:30 pm.

Frozen Endzone is a turn-based futuresports game from the creators of asynchronous strategy game Frozen Synapse. I went to see it last week. I drove there in a car and everything. I returned with the following words and thoughts.

I was anxious, worried, scared: this I will admit. Me, a 5’6″, nebbish man of words and screens whose strongest-ever investment in sport was playing badminton once a week for a year, on my way to see a game ostensibly about American Football? Out of my depth, surely. I read a Wikipedia page about American football before I set off to visit Frozen Synapse, and now Frozen Endzone, developers Mode 7 in their Oxfordshire studio, but it only made me more confused.

Turns out I needn’t have worried. Frozen Endzone is sports in theme only – in practice it’s turn-based strategy, and a natural heir to the men vs men tactical gunplay of Frozen Synapse despite its complete lack of metal tubes which go bangbangbang.

The main thing to know, be you sportsfan or be you strategyfan, is that Frendzone (to address the elephant in the room) is a game in which two squads of robots attempt to outwit each other. In a way, it’s like a turn-based capture the flag. In another way, it really isn’t.

A confession: I distorted the truth a little earlier. I do know a small amount about sports after all, which is what enables me to make the following analogy. Frozen Endzone can be thought of as a football (proper football, I mean, not that convoluted stuff with the shoulderpads and whatnot) penalty kick on a grand scale. As in it’s a game of guesswork, bluffing and risk-taking, as one side tries to predict where the other will ‘attack’ from. The defending team are essentially the goalkeeper, diving in the direction they reckon the ball will come from – problem being that said ball can be passed around a small team of robots, who can use on-pitch corridors and mazes created by the randomly-generated terrain to come up with an unpredictable route. Fortunately the defenders can similarly spread their robots around the place, blocking off likely routes.

If an attacking player is blocked, we’re shown a flashy, hand-modelled animation of tackling or tripping, but essentially it’s the equivalent of a Frozen Synapse or XCOM unit getting killed. If, on the other hand, whichever player has the ball can make their way over to the opposing end of the field – the titular Endzone – without being impeded, they score. The teams then swap sides, so defenders are attacking, attackers are defending and all’s fair in love and war.

If that’s all sounding complicated, as though it requires procedures and special moves and working out which button passes and which button tackles, fear not. All you really do is decide which player to send where and when, with the game performing relevant actions for you as and when the robots encounter each other. Also, each match is incredibly quick, all done and dusted within five to ten minutes (unless you’re playing an asynchronous game against someone who takes hours between turns, anyway). It appears to be a pure challenge of wits, requiring no specialist knowledge of either sports or multiplayer strategy, and with a control system and UI even more minimalist than Frozen Synapse’s.

You don’t even need pixel-perfection in terms of where your players are, where you order them to and where your throw the ball to – it’s more about selecting general areas for the action to take place. The interface, meanwhile, is very stripped down compared to Frozen Synapse’s slightly fussy affair – basically you’re just clicking and dragging to move players, although you can set a delay timer if you want a guy to wait a while before sprinting somewhere. “It’s kind of like the greatest hits of the FS UI,” thinks Mode 7′s Ian Hardingham.

The Blood Bowl comparisons raised themselves immediately both to my mind and in the online reception when Frendzone was unveiled last Friday, but while they have being fantasy sports-themed turn-based strategy games in common, the comparison basically ends there. “Unlike Blood Bowl where rules are external to gameplay,” explains Hardingham to me, “this is all about the decisions you make.” So no dice rolls or stat-boosts here – it’s strictly whether you’ve sent your players on sensible routes, and whether or not the defending player manages to use a combination of logic and luck to second-guess you. “We want the rules to be very clear straight away, but working out strategies is the complicated bit.”

There are three distinct phases to the game, although apparently the division is an organic one based on how people will likely play more than it is a mandated one. But we are looking at a six-turn – i.e. three per player – game. Think of it as like the fixed time of a football match, I suppose. In the first phase, you’re basically assessing the field and deciding how you want to play this match. As mentioned, the field is randomly generated, in terms of the huge blocks which form pathways and obstacles, so in theory you can’t go into a new match with a set idea of what your play will be. Your decision could be between bunching all your players together to try and brute force charge in one direction, or spreading your robo-blokes out across the field in the hope that your opponent can’t mark everyone, or some vastly more fiendish hybrid approach.

Clearly, the rival team will be doing similar. Explains Hardingham, “it’s a tiny bit like the setup phase in an advanced boardgame, but you’re competing with opponent to setup the board in a certain way.”

So you know where you wanna go. Now you’ve just got to get the ball there safely. Phase two, then, hangs around passing the ball, which isn’t any more complicated than aiming and throwing, but you are gambling on where your opponent’s robots are going to end up. You’re throwing the ball to be where you’ve ordered another one of your players to be, rather than where they begin the turn at, but if their journey to that point is interrupted by one of the opposing players, that pass isn’t going to work out. While the first turn can last as long as the attacking player likes, in terms of where he sends his team to, this second one is simply the length of the pass.

In the third and final phase, it’s the charge to the Endzone. Again, this is all about forcing your opponent to guess where you’re coming from. If you outfox them, you score a touchdown. If their gambit pays off, you don’t. It’s a micro-drama rather than simply cold strategy, and in theory it’s far richer in possible permutations than Frozen Synapse was. “You can do really stupid stuff and it can work,” reckons Hardingham. “In FZ the stupid stuff wouldn’t work.”

Importantly, failing to score a touchdown doesn’t necessarily mean that the attacking player loses the game, as there are also Field Goals on the pitch. Run a ball-holding player through one of these yellow squares during one of your turns and you’ll bag three points (as opposed to the endzone’s seven), Bag a couple of field goals and you’re doing OK even if you don’t get to the end. However, when the sides switch the other player knows exactly what he or she needs to beat your score. The most dramatic victories will grab all the field goals, the endzone and the (red) bonus zones which reward you with additional points if you do make it to the Endzone. So, while it’s a quick and simple game, compared to both sports games and strategy games in general, there’s an awful lot of potential combinations and scenarios which will prevent it from simply repeating itself – especially given the random maps which could really skew things one way or another. “That may mean there are maps where it’s hard for defence to stop a touchdown, but because you’ll swap at the end both players have to deal with that,” explains Hardingham.

Something you may have spotted in the trailer and screenshots is that this isn’t, as was its predecessor, a game about tiny silhouette-blokes in an all-blue world. Despite sharing an engine – Mode 7′s long-used Torque, which they remain huge proponents of – Frendzone has exactly 314% more graphics than Synapse. They wanted 316%, but it would have broken space and time. Alright, it’s not Crysis but it looks flashy and crunchy and eye-catching. Particularly standing out the animations, which are the work of an ex-SCEE dev hired especially for the purpose. Hand-crafted, so to speak, rather than the result of mo-cap, the key to why they look so is not solely that an expert made them, but also because of Frendzone’s nature.

It’s turn-based, and by the end of each player’s turn it knows what the outcome is going to be before it has to show it to the player. This affords it the freedom to show you something more dramatic, without actually altering the events. So, whereas in, say, a Madden or FIFA game, a blocked or tackled player would have to grind to a sudden halt and perform a quick animation to show it, here your guys can be made to slow down or side-step in advance, or a player about to pass to another can visibly turn his head to look at him before he throws the ball. In other words, in theory, watching a turn play out can look more like real-life sports than the more – ironically – robotic behaviour of real-time sports games. Or, at least, a more filmic interpretation of real sports – apparently, everything we’ve seen in the trailer is entirely stuff which can happen in game.

As for the robots themselves, while they might look interchangeable one thing Mode 7 are looking at is giving them player-editable faces. Choose your own expression, pattern or naughty genital-esque scribble and it’ll appear on the front of a player’s helmet, as well as appearing in a rather nifty projected light-mask when looked at side-on. The team are looking at ways to keep inevitable naughtiness away from delicate eyes, but all that stuff is very much TBC right now.

You might have noticed that I’ve talked only about this as a multiplayer game – but that’s because that’s all there is on show for now, rather than because singleplayer isn’t in there. There are plans for a full solo campaign, which will potentially hang around the concept of your team playing a season/championship – complete with stat progression for your players. “We want upgrades to feel really meaningful, really specialising characters” says Mode 7′s Paul Taylor, who’s writing the campaign. The devs offer roguelikes as possible touchstone for what they have planned, which raises some intriguing, permadeathy possibilities. The plan is to, as with Frozen Synapse, sell a beta, multiplayer-only version of the game early, then add singleplayer into the full version further down the line.

There you go: a sports game for people who don’t play sports games, as well as for people who do. It’s got me very interested and I don’t play sports games, so hopefully that’s a sign of potential success, but we shall see. Later this week I’ll bring you an interview with the devs, talking more about how and why Frozen Endzone happened and how it plays.

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65 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge

    Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    Hey, that looks like graphics!

    • napoleon_in_rags says:

      It seems they’ve increased graphics by at least 157 since Frozen Synapse.

      • Premium User Badge

        Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        It’s safe to say that the graphics have definitely been included.

        • napoleon_in_rags says:

          I hope they handle it right. Sometimes I think developers try to just add as many graphics as they can, without asking the question, “Does the game need this many graphics at this particular time?”

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    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH
      ITS FUCKING EVERYWHERE
      Arrow in the GRAPHICS

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  2. nimzy says:

    Frendzone eh? I see what you did there.

  3. Tukuturi says:

    They should have used a hockey theme. They could have called it Frozen Ice.

    Really though, this mechanic seems perfect for football (proper football, not soccer.) I’m psyched.

    • DeanLearner says:

      “proper football, not soccer”

      I Agree! Nice to see a proper football fan on these forums. Let me shake your han OH WAIT I CANT BECAUSE YOU’RE HOLDING YOUR STUPID FOOTBALL IN YOUR STUPID HANDS

      • Tams80 says:

        You mean their egg.

      • Mr. Mister says:

        I agree with your sarcasm, except for the part where you forget to remark the ballness of their football (considering the cointained air is part of the football).

    • Runty McTall says:

      “Proper” football being the type you mainly play with the ball in your hands huh? The one that was formalised decades after the other one huh? The one mainly played in one country (and is in fact named for that country) while the other is worldwide, huh?

      Interesting perspective you’ve got there :|

      On topic – I played Frozen Synapse co-op with my brother and we both found it hilarious fun (top tip – do the tutorial) but somehow this isn’t pushing my buttons.

      P.S – I have no problem with people abbreviating American Football to just “football” but to expect that abbreviation to take precedence over Association Football is just ridiculous.

      • Lu-Tze says:

        Can we just agree there is no “proper football” and that football is a loose term used throughout history to label a huge variety of games? No?

        Lets keep flipping out about what it means in our individual countries of residence.

        Anxiously awaiting someone calling American Footballers “sissies” or something homophobic for wearing pads. Any minute now.

        • Premium User Badge

          DeVadder says:

          I care for neither of the two games. But in an international and modern age setting, i believe it is fair to say that football means the sport with a ball and two times eleven people running after it. Eager to kick it with their feet.
          If you would ask a random person cabable of the english language on this planet what football is, that would be the way more likely answer.
          The US is the only place in the world where there is any ambiguity about this. And it is also the only country in the world where American Football is bigger than Football and in fact basically the only one where it is anything but a small niche sport.

        • aepervius says:

          There is about only one country which think football is about clashing against each other in helmet.
          The otehr country knows about soccer as football, or rugby.

        • iucounu says:

          Let’s just agree that all the other games are deeply inferior to cricket and leave it at that.

      • InternetBatman says:

        Australia? Also, why does formalization grant legitimacy?

        • Runty McTall says:

          Not sure what “Australia?” means? I’m assuming you’re saying, can Australian rules football be abbreviated to “football”? Sure, but as with any derivative of association football, if you try to tell a football fan that aussie rules has a better claim to the name “football”, then to my mind you’re on shaky ground.

          Regarding the ” why does formalization grant legitimacy” question, I don’t really know what to say about that – pretty much the whole point of formalisation is to grant legitimacy, isn’t it?

          Generally though, if you a) name your noun first and b) your noun is much more popular than other nouns that try to use the same name then any of those other nouns are being a bit silly by getting huffy when people don’t recognise them as being the primary owners of the name.

          To give an example, say there was some team of researchers studying some celestial body that they discover and work intensively on and, when they initially found it, they thought it was a moon around an exoplanet. For convenience sake, since they work with it daily, they may ditch whatever formal name they have for it and just start calling it “the moon”. These people cannot get huffy with the general public when they persist in calling, you know, our moon, “the moon” instead of this exo-moon.

          Our moon has other names (Luna & Selene, for example) but even if a million scientists start calling their exo-moon “the moon”, they’re still gonna be pushing it to get upset with other people when they use that shorthand for something else (especially when their exo-moon turns out to be a binary planet arrangement and so isn’t really a moon anyway).

          Association Football was, to my knowledge, formalised first, is the world’s most popular sport and, um, makes considerably more use of your feet than any other sport I’m aware of which uses the “football” shorthand. You can apply that shorthand to other sports amongst their aficionados but expecting those other forms to become “the” football is just weird.

          • Tukuturi says:

            I think you’re forgetting that there are many dialects in English. In the US, the formal soccer institution is called Major League Soccer. Soccer is the American English word for that sport. Football has a different meaning in American English, which has been formally established for about 150 years.

        • x1501 says:

          Beside the U.S, the term “soccer” is used in Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand. Today both Australia and New Zealand seem to prefer “football” to “soccer”, but the shift only occurred several years ago. Back in the 2000s, even their main football/soccer organizations were called Soccer Australia and New Zealand Soccer.

      • SkittleDiddler says:

        Q: What’s the difference between American Football and European Football?

        A: One has criminals playing the game, the other has criminals running the game!

        We should just call them Thugball 1 and Thugball 2 and be done with it.

      • Eightball says:

        The British started calling “Association Football” what Americans currently call it in the 1800s.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_for_association_football

        So really, Americans are just being true the tradition.

        Anyway, something being proper does not depend on its popularity.

    • Premium User Badge

      Faldrath says:

      There’s football, and there’s handegg.

  4. P4p3Rc1iP says:

    Not sure this is my cup of tea really…

    • Chickenfeed says:

      I have that problem pretty regularly. I just drink it anyway, free tea is always a good thing.

      • Premium User Badge

        DeVadder says:

        In fact, the cup that used to be my cup of tea now contains almost no tea anymore because i was drinking from it while reading your comment and spilled MY tea everywhere.

  5. Baboonanza says:

    Glad to see they’re tackling something new and I’m looking forward to the day that I receive the game.

    Also, I’m so pre-ordering this. Screw you RPS!

    • Lu-Tze says:

      This is the best pun.

    • solidsquid says:

      I’m sure the guys behind Frozen Endzone will be glad they scored a conversion with this article

    • Premium User Badge

      VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      I’m not so sure—I might pass.

    • DJ0JJ says:

      I hope the money I am gonna spend in this game doesn’t end intercepted by another thing….

  6. Lucas Says says:

    It sounds a little weird (like people who don’t know a whole lot about American Football trying to turn it into a game of pure tactics), but I love fake sports so I’m completely sold.

    • RaiderJoe says:

      But don’t you see, this is exactly a massive part of football? Imagine if all the players were automatons that couldn’t revise their strategy mid-play. Then football would look exactly like this! Each side’s coaches trying to guess the other team’s plays and put up better counter-plays. Taking risks that ensure a victory against some strategies but leave others completely exposed or opting for a more balanced strategy that mostly covers all bases… This is exactly what the strategy of American football looks like!

  7. Reddiger says:

    Good lord, take my money! Especially if you get personality-filled single player in there. I want to love my players with all their quirks, respect some opponents, hate others… Really can’t wait for this!

  8. Ein0r says:

    I am curious about the random terrain changes every game. When i look at the trailer or the screenshots they dont create the impression that those were too meaningful. Can you step on the black or white square to improve your passing chances or distance?
    Or some walls which also could deny vision for a moment, or just make it impossible to pass through them.

  9. JFS says:

    Frendzone: Zone of the Frenders?

  10. TychoCelchuuu says:

    This game is going to be stupendous (I hope). Frozen Synapse did basically everything right, and robots own.

  11. MrUnimport says:

    IT’S NOT THE SAME UNLESS PEOPLE DIEEEEEEE

  12. President Weasel says:

    You may be a small-framed man of letters, but the Blood Bowl version of you was easily the best player on my team in the RPS forum league. You were a legend. (Iron Quinns, on the other hand, was so bad that I still haven’t forgiven real-life him for the actions of his blood bowl avatar).

  13. wodin says:

    The Robots are what I really don’t like..rather see speedball type characters..i.e people in lots of padding wearing crash helmets.

  14. Zwebbie says:

    When I saw the Frozen Endzone logo a few days ago for its initial article, I was a bit sad because I thought it a straight-up sequel and remembered that I had decided not to play any more violent games and I also remembered that Frozen Synapse was really pretty good. And FZ turns out not to be violent (or, well, not murderously so)! That’s an awesome decision.

    Although I’m not sure whether to be amused or horrified by the people in the least comment section who mentioned sports weren’t their thing… it isn’t mine either, but surely it’s better than shooting people?

    • MrUnimport says:

      Think of it this way. There are two programs on TV, one a samurai drama about revenge, and the other a documentary about hedge-trimming. In both, things are cut, but we can probably agree one involves more high emotions than the other.

    • nil says:

      Speaking as a New Zealander, I must opine that the football-to-manshooting ratio around here is distressingly high.

  15. Tuhalu says:

    Did anyone else look at those red guys and see basketballs with eyes on their shoulders?

  16. killias2 says:

    Honestly, if you’re going to make a phase based strategy game out of any sport, American football is pretty much tailor made for that purpose.

  17. foppehenk says:

    glad its robots doing the sporting i was a little worried i’d have to get in there myself

  18. Chicago Ted says:

    Everything I know about Football I learned from reading Eyeshield 21.
    So I guess I’m looking forward to this

  19. SuperNashwanPower says:

    Completely thought his shoulder pads were cute robot faces

  20. Radiant says:

    I wonder.

    Frozen Synapse, I once explained to somebody, is the most glorious tasting fruit that you pluck from a tree.
    But that tree and the entire garden that tree sits in is made of shit.

    So for mode7 to say that this FE’s ui is the greatest hits of FS’s ui is the equivalent of saying “we’ve picked all the bits of corn and peanuts out of this poo poo and put them into a bag for you to eat”

    But god damn that garden of shit tree fruit is so good.
    I’m convinced it’s made from literal holy shit.

  21. malkav11 says:

    I’m a little confused. They’re talking about removing the exterior context that makes Blood Bowl even slightly interesting to me, but then saying something about permanent upgrades and stat tracking in the singleplayer.

  22. Grape says:

    “Delicate eyes”.

    Read: “Hysterical soccer-moms”.

    • MrUnimport says:

      The soccer mom demographic made up a significant portion of Frozen Synapse’s sales, you know, a single chilly review in The Van & Tots Herald could spell doom for the sequel.

      (football mom, excuse me)

  23. Shadowcat says:

    FRENDFACE, FRENDFACE, FREENNDDFFAACCE

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