Impressions: Frozen Endzone

By Alec Meer on December 5th, 2013 at 8:00 am.

Frozen Endzone is a primarily multiplayer turn-based strategy game about robots playing American Football. Calling it the result of XCOM and Speedball having one hot night together wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate, but it has rather more in common with its acclaimed predecessor, Frozen Synapse. Its beta is out today.

Yes, yes, Friendzone, Cold Arse, jolly good, we’ve all giggled about it enough times now. I’m going to give you thirty seconds to get it all out of your system.

(I really would have changed the game name if I were Mode 7, but I do admire their resolve).

All guffawed out? Good. Let’s talk about Frozen Endzone – STOP IT – a futuresports-themed turned-based strategy game from the makers of manshoot-themed turn-based strategy game Frozen Synapse. Let’s tackle the sports thing first, because understanding what it actually means here is vital to understanding what the game is. Superficially, it is about two teams of robots running around, shoving each other and trying to get an at least partially robotic ball into a goal. The essence of team sports, with the added benefit of its roster of silent, expressionless, identical robots being infinitely more charismatic than your average Premiership footballer.

That’s about as far as the sport element goes, though: it’s the theme rather than the game. What you do across short, high-speed bouts against either AI or remote human opponent is very much strategy: there’s no call for reflex or ball control or power metres or working out which of six different types of kick are needed. All you’re really doing is telling half a dozen roboguys where to go each turn. You click to set waypoints, hit End Turn, and they’ll do it. If you’ve second-guessed where your opponent’s roboguys have been ordered to go correctly, your chaps will wind up where you wanted them to be, ideally with one of them holding a ball and ready to either run to the endzone (goal, basically) and score or pass it (again, this is a single click action) to someone who’s a bit closer.

Be out-second-guessed and you could end up with most of your team stunned from a boneshaking collision with a blocking enemy, a pass that wound up nowhere, or worst of all intercepted by the other side, who’ve run a guy into your path from a direction you simply weren’t expecting.

If you’ve played Frozen Synapse, you’ll be immediately at home with the fundamental aspect of this despite the move to, essentially, non-fatal melee rather than entirely fatal guns. It’s is a sort of grand, silent bluffing in order to fool your opponent into thinking you’re going to do something you’re not. End one turn apparently herding your chaps in one direction, or with a robot left standing in a position that surely, surely is prefect to receive a pass, and come the next turn hopefully the honeytrap has worked, leaving the one guy your rival wasn’t paying attention to free to run round the back, receive a cheeky pass and sprint straight to the goal. Or perhaps it’s rather less dramatic than that, and careful positioning meant a block missed by inches, leaving you free to run right past what your opponent probably thought was a surefire tackle.

You achieve all of this through familiar strategy game mechanics – right-click to move and all that – and once I’d fathomed the basic systems the American football aspect faded away in favour of the urge to win and defeat I know so well from any TBS or RTS. The whole game does still feedly oddly abstract, however: it feels like I’ve been dropped right into the closing minutes of a match, out of context and suddenly required to try and score immediately. Is that how American Football works? No, don’t tell me, I don’t actually care.

On the other hand, I dig that it’s none of the faffing about and straight to the drama – often the first 80 minutes of a football match don’t matter as much as do the last ten, y’know? Except, when you come to playback a game of Endzone in real-time after all the turns are taken, it’s seconds rather than minutes. This is high drama wrung from the space of a heartbeat. It’s taking the very concept of a goal and slicing it into microscopic component parts. This is a game of uncommon purity and focus, showing me every tiny detail and consequence of the briefest moment in time. It’s this, basically:

(Only very much without the laugh factor. Serious game is serious).

It’s straight to the thrills, everything to play for, score or die, and I find myself coming up with elaborate plans for how to have a ball journey through a surprisingly small space without bumping into anyone I don’t want it to. Every digital inch of the pitch is somewhere that one of the enemy’s five players could run to, and then change everything in an instant from. It’s tense and involved, hitting the commit turn button is extremely stressful, and it feels like war rather than sport. Er. Actually, for a lot of people there isn’t a great deal of difference between those two things anyway, is there?

Clearly it’s a multiplayer game really, despite the presence of some singleplayer trappings. As with Synapse, it’s an evolution of the old play-by-email concept, only with the option to play every turn there and then if both you and your opponent are at your computer at the same time for long enough. Worrying and fretting about what your rival has done, using the in-game prediction system to see how assorted moves tactics could play out if you’ve second-guessed correctly, is at least as important a part of the game as is plotting your own moves. ‘What if he goes there?’ ‘What if she throws to ball to that one?’ A mere five robots somehow seem like five hundred; stopping them all from going somewhere you don’t want them to is simply impossible. How strange it is that the agony I feel waiting a few minutes or a few hours for my unseen rival to commit their orders so both of us can proceed to the next turn, when all I’m really needing to see is where five little men manage to run to in the space of a second.

What I’m most concerned about is that Endzone only offers so many permutations of victory, defeat and surprise. The range of weapons and the use of sightlines in Frozen Synapse meant it was near-impossible to predict quite how any game would play out, but here everyone and everything’s visible from the off and the only possible actions are run, pass or block. I don’t know how often players will be exclaiming “well, I certainly didn’t see that one coming!” or far more abusive words to that effect.

Then again, I’m only at the very tip of the iceberg of learning Frozen Endzone. I can tell it’s a remarkably balanced machine, with any hit of fat or flab shorn off in order to ensure the essential strategy of run/score is as tight and precise as can be, and as such the trick to long-term success is to grasp every nuance and master the dark art of the feint. My suspicion is that this being in many ways a simpler, leaner game, this is more suited to high-level play than Synapse was, and already playing against other folk in the beta I can feel myself struggling to keep up.

Too many times I’ve been able to tell that I’m screwed by the end of the second turn, as I’m up against people who are able to think three moves ahead and place their players accordingly, whereas I’m still living minute-to-minute and basically bum-rushing whatever’s nearest to me. Of course, each time my opponent moves somewhere I hadn’t been anticipating, I file it away in my own playbook.

Frozen Endzone is something you have to learn on the job, because right now the tutorial and the AI bouts really can’t prepare you for what a sharp human player can do. (Mind you, as I’m playing in closed rather than open beta, I have been up against veterans rather than the rush of fresh meat who’ll arrive today/ I do feel spurred on to learn more and better myself, but by God I’ve got to eat a lot of humiliation pie first. Even so, the scope for occasional newbie upset is there – “omigod you ran over there, no-one in their right mind would do that and that is exactly why you just won.” As said newbie though, I finished most games slamming a closed fist into my keyboard and shouting ‘HOW DID YOU KNOW TO GO THERE ARE YOU BLOODY PSYCHIC CLEARLY THE GAME IS CHEATING I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU.’

I’ll get there eventually. There’s also a layer of extra, uncomplicated complexity in special scoring zones on the pitch itself. The smaller ones will grant bonus points if you run a guy over them on his/her/its way to a goal, while running the ball through the larger ones – field goals – will end the play in your favour, but with a smaller clutch of points than scoring in the endzone. So if you’re in a tight spot, with no evident way to reach the main goal, you can at least avoid defeat and grab a few points, but as games are usually three ‘plays’ long, your opponent could still best you even if you take more plays, if they’re able to grab a couple of those score multipliers and a full touchdown.

Or alternatively they just shoulder-slam your guy with the ball each and every time it’s your turn to play offence, which instantly loses you the play. A single point can make all the difference, and there’s definitely scope for shock victory from the jaws of defeat. I think these nuances will offset the limited range of interactions and options, certainly for the hardcore playerbase, but flightier types may well suffer from “is this it?” syndrome. Do remember this is just the first beta, though; a fully-fledged singleplayer mode is promised down the line, and there’s talk of player management stuff being a part of that as well as a storyline.

It probably doesn’t help that the game comes across as a little plain to me. Its gleaming chrome robo-shoulders and Tyrell Corporation backdrops make it a big step up in graphical gloss and fancypantsiness from the icy neon silhouettes of Synapse, but while the latter derived a clear personality of its own by going all-out austere, this feels caught in a bit of a halfway house. Robots! Playing football! But that’s about as far as it goes: all the in-game text is as buttoned down as a Victorian headmaster on his way to Sunday church service, the bots make no sounds other than when they collide, they all look the same way and move the same way, the pitches only differ in terms of crate-like obstacle placement…

While I appreciate this is all part of a deliberate, Srs Bsns aesthetic (the clue’s in the name, and all that), for me it robbed Endzone of some potential joy and thrill, not to mention that when you’re playing multiple games at once it’s that much harder to keep track of which one’s which when they all look the same. A couple of times I’ve had a strop about robots not doing what I’d ordered them to do, only to later discover that actually it was a different game, and actually I’m playing as the red robots rather than the blue ones I was in the other game. Whoops. Clearly I need to pay more attention, but a little more visual variation would go a long way here.

I like it, even though it feels as cold to the touch as a dead snake in the snow. Part of me really wants to bounce right off it, knee-jerking that it’s too cold and too focused on extremely competitive game-players, but at the same time the elegance and purity of the mechanics means I can see how I will get better, that this isn’t a matter of learning a vast ruleset but instead simply of exercising my brain, making it more agile, more able to predict. There’s never anything more to it than telling my guys where to run to, but that turns out to be an amazingly involved, unpredictable and demanding game all by itself. Making ten seconds seem to last a tense, challenging lifetime is a hell of an achievement.

The Frozen Endzone beta is available to buy, and play, now. Buying the basic $25 version also grants you a bonus one to give to a chum (plus Steam keys); assorted, pricier special editions are also available.

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38 Comments »

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  1. FurryLippedSquid says:

    “Yes, yes, Frendzone, Cold Arse, jolly good, we’ve all giggled about it enough times now.”

    I had not once considered this connotation. But I like it.

    Sounds good, perhaps even e-sports good? I don’t like that term, I’m just using it.

  2. fuggles says:

    It looks like they are robots working in a warehouse who are having a kickabout in their lunchbreak. Single player narrative – complete!

  3. LionsPhil says:

    Sounds a shame they couldn’t endow it with any charm, given the theme they chose.

    Does it have the problem I had with FS: the system was far too chaotic to reason about meaningfully, and one random (Edit: appalling early-morning word choice; unpredictable) bullet miss would butterfly out and derail everything? (I think I might also remember being frustrated that I couldn’t give the opponents pretend orders for the sake of simulation, so I could see what happens if they did something other than stand around blankly, but I half expect someone to go “What? No! You totally could! lrn2play!” on that one.)

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      Actually you totally could.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Right…then either my memory is crap or I somehow utterly missed that and my opinion should be dismissed appropriately.

    • Premium User Badge

      Henke says:

      You could give them orders. By simply giving them orders. Did you even _try_ to get into FS, or did you give up after 5 minutes? There weren’t any “random bullet misses” either, rather the time it takes for your unit to get a bead on and hit an enemy is calculated by position, stance, and cover. FS was by no means chaotic, not in the sense that attacks are calculated by random dicerolls at least, instead everything in it is determined by line of sight and the orders you’ve given (or not given) your units. It’s all pure math.

      • LionsPhil says:

        I did; I got quite a ways into the singleplayer and tried a few multiplayer rounds with a friend. We came away with the opinion that it was interesting to try (especially when it spawned a map where we had a couple of rocket-launchers each), but not something either of us wanted to play again.

        It’s chaotic in the mathematical chaos sense: very small changes ripple out to hugely unpredictable differences—a waypoint one pixel to the left or right can make a live/die difference. I know it’s not random; that would defeat the whole point. I just shouldn’t post before morning coffee…

    • Phobon says:

      What? No! You totally could! lrn2play!

      I think I know what you mean with the random miss. Nothing is more frustrating than a great plan failing because the opponent was a millisecond earlier than expected, but then I guess it’s part of a good plan to be robust to such things…

    • Benkyo says:

      I’m guessing your use of the word ‘random’ here means you didn’t really understand how Frozen Synapse works.

    • Meat Circus says:

      Wow. The fact that you could try out every possible enemy scenarios and nothing was random was the WHOLE POINT of Frozen Synapse.

      You really should have played the tutorial, because you seem to have bounced off it in a hideous way.

      • gwathdring says:

        No, it IS partially random. That there is no mechanical randomization does not change that. There are enough variables that one person cannot fully determine what their opponent will do; and by that I don’t mean their general tactic (that’s the point of the game) but their specific tactic. I can’t know where they’ll be down to the millimeter nor they where I’ll be so we are at an impasse and it’s basically down to chance sometimes.

        It’s a commonly touted in games design that perfect information leads to pure skill-based strategy or that (in the case of Frozen Synapse) the lack of dice and other randomizing elements removes randomness from play and makes the game one of pure, deterministic skill. I’m sorry, but these assumptions are simply wildly inaccurate. In some ways these kinds of idealized, more “perfect” games can be more random because their simplicity and lack of constraint through complicated rules renders them a computational nightmare of possibility. There are fewer ways to mitigate the effects of “unofficial” randomness such as whether your attention was wandering for a moment or two, whether your opponent had coffee more recently than you, whether or not you’ve happened to play an opponent who used a similar play, whether something in the play just happened to trigger your memory or your tactical machinations. We like to think we have control over these things, but we very often don’t and the matchup of two sets of such criterion between two players creates a lot of the unforeseeable.

        Now, this doesn’t condemn such games. More officially random games have these features, too. It’s just … “unofficial” randomness doesn’t carry with it some of the benefits of official randomness so it’s something you really have to think about when designing a strategy game. All of those types of randomness are unknowns. Dice (for example) are knowns. They have a particular distribution that is well understood. Having a more constrained (typically meaning more complicated rules), more randomized game can, if done properly, create not only a more accessible tactical experience but also a more reliable one. I can get a better idea of what tactics work out more often in a split second than I might in months of studying a more perfect game. Official randomness, if well designed, can overshadow the effects of unofficial randomness and even the playing field to make the game less one of study and more one of play. Whether or not that is the case depends entirely on the specifics, of course. And whether or not you like that is another matter.

        But that’s a whole different discussion that I’m just including because I find it fascinating and can’t help myself. In Frozen Synapse I have to be tedious to be certain. I have to try every arc-second, every millimeter just in case. And I have to do it with every unit of both mine and their. And … you know? That takes an incredible amount of mental effort. It can be so very exhausting that most of the time, in practice, I and my opponents leave a lot up to chance. There is not enough time in the day for even a meticulous player to pretend this doesn’t happen in their games, too … it’s just not possible for a human to cover it all in a reasonable amount of time.

        Yes, yes–a good player knows what hotspots and which units to focus on. How to feint to draw their opponent in … but so much of that is based on guessing the behavior of a stranger that it might as well be rolling the how-much-does-this-random-dude-play-like-my-friend-Henry percentile die. It’s just … I could keep going. There’s plenty of randomness in Frozen Synapse.

        • Kitsunin says:

          Very thoughtful. I completely agree on the idea of “Unofficial randomness”. It really is interesting that once you take a game’s complexity to a certain level (Generally, enough complexity for there to be no perfect play) it actually becomes far more accessible, without necessarily sacrificing competitiveness. It makes sense though – if you fail because you made a mistake, it’s much easier to understand and try not do it again, than if you fail because you didn’t pick the perfect play, at which point all you can do is study until you know what would have been better.

          I would add that even games with less unofficial randomness can obtain that by adding a time constraint. When you don’t have enough time to figure out what the perfect play is, you add mistakes into the mix, which makes things easier to understand (And also helps to prevent that feeling of exhaustion from needing to think way too hard about your play.) I actually had a friend who was pretty high ranked at speed-chess, and learned from him that it is a very different beast to regular chess. More fun, too, in my opinion, since it requires less rote thinking.

          It would be cool if on release Frozen Endzone did have speed-play options.

          • gwathdring says:

            Thank you. :) I came prepared–I wrote a bit about Chess earlier in the month and I sort of ripped it off by memory. :P

            One thing I also talked about that’s not really relevant to Frozen Synapse specifically is the match-up problem you get in Chess. Enough of chess revolves around pure knowledge (not pure memorization, mind, because context has to accompany the recognition for you to make the right move), that it punishes more organic tactics through the sheer complexity of game decisions. A mismatched game is boring for both players–the new player can’t rely on their inferior knowledge and their organic tactics will only occasionally result in superior position or the element of surprise; the old player can fall back onto basic principles and memorized plays because they won’t be required to puzzle out a way around a better or equal play by their opponent except on a few turns in the game. Those few turns will be tense, of course.

            Frozen Synapse does not share this problem quite so strongly as chess. Organic tactics are the entire game. Study can certainly improve your game, but not in the way it does for Chess.

            I haven’t played Speed Chess, so I’ll have to take your word for it that the speed helps. It certainly makes sense that such would be the case, but I imagined the higher you go the more form-centric it becomes even if it never becomes as bad as untimed chess.

          • zxc says:

            I find that to be a really strange comment about chess. What do you mean by ‘rote thinking’? In speed chess, players are using their pattern matching skills and intuition to the maximum. You’re largely on auto-pilot. So I would have said that speed chess has far more ‘rote thinking’ than normal timecontrol chess.

    • Wedge says:

      Yes, you could both simulate opponent movies and the game had 0% randomness to the firing. If anyone “missed” a shot, it was for aesthetic sakes. They allowed the drones to attempt to fire even when they had no statistical capacity to hit someone based on the distance/stance/cover (which is important because you can draw their attention by briefly coming into the open if you’re far away, and you could program your own ones to ignore targets if they would see someone at an ineffective distance).

      For the standard assault rifles, they were less accurate at further distances, but would eventually always hit a target if it was in the line of sight for a long enough time (further away taking longer to hit). I think sniper rifles took longer to focus at further distance (with a minimum time to fire making them useless within a certain range), and pretty sure shotguns would always hit, but obviously had a short range.

      • Fumarole says:

        Shotguns were the same as rifles in that they would occasionally perform the firing animation but not necessarily hit. It was much rarer, but it could certainly happen. It’s a moment that can make your heart skip a beat when you’re on the targeted side of the equation.

    • Leb says:

      Every bullet hit/miss in FS was predictable. In a 1 to 1 scenario with the same weapons, where pieces shoot at eachother in the same time:
      Stationary man vs moving man -> dead moving man
      Stationary man vs aiming man -> dead stationary man
      Moving aiming man vs moving man -> dead moving man

      I believe crouching & half cover also contributed to this as well. But essentially if situationally aware and making the right movements then you could always plan your shots. Moving without aiming was good for getting places quick, but it was the stationary/aim mechanic that would make it useful to que complex moves where you move, stop, aim left, slow walk, move into cover .

      The tutorial covered all this, and with the ability to play out the opponents possible moves you could test out every scenario and see what would happen

      • subedii says:

        Yeah I have to say, reading the complaints about FS and its so-called “randomness” and “unfairness” just comes across to me as people not understanding how the game works.

        The game is fully deterministic. You put the same inputs in, and you’ll get the exact same outputs every time. This ties into the core mechanic of the game, the simulation which allows you to test out all your various plans and scenarios, and FAR more importantly, simulate the enemy’s behaviour. You hit play and see if what you want to do plays out as you intended.

        There have been extremely few games that have ever tasked me with getting inside my opponent’s head like FS did. You plan your course of action, but all the while you have to be wary of what his best plan of attack is likely to be, and develop plans to counter-act it. But maybe he won’t do x, he’ll do y instead. So you start thinking and anticipating his likely angles of attack are, and what course of action leaves you in the best position to counter-act them. Lines of site, timing, moving in or guarding, flanking or anticipating, you get into some serious wheels within wheels levels of thinking.

        More than most games, when I play FS, I feel like I’m playing the guy opposite, not the game and it’s rules. It is an extremely awesome feeling when you hit Prime, and the enemy behaves exactly the way you anticipated he would, resulting in his plans falling to pieces as his squad gets removed with surgical precision by your own.

        And when I lose, I feel like it’s because the guy outsmarted me (or I was extremely stupid and left an obvious avenue of attack unanticipated). You go back and look at the replay and you see how he behaved, how he covered his angles and approaches, and anticipated your behaviour. You feel as if you learn more from your failure (at least about the failings in how you acted in given scenarios) than you do from victory.

        All in all, there’s few multiplayer games that really got me like Frozen Synapse did.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Screwie says:

    “What I’m most concerned about is that Endzone only offers so many permutations of victory, defeat and surprise.”

    This I feel could have been remedied with a system for long-term player development, and skills that can be learned to throw added wrinkles and permuataions into the tactical tackliing mix.

    But at that point I realise I’m just looking for another Blood Bowl, which – fair enough – this game wasn’t planning to be.

    • Kitsunin says:

      The single player campaign will apparently have stats and upgrades for your mans in a vaguely roguelike type experience. They said there will be a league mode for multiplayer, but also (Longer ago than the league mode statement so…?) that there will be no upgrades in the multiplayer; there will be different classes of man to make up for that, however.

  5. wodin says:

    No thanks. I think if they had gone more speedball theme..and have humans with traits and personalities, injuries and death so that you get attached to them and have star players etc then I’d be up for it..but it looks and sounds a pretty sterile experience.

    • Meridian99 says:

      I think they actually are planning to do all that. From what i know the game is more than just the playing the match part

  6. Jason Moyer says:

    a.) This looks incredibly awesome and b.) I would absolutely die for a game like this based on proper American football.

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    strangeloup says:

    I like the idea, but in practice I couldn’t do anything in Frozen Synapse but die and die and die and die forever. I absolutely cannot get my head around this simultaneous-turn-based thing.

    • Baines says:

      I can get my head around simultaneous turns, but something about Frozen Synapse never clicked.

      Even if the shooting isn’t random, it *feels* random. I’d run several simulations of crossing a hallway and living, then run the real turn and die from the same enemy’s long range desperation fire. I’d set up a situation where it seemed my character (protected by cover) should get the drop on a turned open enemy, only to agonizingly see the AI enemy turn (for seemingly no reason) and fire first, getting the kill shot before my character. I want to recall sneaking up on an enemy with a shotgun user, only for the shotgun (which was in range) to miss and the enemy landing a kill shot the instant before the shotgun user could fire again.

  8. Phasma Felis says:

    Oh, wow, do you Brits actually pronounce Beta as “Beeter”? I…I had no idea.

  9. Lusketrollet says:

    I love Frozen Synapse to pieces, but the Frozen Endzone-beta did sadly make me suffer quite a bit from the “is this it?”-syndrome.

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