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Wot I Think: Frozen Cortex

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Frozen Cortex [official site], formerly Frozen Endzone, is a futuristic American Football analogue where surprisingly graceful robots take the place of fleshy, armour-clad men. It’s evocative of Speedball and Blood Bowl, but it’s really Frozen Synapse wrapped in the theme of competitive team sports. The result’s a purely strategic and tactical game, entirely absent RNG, with players taking their turns simultaneously. I’m quite bad at it.

I used to play a lot of poker, and I only ever had one strategy: act like a maniac. If they couldn’t predict what I was going to do next, if they couldn’t get a read on me, then I’d be sure to win. I thought this every time and rarely did better than break even. I was so focused on what I was doing  that I never spared a thought for my opponents. It’s a bad habit that Frozen Cortex has forced me to break.

The strongest throwing arm, the thickest shoulders, the fleetest feet – these are all ancillary. The greatest weapon in a Frozen Cortex coach’s arsenal is empathy. With turns taking place simultaneously, you’ve got to react to what you think your opponent will do, sometimes several moves ahead. When the next turn starts, where will their robots be? And where will they be after that?

A play, which usually lasts until the ball is picked up or intercepted, is the result of countless tiny decisions. It might only be seconds long, but planning out these seconds – the meat of the game – can be a lengthy process. This all plays out during the planning phase, where players get control over both their own team and the opposing one. It’s like having a crystal ball that reveals all the possible futures, but never which one will come true.

Intuitive controls make crafting virtual plays a doddle, and there’s absolutely no buggering around. Robots from both teams can be clicked on, while another click sets their destination, and if it looks like an enemy robot is going to be in the road, waypoints can be laid out to create a more elaborate route. Attackers, whether AI controlled or the minions of another player, tend to charge when they are trying to intercept, so a bit of zig-zagging or an unconventional route can pay off.

Every route can be stretched and every waypoint dragged, allowing every journey to be laid out with exacting precision. Even more fine-tuning can be achieved with the timer that can be manipulated on every waypoint. If you need a robot to move, but not right away, maybe to avoid a collision, then the timer’s a real boon.

Not heading straight for the endzone can actually net a team more points. While a goal is worth seven points, bonus points can be picked up for travelling across markers dotting the pitch. If you run through a bunch of them, and manage to reach the endzone, well then you’ve basically robbed a bank. But it’s bloody disheartening when that happens to you, and it probably will. That’s when you dramatically throw your cap on the ground in disgust.

When it looks like a run will only end in disaster, there’s always that powerful, robotic throwing arm. Any robot with the ball can toss it – a long way, too. Passes are fraught with danger though. What looks like a gap during the planning phase could be blocked by a sneaky rust-bucket on the opposing team, waiting to intercept the ball. If that seems like a risk, however, then it’s simple enough to click on the opposition’s robots and see if they’ll be able reach the path of the ball in time.

Watching those throws is a singular delight that I have, after a particularly emotional game and a couple of drams, described as “orgasmic”. When a turn plays out, it does so with cinematic flair, with fancy angles and slow-motion. And when it shows a long pass, drawing it out, making the wait agonising, well, it’s pretty hot.

It’s not all sexy, though, it does have quite a bit robot crotch-kicking and choking. This is a rough sport, where beatings take the place of tackles. These all happen automatically when robots enter each other’s tackle or chase zones. So if the ball-carrier tears down the middle and gets close to one of your defenders, even if you haven’t given him orders that turn, he’ll still give chase and hammer his foe on the head. This leaves your brain free to focus solely on positioning and movement.

All of these moves can be tested, tweaked and chucked out until the “perfect” play is found, and that can take a while. It’s something that inspires obsessive experimentation, and if the other coach does something you didn’t anticipate in your virtual play, a complex plan can come crumbling down. So many turns end in nail-biting tension, staring at a single robot, praying that they don’t go left. And then, in a moment, it’s over. The bastard went left.

Every time a play is committed to, it feels like this massive, weighty investment, bearing down until the outcome flashes onto the screen. Then it rushes out, in my case vocally. I shout and I roar, railing against misfortune or revelling in an amazing, lucky run. In those seconds, my brain must look a lot like it does when I’m watching the rugby. But while I’m only getting up off my chair and yelling at the TV or at the pitch a couple of times during a rugby match, Frozen Cortex is almost entirely made up of those climactic moments.

The whole game is like a highlight reel full of big hits, desperate chases and huge throws. Perhaps the lives of sports fans of the future are just too busy for games that go on for well over an hour. The size of the pitch is a big part of why Frozen Cortex is so damn fast. The pitch is bloody tiny; an itsy bitsy pitch that you could fit in your pocket. First impression: adorable!

I wouldn’t deign to mock it now. It’s the perfect size. The robots, five in each team, are placed perilously close to each other, and the pitch is peppered with walls, taking up much of the already cramped real estate. Some walls are low enough so that the ball can be thrown over them, but none can be climbed over, making the pitch a bit of a maze. They walls serve to funnel robots down certain paths, creating ambush zones and choke points, and that’s when Cortex stops feeling like a sport and starts to feel like two squads of warriors colliding.

The walls and the small maps are not restrictive. They inspire more confrontation and put players in difficult situations where every choice is meaningful. A huge, sprawling field might, ostensibly, offer more options, but not more impactful ones. Every move made should be part of a bigger plan, should be important, and as a match plays out, a single step in one direction can make the difference between victory and a painfully narrow defeat.

Frozen Cortex’s distilled tension makes each match feel like the best bits of sport and strategy gaming, but outside of the hot robot-on-robot action, things are rather dull.

Teams work their way up league ladders in a few single-player modes, one of which has a knockout rule, because permadeath is en vogue. There’s a dash of team management in the pre-game menus, and it’s really nothing more than a dash. The mechanical squads can be customised at the start of the season, in purely aesthetic terms, but after that, they are frozen in time. Robo-footballers don’t make any progress, there’s no training and no chance of an upgraded operating system or a new circuit board. They can be replaced with new robots with money earned from matches and bets, but with them being interchangeable, there’s no real opportunity to get attached to a team.

On top of the paper-thin management, there’s a story of corruption within the league that dodders along between matches. It’s told through a series of awkward interviews with dreary coaches and reporters, and it has no real bearing on the games. It’s hard not to just skip all the nonsense and go straight to the Future Ball. That’s where all the progress happens, anyway. The game doesn’t change, robots don’t level up, but how I play has certainly evolved, and maybe that’s all it needs – personal progress. And the best way to make that progress is the tried and tested method of failure and ass-kickings.

Some people are really, really good at Frozen Cortex. They might be psychics, robots or, god forbid, robot-psychics. And while every failure left me flushed with impotent rage, I try not to forget how I was defeated. Every game holds the promise of unanticipated strategies, ones that can get stored away and used against someone else. I haven’t reached the point where I keep a secret book of plays locked up in a drawer with a turned down photograph of an ex-wife, a bottle of bourbon and a gun, but that might not be a bad idea.

I still remember my first victory, which isn’t very surprising since it was less than a week ago, but it is memorable. I was, after a few very bad matches against some slightly more experienced players, finally pitted against a fellow fresh-faced newbie. Excitement started bubbling away, and I scrambled around in my brain trying to remember all the things that caught me out in my first couple of matches. And then I saw an opening, a chance to make a massive, dangerous run across most of the pitch.

All of my robots, apart from the ball-carrier, were on the left, waiting for a pass, or prepared to block an enemy if I decided to make a run down that side. That route was calling to me. “Fraser,” it whispered, “I’m totally safe. Loot at all the burly robot athletes standing around.” But it was just so obvious. The other coach would surely expect that. The path on the right was another matter. I was yelling during that whole run, banging on my desk and whooping like an imbecile, watching my little automaton narrowly escape a grabby foe when he turned a corner. When I saw the robot pass over the line and do his endzone dance, I accidentally knocked over the plate of toast that was to be my prize.

That stirring tale of victory against someone even less experienced than myself would have been a good place to end this Wot I Think, if it wasn’t for the bit about ruining breakfast. I can’t end it on toast. This gives me an opportunity to talk about style, which has nothing to do with the most important meal of the day.

The minimalism of Frozen Synapse has been set aside in favour of a more vibrant, but very clean, style. The robots all sport handsome holograms, brightly-coloured but not gaudy, and the pitches are sleek and utilitarian, apart from all the neon. The stadiums are frequently set in peculiar, out of the way locations, like the secret lair of a Bond villains, and it just so happens that these locations are all incredibly striking, from frozen mountain peaks to colossal caverns filled with magma. It’s a weird juxtaposition of Tron-like sci-fi and epic, natural vistas.

It’s easy to ignore the style in a game that’s all about laser focus. The most convenient way to play if from a bird’s eye view, turning the pitch into a board, and the board becomes everything, isolated from distractions. There’s no pageantry, either. You won’t find crowds cheering your robots on or vuvulezas bursting eardrums. It’s silent, apart from the excellent, hypnotic nervous_testpilot soundtrack.

Everything is stripped away, leaving two coaches to duke it out over a weird looking ball. It’s how robots would design a sport if, you know, they actually liked sport. Just the bare essentials, all purity and rawness with simple rules, simple tools and a clear objective. It’s a game that, at a glance, you know how to play. And you should probably go and do that.

Frozen Cortex is out now.

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Who am I?

Fraser Brown

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Premature Evaluation caretaker. Likes strategy games almost as much as he likes labradoodles.

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