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.