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Hands on with Frostpunk 2 reveals a wasteland that’s more about wheelin’ and dealin’ than mere survivin’

Still plenty of ways to make children miserable, though

The furnace at the city centre in Frostpunk 2
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/11 bit studios

My city has become far too egalitarian for the Icebloods. Marxist policy choices mean the faction are now protesting in my coal mines, shutting down a vital heat pipeline and fomenting further dissent among the now freezing broader populace. It is, regrettably, time to talk. They want me to pass the Apex Workers decree, a darwinian shift towards culling the weak while enhancing the strong. That’ll mean a tasty increase to production efficiency, so I’m not complaining - but the Technocrats will, so the vote won’t pass unless I can persuade the Machinists, their less extreme cousins, to support the bill. Not to worry: I promise the Machinists they can choose the next law we vote on, and watch a chunk of undecided voters shift towards implied eugenics.

The Frostpunk 2 beta has rammed home how different my role is to Frostpunk 1’s dictator. I’m more of a smooth talkin’, palm-greasin’ mayor tasked with keeping a dozen ideologically-opposed plates spinning above a city that could be one harsh blizzard from disaster. I like it, even though at times this jaunt to the a-popsicle-ypse can feel less like solving a crunchy puzzle and more like wading through politics soup.

I’ve been playing a limited preview of the Utopia Builder mode, which Katharine already got a peek at and will serve as a more sandboxy (snowboxy?) accompaniment to the story mode in the full game. The preview ends after you either a) discover oil by exploring the frostlands surrounding your city, b) fritter away 300 weeks without managing that, or c) stumble into complete societal collapse because your citizens don’t trust you anymore. You can try it yourself if you pre-order, though be warned that there are loads of technologies and laws still held back for the full release. You can’t even upgrade your generator.

It’s an omission that’s helpfully representative of the shift in focus. The generator in Frostpunk the first was this big hungry belching beast of a focal point, its proximity to every building of huge import. Now it sits in the centre of a metropolis you govern from a more zoomed-out perspective, still hungry, but much less demanding of your attention than the council chamber and its constant votes. Management decisions outside the voting chamber can lean towards the macro over the micro, with wood and steel subsumed into “resources” that fuel entire districts you actually build with money rather than materials. You can still twiddle with work-shifts and place individual buildings within those districts, plus there are adjacency bonuses that reward basic city-planning, but overall Frostpunk 2 takes one big step away from granular survival and one giant leap towards societal cohesion-weaving. I started having much more fun once I stopped lamenting that loss.

Satisfaction from solving that more direct survival puzzle may be diffused, but the way survival dovetails with the nitty gritty of politics still provides plenty to chew over. Building a moss-filtration tower lowered my squalor but pissed off the Machinists, for instance, because I’d promised to tear those towers down in favour of a more mechanical solution. To make it up to them I promised I’d pass a law requiring everyone do a share of machine maintenance, forgetting I’d actually given the next vote to the Foragers, who it turned out were hell bent on repealing a law that improved city productivity rather than speeding up expeditions to the frostlands. Consequences abound, and the one run I tried on hard mode saw my promises run out of control, unruly factions undoing each other’s work while running my city into the ground. When you start swirling down a death spiral, collapse can seem inevitable.

A screen on Frostpunk 2 describing controversy as a researcher tried to destroy documents about 'Apex Workers'
Voting on a law in Frostpunk 2 - the Family Apprenticeship law, meaning all children must work alongside a relative to learn their trade
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/11 bit studios

At its best, when you’re not being crushed under them, there’s this pleasing domino effect where your decisions tumble into other ones, spinning interdependent cogs hooked up to a steam engine called society. It creates moments where you get to feel dead clever, promising to build structures you already planned on popping down, or allowing votes on measures you don’t want but know will never pass. “I was just about to build that mechanised sawmill anyway, you jerks. I mean, valued citizens.”

There are drawbacks. It can discourage long-term planning: when everything was ticking along nicely and I didn’t have a pressing problem to solve, which was nearly always the case on the default medium difficulty, I found myself just researching whatever my least-satisfied faction wanted me to. Like in the first game, it seems I’ll spend most of my time either a little too comfortable or feeling doomed and wondering whether I should load a save. It also led to playing more reactively, milling about and swapping between policy choices rather than gleefully climbing a tech-tree to unlock transformative new powers.

In one playthrough, I implemented a Technocrat-pleasing machine-based labour policy rather than turning to those Apex Workers - but it didn’t change much in practice. Your city can progress towards ideals like Adaptability and Reason and Equality, but - at least in this preview - I often wound up forgetting what kind of society I was building because it was inevitably always a mishmash. The whole game’s built around balancing decisions against each other, and knowing there are abundant ways to bring up whatever dial you’re about to bring down can make each individual decision less significant. Those cogs will keep a-churning, whether you choose to balance moss-filtration towers with messy grinding coal mines or mechanical ventilation with cleaner dust coal pits.

A zoomed out view of a growing city in Frostpunk 2
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/11 bit studios

That’s remedied by the events, which do serve to remind you What You’ve Done and often come with an option to row that back a bit. One event popped up thanks to me implementing “communal parenthood”, resulting in a thought process that was pretty much “oh yeah, I guess I did institute compulsory state-run child rearing, but now I’ll have to punish this mother for stealing back her own baby”. Another time a child died from heartbreak because I wouldn’t let her mum through quarantine, and on yet another occasion I found myself reassuring a distraught yet unproductive mother deemed not useful enough to enter my city that her daughter was inside living a productive life as a seamstress. They do like playing the ol’ distressed family angle, though it’s not all gloom. At one point my “dutiful youth” initiative led to some kids making me a nice statue, and every now and then I’d see an appreciative speech bubble pop up from that part of town.

Those touches go a long way to making your city feel lived-in, alongside occasional tannoy announcements telling people not to litter or warning them about increased traffic thanks to an Automaton blocking the road. I didn’t come across this in the preview, but it’d be great to see the tone and content of those start shifting once your city goes far enough down a certain road. I want announcements about my free food banks, or warnings about properly treating Apex Workers as priority citizens.

The presentation is excellent elsewhere, too, with menacing black tendrils dangling from the symbols that display how cold, hungry, diseased or crime-ridden your people are, growing as problems worsen before turning blood red when they reach catastrophic levels. Ice starts splintering around the edges of your screen as a colder season or - so much worse - a whiteout rolls in, potentially paired with sirens and the red gloom of increasingly dysfunctional districts if your trust falls too low.

It is, all in all, quite promising. I can’t be more conclusive with such a relatively small sliver of the game, but I’m hoping my cities will take on more of a distinct ideological character as more extreme policies get unlocked. A tech called “worker obsolescence” is currently tantalisingly greyed out, for example, while alternative starting conditions in the full Utopia Builder mode promise “Workers and Merchants” or “Lords and Thinkers” as initial factions. Different factions provide different buildings alongside ideological pressures, so that could make for alluringly distinct runs, too. Maybe Marxist paradise awaits after all - though we’ll all have to wait ‘til July 25th to find out.

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