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Impressions: Frozen Endzone

Hot action, cold bottom

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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