Accidental Review: Frozen SynapsePosted by Tom on 9th June, 2011
This wasn’t supposed to be a review when I started, but it kinda turned out that way when I finished. Don’t take this as a sign that reviews are A Thing That We Do.
Frozen Synapse is a strategy game distilled to its most basic components. You have limited units, limited actions and limited control. You set up the moves that you want your units to make, based on how you think your opponent will set up their moves. You are both guessing at what your opponent will do, and reacting to that. Once both of you have pressed the Prime button, your respective dudes will play out their respective moves at the same time, and you will see who successfully predicted the opponent’s moves, and who stood behind a wall that got hit by a rocket.
You can take as much or as little time as you like working on your turn before you hit the Prime button. You can set up and play out the moves you think your opponent will make, and then do practice runs against your imagined foe. You can hone your plan over and over without punishment. It even allows for play-by-email style of play. Seriously, play-by-email. As in, you wait for an email notification saying that the game is ready for your next turn. As in, so freaking old school.
In most strategy games, you need to have an understanding of the mechanics as well as the skill to pull off the things that you want to do. I can make “I’ll build up a mutalisk/baneling army to attack his mineral line and his wall-off at the same time” plans until the cows come home, but I’m not gonna be able to actually pull it off. By making Frozen Synapse in such a way that your pre-prepared steps play out at the same time, mode7 have removed the problem of having to be a fast player. You can take as much time as you like honing your strategy down to pixel perfect precision before you commit.
Once you’ve taken away the difficulties of reaction times and mouse accuracy, you are left with pure undiluted strategy. You have to predict what your opponent will do, and prepare your guys to counter that. You have to predict what your opponent will predict that you are doing, and prepare your guys to counter the counter that your opponent is preparing. You have to work out how many levels of bluff your opponent is likely to be working with, and then work on one further level of bluff than that. There may be situations where you can counter everything your foe is likely to throw at you, but in almost all cases, you have to guess which path your opponent will take and cross your fingers.
At the professional levels, this is what all competitive games are like. When I watch a pro Starcraft 2 match, I can see the deliberate reason for every action clearly. For these players, things like mouse speed are irrelevant. When every player has the skill to complete every action that enters their mind, all that’s left in the competition is predicting and reacting to your opponent’s moves. In a professional Street Fighter tournament, the players aren’t struggling with “wait, which punch am I supposed to use to make my guy do that one move?” they’re struggling with “I’m about to get hit by this move so if I block and counter with this move then something something hadouken” (can you tell that I don’t know very much about fighting games?).
Frozen Synapse, like Flotilla before it, allows players to concentrate entirely on the strategy. You get a taste of what pros must feel like constantly. In one game I snuck my shotgunner out of the room into which my enemy was hurling grenades, kept him carefully behind cover until he was just around the corner from the grenadier, when he jumped out and shot him point blanc. My friend was so confused. It was the best. If I had to do something that complicated in real time, I’d accidentally press the calculator button on my keyboard and crash the whole damn game.
There are obviously other strategy games that are slow and turn-based, like the Civilization games. The problem here is that the strategy element is vast. There are so many moving parts that I can’t handle difficulty settings past “Our Leader’s a Moron.” You have research, tile improvement, unit production, unit micromanagement, unit improvement, great units, war, bombardment, barbarians, tile improvements, roads, trade routes, border adjustments, diplomacy ratings, buildings, wonders (both national and global), cultural capital, city states, citizen happiness, exploration, resource trading, research trading, map trading, etc., etc. and etc. Granted, you don’t have to worry about all of these things all of the time, but you do still have to worry about them.
Frozen Synapse has very few mechanics and is very transparent about those mechanics. The tutorial teaches you everything that you need to go straight into a multiplayer game (that said, a grenade tutorial would be nice, and I had no idea that when you shoot a rocket while crouched it destroys cover), and the slow, deliberate pace allows you to really think about what you’re doing. It’s easy to understand what’s happening, so when watching a replay of your defeat you are never left wondering how it happened.
One day, I will play Street Fighter like this. Choosing from a mental list of possible moves and counters instantly, seeing possible future moves written on screen like Matrix code, throwing out all manners of -ukens without even thinking about it. For now I’ll keep hitting buttons until one of them counters that stupid electric Blanka move.