Frozen Endzone first-look: tackling tactically in Mode 7's competitive robot sports sim
If you took all the pomp and spectacle out of American Football and boil it down to a few key moments, you'd have Frozen Endzone (or a Melted Endzone, if you're being pedantic). You'd also need to randomise the pitch and player positions, make it turn-based, and add robots, but the shoulder pads, balls, and tactical tosses are ripped straight from the playbook.
Playing Frozen Endzone is like watching a coach's game-changing scrawl come to life: each game begins with two teams of five facing off on a randomised pitch of high and low walls, with the attackers running down the screen to the Endzone. Each bot on the field is controlled by placing waypoints for them to follow, drawing out routes through the series of random walls the game generates. Depending on the side, you're either hoping to set-up a glorious series of snaps that'll end with a touchdown, or positioning players to arrest the attacking team's goal charge.
Endzone is a simultaneous turn-based game: you make your move and the server syncs the game with whomever is on the other side. It enables you to contemplate all the possibilities, with the tactical editor enabling you to test out your plans and what you imagine your opposition will do before committing to the move. Each move ticks along until something happens, or a small amount of time has passed, and the first play sets a lot of the action up. If you pass the ball, you'll leave yourself with a few options; running right away means that the ball will always be in that player's possession. So it's best to pass and plan, to snap the ball across the level, and set up moves and feints that allow you to bypass the opposition's positioning, because the moment the ball-runner is tackled or the ball is in the opposition's hands, it's game-over.
Though it's the beefier cousin of Mode 7's tactical combat game, Frozen Synapse, the granular control you had over the combatants in that game has given way to bigger, less conservative moves: you can currently only make decisions over when to toss the ball and when and where the players run. The bots take care of catching, intercepting or blocking according to the context, so all you're really concerned with is the overall structure of the play, which needs to take consider those randomly-generated walls: both styles of wall blocks the bot's movement, and while high walls block everything, low walls will allow the ball to pass over. I've won games by tossing a ball from one of the pitch to the other, thanks to the luck and a handy placement of low walls. It's that sort of moment that never regularly occurred in my games Synapse, but one I've seen a few times in Endzone: players seem likely to attempt something ludicrous, because they are already robots with shoulderpads so why not?
It becomes a game of positional consideration, with the occasional moment of subterfuge. A static player will always block a moving player, and you can use that to clog up pathways, but you can always just pretend to send a player down one section of the level, snapping another direction and hoping the plan holds. If you're playing as part of a series, it's not always best practice to aim right for the Endzone: small glowing tiles on the pitch will give you extra points if you manage to tag them with the ball runner, and there are larger tiles called "midzones", that can end the game early if you run into them with the ball runner. It is possible, as I've found out to my cost, to lull the opposition into thinking you're going for an easy victory before turning away at the last moment and aiming for Endzone.
The beta is out now, and it's expected to last a year. It's impressively solid: there's already online matchmaking and overall leaderboards in place, and I have four games from random challengers sitting in my menu waiting for a move. Mode 7 have stated they'll be adding plenty of customisation options, including modes that will allow for bots to have different stats. Buying into will gain you an extra beta key for a friend, and with the mature platform Mode 7 have, it can only improve.