I’ve always thought that the game of chess needed more guns. You can say what you want about the flexibility of the queen or the unpredictability of the knight, but what it boils down to is if the bishops brought bazookas, pawns packed pistols and the king carried kalashnikovs, I can’t help but feel that the international chess championships would have a far larger audience.
Mode 7’s Frozen Synapse is the next generation of chess. You can forget Star-Trek’s tri-dimensional nonsense (I’m sure Spock cheated half the time anyway), FS takes turn-based strategising to the next level with a simple concept that results in astonishing depth. Presented in a top-down viewpoint, the stylised blueprint graphics and bright colours seem friendly enough, but they betray an infinite battleground of death and destruction.
Playing FS is a game of matching wits with your opponent. Each turn you issue precise orders to your small squad of soldiers, then hope to god that you’ve managed to successfully anticipate your opponents commands. It is not a game of random chance. In addition to plotting and adapting your own moves each turn, you can also map out those expected of your opponent and see how the two interact.
Once you’ve satisfied yourself that there is no way on earth your opponent could have outmanoeuvred you, the commit button lurks ominously at the bottom of the screen. Click that button and there’s no going back. The turn will play out, the soldiers will move, and many of them will die. The best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry, as Frost once said. He must have played at least a couple of rounds of Frozen Synapse, as frequently your finest plans will dissolve in a hail of gunfire.
The single player campaign is gripping enough, providing a variety of scenarios that offer a number of unusual situations, but it is the online multiplayer where FS really shines. It is a viciously unforgiving environment. A new player will easily find themselves taken apart by veterans, but it is astonishing just how rapidly you will ascend the learning curve. Every game I played brought valuable lessons about the correct use of cover, overlapping fields of view, and it wasn’t long before I started to notch up victories. Also, thanks to the developers generosity, Frozen Synapse comes as a pair so you can hand one copy to a friend and experience the highs and lows of learning together.
If I was to level one complaint at Frozen Synapse it would be directed at its terrain generator. Each map is entirely randomised, and as a result is that games are quite often unfairly weighted towards one competitor. When the rest of the game is balanced so effectively, it is surprising that the developers didn’t do more to ensure a level playing field.
Actually, I have another complaint – the AI. Any computer that can beat me so thoroughly and consistently over so many matches should be instantly unplugged before we end up with Skynet hammering on our doors. I’ve tried suggesting a nice game of tic-tac-toe, but the blood-thirsty machine just hurled the board aside and demanded more blood.
Frozen Synapse is tough, but infinitely rewarding. Its turn based nature make it ideal for people with limited gaming time at their disposal. Best of all however, a demo is freely available on Steam, so there’s really no excuse for not at least trying it out.
(Originally published on Contains Moderate Peril 13/09/11)