Review: Frozen Synapse 213 Sep 2018 0
Review: Frozen Synapse 2
Released 13 Sep 2018
There is a very fine line between ‘good tactics’ and ‘overwhelming tactics’. A good balance of deep yet accessible tactical options, like XCOM achieves so unbelievably well, is rare -- most games either dumb it down too much or get way too complex for its own sake. While Frozen Synapse 2 is one of the latter, it tries its damnedest to be accessible at the same time.
A continuation of 2011’s simultaneous turn-based title, Frozen Synapse 2 expands the original squad-based tactical combat into a bonafide strategy game. The tactics side is expanded, the arsenals broadened, and the field of operations stretched to the brim -- instead of guiding squads through linear levels, you’re now in control of a security company in a procedurally generated city.
The developers like to call that ‘open world tactics’, and they are not wrong -- the open world map feels almost like a grand strategy game, packed with diplomacy, logistics, and military options. From contracts and mission dispatch to ammunition replenishment services, the map portion of the game includes so many options that it almost approaches wargame-levels of complexity.
Frozen Synapse 2 gives you several options of what to do, from patrolling buildings and dealing with terrorist incursions to robbing banks and assassinating important figures. You’re even allowed to send strike teams to crossroads and establish checkpoints, creating an interesting dynamic where you can lockdown areas of the city with enough manpower and influence.
Whenever one of those actions causes the proverbial excrement to hit the powered machine used to create air flow, the game drops from its management interface down to its signature top-view tactical combat. Here, you assume direct control of every single soldier in your squad and must eliminate all hostiles on the map.
Soldiers -- or mercs, as they prefer -- come equipped with a variety of load-outs, from staples like pistols and shotguns to slightly-out-there weapons like flamethrowers and miniguns. More situational support units, like knife, smoke grenade, or riot shield-totting troops are also available, allowing players a lot of flexibility when assembling their squad.
The unit command options take a page out of the city book, providing you with an ungodly amount of options to control your guys. The game's basic toolset involves a simple set of commands consisting of move and look at options, but right clicking on a spot brings up a context menu that looks more like an excel sheet; you can create macro-like chain of commands to order each soldier to stop for a while, ignore enemies, and more, allowing you to control every single step they take. It's a micromanager's heaven -- and a real leader's nightmare.
Once orders are given, the actions of you and your enemies play out in real time, but the AI sucks -- both yours, and theirs. Your guys take an agonising long time to acquire and fire on a target unless you accurately predict to a meter where their target is going to be, while enemies constantly changes direction randomly regardless of outside stimuli. One turn they are going to investigate a supposedly empty room your guys have secretly set an ambush on, the next they are moving away from it at a 90 degree angle just to zig zag around aimlessly for the next three turns. It's frustrating and makes predictions an act of luck instead of strategy -- in an effort to be humanly unpredictable, enemies instead come off as erratic twitchy robotic drones.
That enemy prediction thing is one of my biggest gripes with the game, both its concept and implementation. Frozen Synapse 2 forgoes a line of sight/face here mechanic for a "focus diamond" meant to represent exactly where the enemy is meant to be. The closer it is to the diamond, the quicker your guy can fire a shot. However, the constant erratic movement of enemies makes that mechanic 99% ineffective outside of stationary enemies or those walking through doorways, and the requirement to set the diamond before queuing move commands makes the whole ordeal *extremely* unintuitive.
In fact, that is pretty much Frozen Synapse 2's biggest fault: it fails to properly explains actions and their consequences, and the complicated UI makes every single act a complicated unnecessary mental gymnastics. Missions like checkpoints have no latitude and automatically fail if you leave the area regardless if you got another squad close-by en route to set up, interactions with buildings and mission events/people require a thoroughly arbitrary and repetitive series of clicks, and the whole command section of gameplay is decidedly obtuse -- you can't just click on a squad and right click where you want him to go, or select a mission and click "Send squad here" and be done with it; every action requires multiple clicks in different parts of the screen to achieve a single meagre outcome.
The UI is also quite bad, not doing a proper job of displaying all you need to know in a clear and quickly readable way. It also fails to scale properly in high resolutions, making menus and buttons small in 4K.
The graphics themselves are good looking, though Frozen Synapse 2 does tend towards the visually polluted instead of the cleaner look of its predecessor. Soundtrack and audio are both surprisingly enjoyable, the former an elementary techno-inspired score by nervous testpilot that perfectly fits the game. Those elaborate compositions are pretty much the only other thing you'll hear besides weapons' fire and the computer's voice, so it's a good thing it all clicks together quite nicely.
In the end, Frozen Synapse 2 as a whole can be a bit overwhelming to learn at first, but that doesn't change the fact it's a good game with a great idea on its procedurally generated city map. The game itself is very enjoyable, though it could use with a few extra months of accessibility testing and a serious bout of UI redesign.
As it stands, Frozen Synapse 2 is truly an interesting experiment -- an attempt to expand the scope while keeping the original's focus and the directive that a successful mission always ends the same way: with everyone but you dead. It is a capable game that should appeal more to hardcore wargamers than more casual strategy enthusiasts, however, as I suspect its unintuitive menu will put off a lot of strategic-minded people with no patience for obtuseness.