Frozen Synapse 2
A lot of the game’s charm stems from the fact that it feels surprisingly organic
Developer/publisher Mode 7 Format PC Release Out now
Like thought, it happens in flashes. After several minutes of long, careful planning and secondguessing, everything unfurls in seconds. Units dash forward, meeting unexpected enemy resistance. The screen is cross-hatched with fluorescent bullet trails, a grenade tumbles lazily down, sending out its first ripples of light, and then – everything pauses again.
Whether you’re playing solo or against fellow tacticians online, this is the basic shape of every match in Frozen Synapse 2. Both sides program their soldiers with five seconds’ worth of orders at a time, before hitting the all-important ‘prime’ button and watching it all play out. Vitally, in that planning phase, you’re not only figuring out commands to give to your units – you’re predicting how your opponent might react, with the game showing you the hypothetical results. Say you send a shotgun unit down a hallway, ready to surprise two of theirs as they step through a nearby door. But then you notice another enemy outside the building, rocket launcher slung over one shoulder. What happens if you drag the target from them to this outer wall?
Pressing play, you watch a simulated five-second snippet that shows your unit caught by the outer fringe of the explosion. If your opponent does indeed make this decision, aim the rocket at that spot, this is exactly how it will play out. There are no dice rolls in Frozen Synapse, no margin for error. Back to the shotgunner, then. You move them ever so slightly, and once again hit play. This time, they’re safe. Confident, you commit to this new course of action – only to discover the rocket is actually careening towards your exposed sniper instead. And those two ambush-victims-in-waiting? They never even walked through the door. This is where the game really takes place: in the push and pull between your predictions, scribbled out on the canvas of the planning phase and those five-second flashes of reality. It’s particularly exhilarating when playing online, where a correct guess means you’ve infiltrated the mind of another human being, and outsmarted them.
Without that human element, the singleplayer campaign’s charms lie elsewhere. This is where the sequel’s expansion is most obvious. As well as new units – a flamethrower which lays down a fat triangle of impassable fire, minelayer and turret troops to bolster defensive play – and bigger, more lively maps, the structure of the campaign itself has been rebuilt from the ground up. Fairly literally, in fact, because each new game constructs a bespoke city to play in. This city is a complex simulation in its own right, with AI factions going about their business in the world around you. This can mean attacking your strongholds or rushing after objectives, but it can also mean ferrying resources around the city or making investments in one another.
The amount of options available to you is similarly dizzying. You can treat the city as just a particularly extravagant strategy layer between the story missions, where you manage your finances to hire new troops and shuttle them from HQ to mission. Or you can get fully caught up in its mechanisms. This stretches from buying property to robbing banks; from negotiating with faction leaders to switching ammunition providers on the cyberpunk equivalent of a price-comparison site.
After a quick tutorial, the game all but abandons you on its simulated streets. There are help menus, but they’re densely packed and often don’t contain the information you’re looking for. Frozen Synapse 2 is packed tight with ideas, but it could do a far better job of explaining them. This goes all the way down to the most foundational interaction: two soldiers facing off in those five-second bursts of tactical action. The game tells you that the winner is calculated based on three elements: aiming, stillness, and cover. There’s actually an important fourth: unit type. A shotgun will always beat an assault rifle at close range, while a pistol will struggle to succeed in just about any match-up, however much you fiddle with the circumstances.
Even understanding all this, it’s often unclear why a particular firefight went the way it did. It’s not that the game is imprecise, but the practically infinite variables that underpin each encounter. A difference of a few pixels, or a fraction of a second, can change the outcome absolutely – and as a result, careful planning and prediction can sometimes feel futile.
It’s less of a problem in multiplayer, where you’re facing off against a real person who is similarly incapable of processing every single data point. Faceoffs will still come down to infinitesimal differences between your simulation and their precise execution, but sharing these limitations means both players are more broadly guessing the other’s intentions. In the best of these moments, Frozen Synapse 2 can feel like it has opened a channel between your brain and the brain of someone you can’t even see.
In the end, the friction between precision and imprecision is what makes the game unique. A lot of the game’s charm stems from the fact that, despite its angular geometry and cold cyberspace blues, it feels surprisingly organic. Most tactics games work in a way that is fundamentally digital: movement is fixed to set hexes or squares, turns are limited to one or two actions. In contrast, Frozen Synapse is analogue. Units can not only cue up several actions but be programmed to wait between each of them, holding for a number of seconds finetuned down to the first decimal place, so that an entire squadron pull out their weapons and emerge from their hiding places in unison. With the perfect ambush plotted, you hit ‘prime’, and five seconds of hell breaks loose. Great – even if it’s never quite the same hell you were anticipating.