Frozen Synapse 2

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PC

A lot of the game’s charm stems from the fact that it feels sur­pris­ingly or­ganic

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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.

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