Have you ever watched a movie where a SWAT team or military squad makes an assault, clearing out a complex room by room? If you thought to yourself, “I could do it better” then developer Mode 7 had you in mind back in 2011 when they released their turn-based tactical combat game Frozen Synapse. Well, now they’re back with more strategy goodness in Frozen Synapse 2. Your job is to oversee a mercenary unit as they engage in small-scale battles. Get ready to make a game plan, then watch as your squad gets taken out due to your ineptness. Don’t worry, you’ll get to make new plans and try again. And again. And again. Maybe you’ll even get it right sooner or later. Welcome, commander, to our Frozen Synapse 2 review.
New in Frozen Synapse 2 is a single-player campaign. Instead of giving individual stand-alone missions, the campaign provides a living city, Markov Geist, to defend. You are the director of Bureau 8, hired by the city council to be a neutral force expected to keep other factions in check and maintain peace throughout the city. The other factions are scattered around the city, and as you are running through story missions, stopping incursions from the newest threat to the city, a group known as Sonata, or just completing miscellaneous contracts, they will be completing missions of their own to increase their area of influence. Each of the factions has their own philosophical take on Sonata, what it’s purpose is, and how to deal with it, so there is plenty of fighting going on.
You’ll be able to keep your stance of neutrality for about 5 minutes. Just about every action, or inaction, will result in one faction or another taking a negative stance towards you. Even when you successfully complete a mission there is a good chance the city council will be displeased with how long it took you to respond. This negative impact could be as simple as a district cutting your funding, or as hostile as a faction declaring war and attacking your base. With the other factions attacking each other, they will quickly begin asking you for aid, further pushing you in one direction or another. There are ways to curb some of this hostility, but in the end, it is you against the rest of the city. Whether you try to keep the peace or turn against everyone and take total control of the city for yourself is up to you.
The campaign is meant to tie the individual missions together, but for me, it just gets in the way of the real fun Frozen Synapse 2 has to offer – controlling your strike team. There are too many other games out there with more to offer when it comes to open world diplomacy and confrontation, and many of them do it better. What those other games don’t offer is the extreme control over small-scale tactical battles that Mode 7 has served up.
These battles take place on the tactical map. Depending on the mission, some or all of the map is procedurally generated, and you may or may not get to freely position your strike team. There is also a varying degree of intel available, with some missions providing full visibility of the map and enemy placement and movement, while others have full fog of war. There are plenty of different mission objectives, but in the end, it’s kill or be killed.
All of this means that every fight is different, and your success completely depends on how well you use the available intel to direct your team each turn. Rushing straight in is rarely the correct option, but using cover effectively, setting focus areas, and coordinating simultaneous attacks by your team is the key to success. And the user interface, while very simple to use, allows for very detailed commands to be given.
As you set your actions for each turn, you are also able to set commands for any known enemies, then run a test simulation to see how your team will fare if you predicted correctly. I quickly got engrossed in this piece of the game, and could easily spend 10-15 minutes, or much longer for larger missions, tweaking orders and testing over and over until I thought my plan was perfect. Then I would hit the play button to begin the 5-second turn, (there is an option to play longer turns), only to find out I was completely wrong. Subsequent turns would then be spent trying to salvage the mission. For anyone who likes strategy games, this is glorious fun.
The single player missions were very enjoyable, but multiplayer is where Frozen Synapse 2 really shines. In single player, the AI becomes somewhat predictable, and even if you fail a mission you can just restart and try again. When your opponent is another player the difficulty is increased to the Nth degree, and your outcome is final. You still get to toy around with all the “what ifs” before committing to your plan, but once you do, one misstep will result in your team being obliterated. There are leaderboards, so you will be able to see how you compare to other players.
Graphically, not a lot has changed from the original. Whether in the city view or in a scenario, the map has a “blueprint” feel to it; think Google Maps meets Tron. Seeing as how you are the off-site commander, this gives a pretty good “eye in the sky” point of view to the map. While in the city view, you are able to zoom, rotate, and even change the viewing angle from top-down all the way down to nearly street level, but once in combat you lose all but the zoom function. This makes it a little difficult to make precise movements, even though the commands available to control your units are quite robust. Having full control of the camera during your planning stage would go a long way toward improving your chances of survival. I would also like to have a first or third person camera view during the actual combat phase. Being able to see the fight from your unit’s perspective would be the thing that would really take the combat phase to the next level.
Frozen Synapse 2 is a welcome reprieve from all the Battle Royale titles out there right now. The combat may not come at you at breakneck speed, but it does make use of something many games don’t – your brain. Setting up a perfect plan of attack is not nearly as easy as it sounds, but Mode 7 has provided an easy to use set of commands to put together very detailed actions for your group. And it is very rewarding when 15-20 minutes of planning ends in five seconds of success.