Frozen Synapse 2 Review - Cool-Headed

  • First Released Sep 13, 2018
  • PC
James Swinbanks on Google+

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With a futuristic, digitized look and rhythmically pulsating soundtrack, Frozen Synapse 2 is every bit as stylish as its predecessor. It's a deliberately slow and cerebral experience meant to be learned and played at your own pace. While some technical issues and annoying limitations to the campaign result in frustration at points, Frozen Synapse 2's compelling take on tactics and strategy makes up for this. Whether in single or multiplayer, its highly tactical combat requires patience and wit to grasp, but the steep learning curve is worth it, with every engagement brimming with brilliant tension.

While the game's style is undeniable, with gorgeous, procedurally-generated urban environments, Frozen Synapse 2's tactical, turn-based gameplay is the main draw. You control every movement of a squad of up to six Vatform units--repairable humanoid mercenaries hired for use in combat deployments--to take down enemy teams. Units are controlled by the strategic placement of waypoints, which you mark on the battlefield as you plan out your next turn. Once your plans are primed, you hit the play button and watch as the next five seconds of your movements, and those of your enemy, are played out in a real-time concert of bullets and shotgun blasts. It's a violent game of chess where, refreshingly, logical rules dictate the outcome of a gunfight, not the roll of a random number generator.

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When making your plans, plotting out waypoints and moving units from one place to another is the easy part. Where the real effort comes in is predicting the movement of your enemies and anticipating what they're going to do next. At any point along a unit's path, you can add any number of commands, from "wait" or "engage on sight” to asking them to duck and stay low when moving. Your options are plentiful, letting you get as complex as you need to. Helpfully, you're able to plot out enemy waypoints as well, letting you test out theoretical counter-attacks that they might set up in response. But there's no certainty in war, and it's this uncertainty that makes each engagement feel wonderfully tense and unique. Even your best-laid plans can go horribly wrong, while at the same time, a hail mary might see things line up in the exact way you needed it to.

The lack of random chance makes planning out your moves more meaningful, as there is always an optimal solution for any given scenario. A stationary unit will always have a faster time-to-kill than a moving one, for instance. However, different units have their own time-to-kill stats, as well as effective ranges and reload times. These need to be taken into account when marking out your next move, as even well-placed units can struggle to make an impact when they're outgunned and vice-versa; shotguns are devastating in close quarters but are sitting ducks when left out in the open. Learning the intricacies of Frozen Synapse 2's combat is an exercise in both dealing with and overcoming the frustration of early mistakes, of which you'll make many. It only makes it all the more satisfying when the mechanics all finally click, which they will after a few hours of experimenting.

Frozen Synapse 2's single-player mode adds an intriguing real-time strategy layer to the game's strong combat systems in the form of the city map. The city is broken up into several districts, with the different factions operating within them. Both the districts and factions directly contribute to your overall budget, increasing funding as you complete contracts on their behalf, and decreasing it if those actions affect them negatively. Contracts are also time-sensitive, so if you fail to act in time or ignore it completely, another faction will jump at the chance, costing you precious funding and faction reputation. It feels like you're forever on the back foot, which can be a jarring experience at first.

Aside from the occasionally menu-heavy UI, the city has a gorgeous cyber-minimalist look to it. This is backed by a superbly written futurist sci-fi story, told through smart and occasionally funny character dialogue between Mettem, chairman of the city municipal council, your gleefully dry AI helper named Belacqua, and the various faction leaders, each with own clear sense of purpose. You are given the reins of the city's security forces as it deals with an increasing level of factionary violence as well as the outbreak of a sentient AI named Sonata that's also causing a fuss.

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The campaign has some issues, though. It struggles to maintain stability at times, unexpectedly crashing to the desktop on rare occasions. Checkpoint contacts involve keeping a squad deployed on a street corner for an allotted time period, except immediately after a deployment, you're prompted to send the squad back to base. If you're not aware of this, you'll fail the contract and your time spent in combat there will be for nothing. There's also no autosave prior to mission deployment, so if your squad's too small or underpowered on a mission where failure is not allowed--a condition that isn't explained beforehand--you're forced to choose between trying to progress through impossible odds or restarting your campaign entirely. This mode is made to be replayable, but given the relatively slow pace of progress, a forced restart is a hard pill to swallow.

Thankfully, the game's superb multiplayer makes up for this. While single player AI is a good challenge, nothing quite beats the feeling of out-thinking a human opponent, and there's far more pressure to plan out your movements with total precision. Multiplayer is also built intuitively into the UI, allowing you to request opponents with a single mouse click or move between multiple games you have going on at the same time. The load time between each game is short, so if one opponent is taking their time, you can always run along and start a new game with someone else, mitigating any frustration at being made to wait while someone plots out their next move.

It's hard not to be drawn in by Frozen Synapse 2's style, but it's even harder to pull away once the game's combat gets its hooks in you.

There are six different modes to choose from, each with a light (enemies are always visible) and a dark variant (enemies are invisible unless they're within your unit's line of sight). While there's the standard deathmatch mode called Extermination, other modes are much more interesting. In Hostage, one squad attempts to hold the hostages placed in a square in the middle of the map while another moves in to free them. Charge sees the battlefield laid out like a football pitch; both players bet how far they think they can get their squad to the other side of the field, and the winning punter gets the chance to prove themselves while the other defends. No matter the game mode, every multiplayer encounter is fantastically suspenseful, with a palpable air of uncertainty surrounding the few seconds prior to your plan's outcome being played back.

It's hard not to be drawn in by Frozen Synapse 2's style, but it's even harder to pull away once the game's combat gets its hooks in you. While the single-player mode ambles through both high and low points, the multiplayer remains a steadfastly enjoyable experience. The anticipation as squads approach in preparation for battle is both thrilling and nerve-wracking, and the ability to switch between multiplayer games on the fly makes tracking multiple games elegantly simple. Technical hiccups aside, Frozen Synapse 2's incredible style and strong tactical combat make it wonderfully gratifying.

James Swinbanks on Google+
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The Good

  • Brilliant tactical combat that's as challenging as it is fascinating
  • Gorgeous cyber-minimalist aesthetic
  • Versatile multiplayer system makes managing multiple games easy and alleviates wait times
  • Smart dialogue backs a compelling single-player story
  • Memorable original soundtrack

The Bad

  • Unclear autosaving means campaign progress can be easily derailed
  • Some technical instability

About the Author

James Swinbanks spent 21 hours trawling the cyber streets and outwitting foes with his Bureau-8 squad, using code provided by the publisher for review purposes.