An urban setting doesn’t add much to the already strong turn-based combat.
Frozen Synapse 2 follows up on 2011’s excellent turn-based tactical combat game with another round of meticulously planned shootouts. Its new ideas are a little sparse, though, mostly centered around a single-player campaign in a massive city that looks a lot deeper than it actually is.
If it wasn’t for the slick-looking neon-on-black art style, the real-time playback of Frozen Synapse 2’s tactical battles might look distressingly like drone footage of real-world military actions. During the planning phase you’re given a remarkable level of control over your squad’s movement, and each different weapon has its own targeting time and range. That gives each soldier a specific role in combat, and learning the somewhat opaque rules for how these roles interact is the key to winning these high-stakes shootouts. You’ll plot out paths for your soldiers to carefully clear around doorways and charge into fights, and the tension is always high: one hit is all it takes to down anyone, and every fraction of a second and inch of separation counts when your assault rifle-wielding soldier rounds a corner and comes face-to-face with a shotgun-toting adversary.
Frozen Synapse 2 does have a sense of humor about itself, though. Soldiers’ weapons also provide these faceless green clone troops their names: Darrell Shotgun carries a shotgun, and that’s all you’ll ever need to know about him. Your job is to give Darrell and his compatriots a complex series of orders using a tricky but mostly intuitive set of tools to drag and drop a sequence of waypoints and other commands to extremely specific locations, and fussing over these is how you’ll spend most of your time.
Darrell Shotgun carries a shotgun, and that’s all you’ll ever need to know about him.
Once you’ve plotted their courses, you can script out hyper-specific instructions like kneeling behind cover to buy them time in a shootout, pausing for a few tenths of a second to make sure an enemy isn’t trying to flank you before you move, or ignoring targets in order to make a mad dash across an open space. You can even plot out simulated moves for enemy soldiers to see how your plan holds up against possible counters, and that can lead down a rabbit hole of nuanced mind games as you try to outthink and fake out your opponent. There’s no ticking clock while you’re plotting each round, so you can endlessly tweak your plans before committing.
When you finally do, the turn unfolds in an intense, five-second burst of violence between little green and red men. It’s all extremely cool to watch thanks to the minimalist fireworks of bullets flying between them, explosions from rockets, grenades, and mines, and the small splatter of blood when a hit is scored and a soldier goes down. Meanwhile, the soundtrack perfectly matches the cyberpunk theme. I’ve been thrilled every time I’ve watched Darrell sidestep around a doorway and launch a round’s worth of buckshot into a raider who has walked directly into my trap. This is a game about choreography, and watching the results of your decisions play out on screen is a nerve-wracking experience, like watching your children perform in a brutal, acrobatic ballet where there are no safety nets.
Almost all of that is carried forward from the original Frozen Synapse, and it’s just as strong here, bolstered by a handful of explosive new weapon options like landmines and flamethrowers, which are useful in skilled hands for setting traps and discouraging enemies from attacking from certain angles. But the major new addition to Frozen Synapse 2 is the City Game, a single-player campaign in a procedurally-generated a town called Markov Geist, which is run by an interesting set of rival organizations. One, the Diamond Brothers, is the primary banking company of the town, and over time you’re cheerfully informed that the titular “brothers” are fictional characters, invented to provide a “friendly face” for this faceless corporate broker of financial transactions.
Reading pages of written dialogue that’s overloaded with techno-thriller jargon in order to set up story missions that have you fighting the terrorist group Sonata left me shrugging my shoulders. They come fast and furious, but ultimately the plot is little more than a backdrop for a simple race to obtain seven relics before Sonata does. In order to do that effectively you’ll have to go through the motions of maintaining your reputation with each of the city’s factions,
As I was dusting myself off from yet another prickly encounter with Sonata, a character piped up with some delightful geekery. “I’m writing a thesis on higher-order shapeform hermeneutics,” she said. “So this is going to be a lot more useful than sticking logic probes into members of the Forgiven Geometry Leadership.”
There’s not a whole lot of variety to replaying the City Game.
I’m not sure what any of that means, but the characters’ faces and discussions give the campaign some welcome flavor that makes the first playthrough entertaining enough. But the fact that a brand-new city is generated for each playthrough suggests we’re meant to replay it multiple times, which is confusing because there’s not a whole lot of variety to replaying the City Game. The story missions are often architecturally spectacular, but they’re disappointingly static – no matter what the city’s layout looks like, you’ll see the exact same Sonata incursions and fight them on the same maps, in the same order, each time you start a new playthrough. And because these story missions happen at such a rapid-fire pace, the choices you make – like which soldier types to hire, what new bases you buy, which factions you help, and who you snub when they ask for help – don’t end up feeling all that meaningful. There’s a lot of potential for depth and diplomacy that never materializes, and it feels like it’s waiting just out of reach.
Fortunately, Frozen Synapse 2’s multiplayer is on firmer footing. The asynchronous turns mean it’s easy to have several games running at once or concentrate on one at a time (if both players are sending in turns at the same time), and these quick bouts provide Frozen Synapse 2’s most exciting moments. You can face off against other players in defenses, attacks, bomb defusals, you name it – and you always have the option to queue up a new game, or play your next move, from the handy menu in the bottom left corner. Even after spending 20 hours with it, the urge to log in to see the results of new turns is strong.
A new mode called “OneTurn” is exactly as advertised: complete the objectives on a map in one round, or you fail. There’s an endless stream of these to attempt, and that temptation to play “just one more move” is incredibly hard to shake. They’re bite-sized, disposable action snacks that are nothing but fun. In one scenario you might have to defend some civilians, and once you’ve watched your plan unfold you’ll be on to the next mission taking down an enemy squad, or defusing a bomb, and then seeing how you fared compared to players worldwide on a leaderboard.
As quick and accessible as OneTurn is, multiplayer in general provides an impressive level of depth. You can have the computer generate scenarios for you on the fly, or endlessly tweak and customize your own, picking from the six objective styles with which to torment your opponents.
Notably absent at launch, however, is the skirmish mode from the first game that allows you to set up any objective and soldier composition you like against the AI on a procedurally generated map. Developer Mode 7 says that’ll come later in a patch.