Your squad captures a valuable relic on a mission. As you transport it back to headquarters, a rival faction intercepts you. They demand that you hand it over, and you refuse. Bullets fly and bodies fall. When the dust settles, the enemy has one sniper left. You have two chumps with pistols who you named Brosef and Brogan. You will have to maneuver the Bro brothers from cover to cover, ducking, sprinting, weaving, always watching that the sniper doesn't spot them for more than a second. Approaching the final stretch, you realize there's only one way you'll get out of this with the loot. Brogan leaves his cover behind the car and runs, but the laser sight finds him immediately. Brosef sprints at the distracted sniper, raising his gun. Twin gunshots sound out. Brogan is dead, but so is the sniper. You win. Welcome to Frozen Synapse 2.
At its best, combat in Frozen Synapse 2 feels like chess without a grid and without turns. Like in the first Frozen Synapse, both players plan their turns, and then watch them play out simultaneously. You can simulate your plan before committing to it for real, but your enemy's actions will usually be unknown. You have to choose between planning for several contingencies or going all in on a belief that the enemy will act in a specific way.
Even if you're not into contemplating the risk and reward of every breath your units take, Frozen Synapse 2 manages to make micromanagement tense and exciting. I ended up spending obscene amounts of time tinkering together perfect plans and timing every move flawlessly. Because when you thread that needle, it's pure beauty - as if gifted with supernatural prescience you walk through the eye of the storm untouched - until that hidden flamethrower shows up and burns your dreams to ashes.
Frozen Synapse 2 expands from its predecessor by combining the tactical combat with an open world of procedurally generated zones, factions, and objectives. The combat and emergent gameplay are where the game shines, while story and setting lag behind significantly.
The game takes place in a city called Markov Geist, which looks amazing, but its story is convoluted and poorly delivered. The exception to this is the cyberpunk neon visuals and the amazing soundtrack. The city makes me think of a living computer chip, with dark angular building blocks rising and falling from electric soil. The music evokes a society both futuristic and regressed, nailing the cyberpunk aesthetic, the synth beats mixing with rhythmic chanting.
Several factions vie for power in the city, all competing to acquire "relics". What relics actually are is vague, but possessing them is a source of money, which is simple enough. These powerful objects are also related to the antagonistic Sonata, an AI which is up to some sort of evil shenanigans. The other factions also want the relics, and if they get seven, bad things will happen.
The main characters you work with provide exposition but deliver it in dry internal monologues rather than engaging dialogue. Despite trying my best, I was unable to get invested in the story and setting. It's a shame because it still feels like there is an interesting story hiding under all the fluff.
Each faction has its own politics, beliefs, and theme, but apart from the portrait of their respective leaders, they are not introduced in a way which makes them easy to tell apart. Any distinguishing features hide in walls of text filled with techno-babble, sci-fi jargon, and references to the previous game. Even trying to look these things up online will get you nowhere. The Realisation, Icevex, Enyo: Nomad, The Shape, Charon's Palm... these things drove me crazy until I decided to just stop trying to understand and instead enjoy everything else Frozen Synapse 2 had to offer. Luckily, the story doesn't get in the way of enjoying the rest of the game.
The open world and combat gameplay balance out in a way that creates a solid sense of place. Let's say you accept a contract from another faction to remove an opposing faction's squad from their district. A specified address lights up in neon, signaling you to select one of your squads to send there. As your squad weaves its way through the streets in real time, other factions can intercept it. On arrival, if you choose to enter combat to fulfill your contract, the camera will swoop up and dive straight into the building, revealing the ground floor and the street outside. This is the map where combat will play out. It's a seamless transition that brings the two parts of the game together, making the city cohesive and vibrant.
You start out with a single owned building, your Headquarters, where you store your riches (mainly bonds, which provide you with consistent income). With enough money, you can purchase other buildings in the city. Since success often depends on being able to get to places quickly, having buildings and squads set up in various locations is useful.
Time is paused by default, which you can resume at two different speeds (a bit like Cities: Skylines). In your first few hours, it feels like a thousand things happen at once when you hit that play button. Factions contact or attack you, as missions and alerts are thrown your way. Everything suddenly starts moving and you don't know what's relevant to your situation. While a comprehensible system eventually emerges and you get to grips with faction politics and the economy, it could be presented in a clearer way.
This lack of clarity also appears in the UI, especially on the city screen. Whether it's sending a squad to a specific location, or knowing what exactly you have selected, or understanding the tooltip attached to a building, it can be frustrating. Combat UI is good for the most part. Green lines, nodes, and small icons indicate your units' paths and your orders. Other times, things get a bit more cluttered. As a unit carries items (for example to hide you from satellite coverage or to reveal enemies) they show up in a long pointless string of identical "item symbols" next to them. The orders screen is also overwhelming for a while since many of the actions have to be learned through trial and error. The same goes for shortcuts and simple commands that save a lot of time.
The earlier comparison to chess is based on the different types of units you can use to make up a squad. Each unit has one weapon. Pistols are the bottom of the barrel, with knives, assault rifles, shotguns, and SMGs making up the next set of affordable units. But then you start throwing in snipers, grenade launchers, riot shields, rocket launchers, landmines, miniguns, smoke grenades, and things get really juicy. Later on, these get additional tweaks, like snipers that move a little faster, or grenade launchers with increased range.
It's absolutely mad how much can happen in a single turn, and how every turn can be completely different. Every minute movement can change everything. Sometimes a turn you've planned out meticulously goes to hell the moment you press play. Other times a turn you thought nothing of and threw together in a minute ends in a complete slaughter of the enemy. Although there weren't enough people to try out the multiplayer when I played, it's not difficult to see how much fun it will be. The mind games will be epic.
Just like in X-COM, Frozen Synapse 2 lets you name your units. This simple feature has proven time and time again to be popular, and it's easy to understand why when you watch your most seasoned veteran, "Jimmy the Juice", take his final step onto a landmine. Still, I missed other features that games like X-COM have, such as units ranking or leveling up. Even if it's just a cosmetic title or a kill count, I would like to know just how long a unit has served under me, their esteemed leader, Top Juice Muscles of the Juice Box Boys. (in case you missed it, the theme for my campaign was juice).
Besides the added dynamic of playing human players, one of the reasons I look forward to playing multiplayer is that the current A.I. has a strong tendency to turtle. I can see a patch fixing this in the near future, but for the moment, it's extremely frustrating and bogs you down for far too long. I think I have spent almost as much time chasing snipers into the absolute corners of maps as doing anything else. It's not a challenge, it's just busywork.
It's perhaps telling of how much I enjoy the combat that I find the load times too long. When you commit to a turn for real, there's always a loading screen before everything plays out. It feels like this loading should be handled differently since it comes at the most exciting part of the game. Tension builds as you set up your turn. The big moment comes, you hit that "Prime" button, and... loading screen. It's an anticlimax.
In combat, the ability to restart from the previous turn is an absolute godsend. If that was not possible, I am honestly not sure I would keep playing. It might feel like cheating since you will know what the A.I. plans to do that turn. Still, due to the steep learning curve, it's simply necessary in order to get to grips with the game. If you still prefer it off, the game provides you with that option through its Iron-Man mode.
Frozen Synapse 2 is one of the best strategy games I've played in a long time. The combat is so fluid, interesting, and surprising that I would play the game if that's all it had. The turtling A.I. desperately needs a fix, but I imagine that won't be long in arriving. While the writing fails to deliver any personality to the city or its characters, the city looks amazing, and I love the way it seems to ripple when you move the camera. The open world systems are difficult to understand, and could perhaps use some tuning. These systems still complement the combat and succeed where the writing fails in trying to create a sense of this place that is apparently called Markov Geist.
Our Frozen Synapse 2 review was conducted on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
Frozen Synapse 2's combat will keep pulling you back in, and the open world is a fun sandbox that looks and sounds fantastic. The turtling A.I. is still a pain, though.
- Exciting Tactical Combat
- Fitting Soundtrack
- So Many Unique Units
- Turtling A.I. Are Frustrating To Chase Down
- Story Is Dry And Poorly Delivered