Alternative Best Game of 2011: Tim McDonald
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I hate this stuff. Look: I don’t “do” favourite games, really. I have a hard enough time deciding what I want for lunch, let alone determining the identity of the best game out of the seven billion I’ve played in the past, ooh, 22 years or so. Which is a problem.
One of the questions everyone asks when they learn what I do for a living is “Oh? So what’s the best game you’ve ever played?” I don’t know, okay? I can give you a vague list of stuff that would probably appear in some sort of highly theoretical top ten (Deus Ex, Psychonauts, and Dungeon Master being three) – but choosing a number one, or even picking some sort of definitive order for the rest of it? I can’t do it. I’m not programmed for this sort of thing.
And yet I need to. Or, at the very least, I need to pick my own personal favourite game for 2011 and that’s a bit hard because, as mentioned above, my “favourite” changes daily. So we might as well look at the contenders, and bear in mind that I’m slightly biased towards replayable games, that atmosphere is important, and… hang on.
Wasn’t there a game that was ineligible for our top 25 because we never reviewed it, despite deserving a place, and despite Peter and I scribbling about how great it was? A game which also popped up in my list of contenders-for-personal-Game-of-the-Year? A game which I really want to write about, and I really want you to play?
So: Frozen Synapse. It was a hard choice to make, but that’s somehow fitting for a game about making hard choices.
Frozen Synapse is one of the most deceptively simple games I’ve played in years. It’s a turn-based tactical game, and put into basic terms it’s a game in which you have a squad of guys with guns, your opponent has a squad of guys with guns, and you want to kill all of their guys without losing all of yours by issuing orders from a top-down perspective.
It’s simple, and it relies on common-sense logic that pretty much everyone who’s ever played a game can understand. If your soldier sees the enemy first, he’ll probably shoot first. If your soldier’s in cover, it’ll take longer for the enemy to score a killshot than if he’s out in the open. If one guy has a sniper rifle and his target has a shotgun, then over a long distance he’ll score the kill, while the shotgunner will easily win out in close range. Simple, right? You don’t even need to give direct fire orders – just movement and a direction to look, generally.
But there’s a ridiculous level of complexity through the tactical nuances available. Because of the way it functions, it’s really a game about anticipating and outmanoeuvring your opponent that’s akin to chess, only more easily relatable because we all know how guns work. You need to plot it out so that your troops spot the enemy first; so that yours are the ones who’ll come out on top in any confrontation.
You need to out-think your foe, and you’re “aided” in this by the system that lets you plot out potential enemy moves too, so you can see what would happen if your opponent did the worst thing possible for your current plan. If it all goes wrong in the test run then you can tweak it to accommodate for that, again and again, countering their counter to your counter to their counter to your plan, until finally you click “Prime” to send your turn and then realise too late that you’ve prepared for an utterly preposterous situation. Which is why I put “aided” in inverted commas. Overthinking loses matches.
Actually gathering the courage to click “Prime” and waiting for the outcome is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in gaming. Anything can happen; you might have judged the situation correctly and executed a flawless turn, racking up a few kills, or you might have sent your entire team to their deaths.
There are plenty of games with tense moments, but to my mind Frozen Synapse beats them all out. At the time of writing I’ve been playing a match on-and-off for a few weeks, and the latest turn came in a few days ago. I haven’t dared open it up because I’m genuinely terrified of what I might see.
Two paragraphs back I actually hit upon another reason for Frozen Synapse’s success: even if you’re down to one man, proper planning and anticipation can lead to a full reversal of fortunes… or, even if you’re three men up, getting cocky can lead to a sudden failure. It’s tense. It’s clever. And yet, for all of that, it’s frighteningly simple.
All of this is married to a simple but effective futuristic visual style – all cool blues and neon hues – and some wonderfully atmospheric music that manages to stand out in a year full of indie games with simple but effective visual styles and excellent music. It’s not overcomplicated with high polycounts or rousing orchestral scores; it’s always understated just the right amount so that everything’s beautiful, but also beautifully clear. It’s precise and effective – two words that also sum up the game itself.
It’s sort of play-by-email, too; it’s commonplace to have multiple matches on the go at once, only firing up the game itself when a turn comes in. There are a variety of game modes, as well as a well-written single-player campaign that throws you into a slew of situations that require different approaches. Matches can be played out in five minutes or can be played at a slow pace over the course of a month, and when the smoke clears and the victor is decided, you can watch all of the action play out in under 30 seconds.
Frozen Synapse is varied, tactical, and both incredibly simple and bewilderingly clever; it’s the modern update to X-COM and Rebelstar and Laser Squad Nemesis that we all wanted. I hate trying to decide on favourite games, but I’m pretty damn sure I’m going to be both referring to and playing Frozen Synapse for years to come, and that’s a pretty good sign that we’re on to a winner.
Now all I have to do is click Prime and send this article out. Wish me luck.