Never has the phrase ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’ been truer than when playing Frozen Synapse Prime on the PlayStation Vita. This turn-based tactics game has a real talent for throwing a spanner in the works, forcing you to hastily change your combat plans.
Taking on the role of a tactician, you’ll direct battles on behalf of a resistance group in the future city of Markhov Geist. Each of the scenarios in the single player campaign sees your squad of clones facing off against an enemy team with a specific objective to complete. Sometimes you’ll be evenly matched, while in others you’ll be heavily outnumbered, forcing you to be extremely careful with your limited resources.
Things are kept interesting by mixing up the objective and your team for each battle (your soldiers will come armed with anything from a shotgun to a rocket launcher). So, whether you’re assaulting a stronghold or escorting a VIP, you’ll need to vary your approach accordingly. There’ll be times when a full on charge is the best tactic, while in others – such as when all of your enemies are wielding sniper rifles – a more conservative strategy’s required.
By setting waypoints and assigning specific actions at those locations, you’ll have a high level of control over your fighting force. This allows you to set out some quite complex plans that take several turns for your soldiers to complete. Whether you’re setting up specific cones of fire for a route, or designating a set time for a clone to wait at a location before moving on, you’ll be using every trick available to outmanoeuvre your enemy.
With each turn lasting only five-seconds in real time, skirmishes play out in less than a couple of minutes; however, you’ll be spending a lot more time fine tuning your plans for battlefield dominance. Fortunately, you’re able to test out your moves by running a handy simulation of the actions that you’ve assigned. While this may sound like a cheat, the simulation only takes into account the state of the battle at the start of that turn, so it won’t be able to factor in what the enemy will do. That said, it’s extremely useful to be able to make sure that your soldier will act as you expect, helping you to avoid annoying little errors.
Your soldiers are intentionally dumb, and the only freewill that they exert is pulling the trigger to shoot at enemies that enter their line of sight (unless you ordered them to ignore any targets completely). When you first start playing, it’s easy to think that through trial and error you’ll be able to predict what the enemy will do; however, the opposition AI is surprisingly dynamic, changing their strategy to counter your own actions. Therefore, once you’re out of the first couple of turns in each scenario, all bets are off, and you’ll need to adjust your plans as your opponent will happily exploit any weakness in your tactics.
Most of the time, you’ll have full visibility of the enemy movements, but in certain scenarios the enemy will be ‘dark’, with their manoeuvres hidden unless observed by one of your contingent. This adds yet another level of complexity to proceedings, and certainly ramps up the difficulty. Even at its most challenging, overcoming a particularly tricky encounter’s incredibly satisfying, with the experience being largely frustration free, as every failure or loss of a soldier will be down to a flaw in your own strategy.
If there’s one criticism that you can lay at the feet of the campaign, it’s that the story’s packed full of incomprehensible techno babble. Right from the off, a ton of unfamiliar terminology’s dumped on you, with the expectation that you should know just what your allies are talking about. With no explanations available, you’ll quickly lose all interest in why you’re fighting for the resistance.
While the story presentation fails to impress, though, the graphics at least do a decent job of evoking the futuristic setting, using a clean, minimalistic approach to the level architecture, and a colour palette that employs lots of white, silver, and grey. On top of that, the title has a truly memorable soundtrack, packed full of songs that you’ll happily proclaim as not just great video game music, but great music full stop.
In addition to the campaign, there’s a skirmish mode that lets you test your skills on randomly generated levels, and asynchronous multiplayer that puts you up against a human adversary. Setting up a game is straight forward, and lets you customise a wide variety of options, ranging from the size of the battlefield to the number of clones and weapons that each team has. Fiddling with these can let you set up some crazy scenarios, allowing you to blast away with rocket launchers in a map the size of a shoebox, should the fancy take you.
The multiplayer matches also happen to be really fun, and testing your mettle against human opposition certainly makes for some exciting and tense contests. There’s also a nice group of game modes for you to play, ranging from the usual kill all of the opposing force, to one that has you betting against your opponent as to how far you can get across the map. While the asynchronous aspect works well – giving you plenty of prompts when it’s time to take your turn – these can only be seen when you’re actually playing the game. This means that there’ll be the odd occasion where you’ll start a match, only to have your adversary disappear, never to be seen again.
Frozen Synapse Prime is a seriously addictive handheld title that’ll keep you coming back to tweak your plans for just one last sortie. Before long, you’ll have lost hours directing your troops and listening to its superb soundtrack, and while some will lack the patience to tackle the more diabolical campaign scenarios, the skirmish and multiplayer modes will keep any armchair Generals firmly in the frontline.