Blue shift: A hands-on preview of Frozen Synapse for iPad

By Owen Faraday 08 May 2013 0
In the face. Cyber warfare.

We've seen so many ports from the PC or from consoles land on iOS with varying degrees of grace. Everything from the sure-footed Uplink and The World Ends With You, to the slightly rocky Might and Magic Clash of Heroes, to unsalvageable disasters like Gratuitous Space Battles. A port that feels properly native is a rare thing: even when they're done well, ports from other platforms often feel like you're typing with boxing gloves on. Touchscreens are a very different beast, and they deserve bespoke UIs.

Mode 7 agrees. The British devs behind Frozen Synapse have spent a year bringing their squad tactics game to iPad, and it shows. Frozen Synapse is slick and professional on iOS -- the game is so tight it squeaks. As much as I enjoyed playing it on PC a couple of years ago, the iPad experience blows it away. This is the platform you were meant to play Frozen Synapse on.

Destructible terrain, I've missed you. It might not be hyper-detailed but the world of Frozen Synapse still blows up pretty good.

Frozen Synapse came out for the PC back in 2011; the second offering from Mode 7 Games. In it, you command squads of vat-grown clone soldiers in a rebellion to topple the oligarchs of Earth's last remaining city, Markov Geist. The world is all glass and neon, taking its visual cues from TRON but borrowing its narrative inspiration from Gibson's Neuromancer.

This game was heralded as a minor masterpiece at the time of its original release, and rightly so. FS is a turn-based squad-level tactical game played from an isometric overhead perspective -- a setup familiar to players of XCOM and Jagged Alliance, among others. But what sets Frozen Synapse apart is those turns. Frozen Synapse's turns play out simultaneously, like they do in Combat Mission, but the scale is much more intimate in FS. You have all the time you like to plan your team's moves and simulate results based on your best guess at what your opponent will do. But once you hit the COMMIT button, it's out of your hands: the next 5 seconds of the match play out and all you can do is watch what happens. As tactical simulators go, the game is peerless, and on iPad, it's better than I remember. And I remember it being pretty damned good.

It's moving right toward you. The other way, Dallas.

The business of planning your turns on a touchscreen is a real joy. Those who didn't play Frozen Synapse on PC will have a steeper learning curve, but the developers have thoughtfully integrated tutorial videos right into the game's ever-present help screen. Once you've learned to read the visual notation of Frozen Synapse's orders system, a whole new world opens up. Drawing paths for your squad, deciding where they should be peeking around corners or lowering weapons to move faster: all of this stuff is handled elegantly and clearly on Mode 7's new mobile interface. Playing Frozen Synapse on a touchscreen is even more immersive than it is on PC -- once you get the hang of it, it feels like you're using Tom Cruise's computer from Minority Report.

Frozen Synapse is not quite perfect -- there are some orders nested in submenus that I wish were just a bit easier to access -- but my complaints are pretty trivial ones. This is a fully-featured game that's missing nothing at all from the PC version and even features cross-platform multiplayer. Frozen Synapse is one of the year's standout releases and I promise you that we'll be talking about it come awards time. The iOS version is coming tonight around midnight next Thursday and Mode 7 have promised that an Android edition will be soon to follow.

This preview originally stated that Frozen Synapse was releasing May 9th -- it's actually the 16th. I sit on a throne of lies.
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