Frozen Cortex (PC) Review

By Jordan Hurst 29.03.2015

Review for Frozen Cortex on PC

Almost anyone would say that American football and cyberpunk turn-based tactics have no business being in the same game together, but that assertion is actually rather shallow. With its frequent play stoppages and emphasis on formations, American football is a lot more tactical than its stereotypical player and fan image would suggest, and the existence of Blood Bowl proved long ago that hardcore nerd and jock pastimes can coexist surprisingly well. Mode 7 Games have brought this mentality to Frozen Cortex, the spiritual successor to their cerebral X-COM tribute, Frozen Synapse. The result is conceptually brilliant, but fumbles its execution in a number of key areas.

Similarities between the two games are apparent immediately. The interface is nearly identical, just with gunshots and lookouts replaced with throws and blocks, and the presentation, while less abstract, is still extremely familiar. Just as before, two teams with a handful of members are dropped into a randomly-generated geometric playing field, where they attempt to outwit their opponent in simultaneous turns. The rules this time are an amalgam of American football and ultimate frisbee called Cortex, and the pawns are remote-controlled robots rather than cyberspace projections, but many of the things that made Frozen Synapse so captivating are still here. Success is still based entirely on strategy and understanding of the game's rules rather than luck, obscuring player behaviours while predicting the opponents' is still a huge part of the metagame, and the soundtrack that accompanies it all is still a driving suite of electronic goodness.

Screenshot for Frozen Cortex on PC

What the game doesn't have that Frozen Synapse could claim is balance. In an effort to inject some diversity into the otherwise interchangeable robotic athletes at the player's control, Frozen Cortex includes a stat system that governs things like the throw speed and blocking radius of individual players. Instead, it does the same things most tacked-on RPG mechanics do: warp the single-player difficulty curve and skew players' priorities in multiplayer. The movement speed stat in particular vastly outweighs the others in usefulness, making upgrading it a necessity across every mode. In single-player seasons, instead of constructing a team from a limited pool of skill points, players start with all pitiful players and use their earnings to purchase better ones between games. The other teams don't get this advantage, though, so the result is a game that starts out punishing, only to completely deflate the challenge level after a handful of matches and stay there for the rest of the season.

Screenshot for Frozen Cortex on PC

Most depressingly, the system doesn't actually add any variety to the gameplay. Unlike the alternate strategies offered by Frozen Synapse's different weapon users, a slow player can do everything a fast player can - he'll just do it a little worse. There's still a lot to enjoy about the gameplay - the rules of Cortex are sound and relatively deep, and the computer-controlled opponents have noticeably different behaviours depending on the faction giving them orders - it just becomes rote and lopsided faster than strategy games usually do. The only true variety to be found in the game is in custom games and leagues, for which there are an astounding number of options, from alternate point-scoring methods to complete control over playing field layouts. In fact, whether someone would consider Frozen Cortex a good game or not probably hinges on their willingness to tinker with custom rulesets.

The game further distances itself from the gamer-stigmatised sports genre by including a bona fide story that plays out between single-player matches. It's set in an ambiguously-dystopian future where human sport has been abolished, and various other factors have led to mechanical sports like Cortex becoming one of the only methods of entertainment available. The league has become so ingrained in human culture that rival coaches are things like a Cortex-based religious leader and a crowdfunded 4chan pastiche that's essentially running a Twitch Plays Cortex service. Unfortunately, this intriguing setting is ultimately squandered by a lame plot centred on a match-fixing scandal that takes over a season to go anywhere. It doesn't help that the colourful characters turn out to be completely one-dimensional; they seem to be incapable of uttering a single sentence without name-dropping the central tenet of their faction.

Screenshot for Frozen Cortex on PC

The chatter of the match commentators is at least fairly entertaining, although the fact that it (and the story itself) is entirely text-based rather than voiced is rather disappointing. The audio that is in the game is excellent, with the aforementioned powerful soundtrack paired with some explosive sound effects that really drive home the appeal of robot-on-robot athletics. Visually, Frozen Cortex is less stylised than its predecessor, which wasn't the smartest decision; without the ubiquitous blue sheen of Frozen Synapse's digital setting, the blocky environments are incredibly bland, and the robots' animation is uncomfortably stiff. The unchanged interface allows for extreme precision (and the difficulty necessitates it), but it's also prone to overlapping controls and feels like it's missing some useful keyboard functions. Finally, the cinematic camera that presents executed turns is pointless in a game that demands that all corners of the map be watched at all times.

Screenshot for Frozen Cortex on PC

Cubed3 Rating

6/10
Rated 6 out of 10

Good

Frozen Cortex is built on a solid foundation. The sport that it envisions is smartly-designed and strangely addictive, especially in multiplayer, where turns can be taken at the player's leisure. The problem is that everything that's been piled onto that foundation - the half-baked narrative, the uneven RPG stat system - adds nothing to the experience. The long-term play that's expected of strategy games requires a fundamental shift in how the game is played every once in a while. Frozen Cortex provides that, but only with custom modes, which require patience to create and are less viable for multiplayer. As it stands, it's a one-note game whose one note is fairly enjoyable, at least for a little while.

Developer

Mode 7

Publisher

Mode 7

Genre

Strategy

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  6/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date None   Australian release date Out now   

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