Version tested PC
Like Frozen Synapse before it, Frozen Endzone is a predict-'em-up - a primarily multiplayer strategy game of deliberately limited scope where players take their turns simultaneously, attempting to outwit, deceive and second-guess their opponent. Whereas Synapse themed its tactical trickery around squads of tooled-up door-kickers trying to gun each other down, however, Endzone brings us a glossy future sport played by hulking robots.
Endzone's virtual ball game takes its cues from that most American of footballs. Teams score points by getting the ball into their opponent's endzone through a combination of passes, runs and defensive blocking, with smaller batches of points available for either catching or running with the ball through highlighted sections of the playfield. Each game has a limited number of turns and achieving a touchdown resets the playfield with teams swapping ends. The team with the most points by the concluding turn wins the match.
It's a far more structured premise than Synapse's 'outgun your opponent's guns with your guns' approach, but there's still a lot to take in, especially if you're new to Mode 7's games. There's the simultaneous turns mechanic, of course, but also the obscure rules of the robo-sport itself. The ball carrier cannot run or pass backward, for instance, and cannot make any passes if he decides to run from the point of receiving the ball. It all means there's a substantial amount to learn before embarking upon a match, something which Endzone can't fully mitigate even with a playable tutorial and an explanatory video.
Once you're past the point of swallowing big dollops of rules, at least, playing a match is pretty straightforward. You right-click on the pitch to place waypoints that your jockbots move between, while passes are created by dragging great big arrows in a lovely sweeping motion. The bots require considerably less micromanagement than the soldiers of Synapse; they'll chase balls and nearby ball-carriers automatically, and will block or tackle any rival bot that comes into range.
This allows you to focus on constructing clever plays rather than ensuring the minutiae of your units' actions are absolutely precise. Something else that helps is that certain events - initial ball pick-up, tackles, passes and interceptions - cause the turn to end whether time has run out of not, at which point players can reassess the situation and come up with appropriate tactics. These changes also speed up online games, as players tend to spend less time fiddling with their plays.
Endzone has a highly satisfying feel to it as well. The bots' movements are slickly animated and there are some spectacular effects. A bot on the receiving end of a successful pass will release a burst of electricity as he hugs the ball to his chest, while each tackle is a thunderous crunch of metal that showers sparks across the pitch. Bots that complete touchdowns showboat with a similar level of grace and humility to actual footballers (ie none), and there's even a text-based commentary that gives surprisingly accurate summary and analysis of each turn.
This is all surface spectacle, of course, but Endzone's fireworks make for a pleasing reward when your plans pay dividends, and those plans can be extremely crafty and cunning, despite Endzone's streamlined systems and more restrictive rules. You might feint a run in one direction in a turn before switching the angle up the next, for example, or double-bluff them by leaving an obvious gap in your defence that they assume is a trap, leading them to run straight into a defender they expect you to move to close it up. Of course, your opponent can always call your bluff, and you'll find yourself the victim of over-thinking a play as many times as your plans work out.
There are some issues, a few of which are related to the game's alpha state. While the core game looks great, feels satisfying and is highly engaging to play, a lot of the peripheral stuff is clunky and unfinished. The menu is all over the place, with bits of it in the top and bottom left corners of the screen as well as the various menus and sub-menus in the centre, while the Esc key defaults to the developer console rather than the menu, which is irksome to say the least. You imagine this will be fixed.
Meanwhile, the "Custom Game" option is currently a sprawling list of parameters to be tinkered with, and could do with a simpler, more intuitive menu so you can quickly set up a custom match. There's also a neat little section where you can create your own team, tinker with jockbot stats and name them all after your favourite robots/friends/virulent diseases, but you can't give them custom team colours, which is a shame.
Beyond that, though, there are also thornier problems. One of the great things about Frozen Synapse was that a match didn't end until the fat lady blew you up with a rocket launcher. I still remember one game where I lost all but one of my soldiers on the first turn and yet somehow managed to come back and win. Matches in Endzone are points-based, though, so they can effectively be done and dusted five turns from the end, leading to 10 minutes of resolving the remaining turns or considerably longer if the loser hasn't realised they're beaten.
The biggest problem though is that the game still feels a bit off-putting. Some critics have described Endzone as feeling cold, but that's not my reaction - I quite like its icy blues and galvanised textures. For me, what Endzone lacks is context. Future sport and arena games often place a frame around their activities to give them a bit of gravitas - Unreal Tournament has a written profile charting the history of each of its maps and bots, while Blood Bowl has the entire lore of Warhammer to wrap itself in like a fluffy story blanket. Frozen Endzone just has robots playing football because robots playing football is a cool idea.
Now, I'm not suggesting Mode 7 adds a tear-jerking love story, although that would certainly be interesting, but I would like to know why this sport exists, why it is played by robots on top of a skyscraper with no visible audience, and why the ball-carrier can't run backwards apart from because it's the rules. A tiny sprinkling of back-story, a glimpse of the world beyond, would really help smooth Endzone's almost future-shock abruptness, and reduce the risk of new players rebounding off it like a kangaroo on a trampoline.
Frozen Endzone is in many ways an admirable creation; a crisp little game with complex systems smartly presented and a clean, gleaming aesthetic with a camera that makes it arguably the easiest game I've ever had to screenshot. Even in its current Early Access state, the core game feels largely complete and tactically wholesome, boasting style and depth. I like it. I like it a lot. But I don't quite love it, at least not yet. It hasn't got roots or a real sense of place. Mode 7's automatons clearly have brains and brawn, but what they really need now is a little more soul.
Eurogamer's alpha and beta reviews are reviews of games that are still in development but are already being offered for sale or funded by micro-transactions. They offer a preliminary verdict but have no score attached. For more information, read our editor's blog.