A Paladin’s Review: Frozen Cortex. No Friends Allowed In The Endzones.

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My full review of the simultaneous turn-based sports game. Enjoy.

A Paladin’s Review: Frozen Cortex. No Friends Allowed In The Endzones.

  • Genre: Simultaneous Turn Based Tactical Sports Strategy.
  • Developed & Published by: Mode 7
  • Platform: Windows, Mac and Linux.
  • DRM: Account Login for Multiplayer. Offline Mode Available for Single Player. Steam.
  • Business Model: Base Game + Optional Tiers.
  • Copy Gifted By A Friend

Preamble

I’ve appreciated Mode 7’s soundtrack work than their actual games. That’s how it was with Frozen Synapse and Frozen Synapse RED anyway. I missed out on Frozen Synapse Prime and I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to it. The artist Nervous_Testpilot is one of my favorite electronic artists that I’ve discovered in recent years and his work is always great. Anyway, Frozen Cortex is the first of their games that I was genuinely interested in the gameplay from the beginning. Which is weird because sports games aren’t usually my thing. Not even futuristic Sci-Fi dystopian ones. Initially titled Frozen Endzone (and changed because people were calling it Friendzone), Frozen Cortex went in and out of early access in a pretty reasonable time frame. It has since gotten some bug fixes and one major content update that gave it the simulated league mode. I picked it up with friends earlier this year and had a bit of fun with it. The music for it is, as usual, fantastic so I’m embedding it here. Feel free to listen along as you read my review.

Overall Gameplay Thoughts

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Simultaneous turn-based Frozen Cortex is about a futuristic spin on football. It’s a mix between American Football and turned-based strategy. Teams will have a planning phase to decide the strategies and a playing phase to see the outcome of what happens. Each team has five robots that battle it out to get as many points as possible within 12 turns. All robots are controlled by either players or AI and follow their commands to the letter. Score as many points possible within a short period of in-game time and you win. The majority of the focus seems to have gone into the multiplayer, with a ranking system and ease of access to get a game going between friends or strangers. There’s a reasonable if somewhat shallow single player campaign that can tackled as well. But I wouldn’t get Cortex just for it. Single battles also exist if you happen to play offline and want to fight an AI opponent. They added, post-launch, a new mode called “Cortex Manager”. It’s a complex simulation of a league season where the player is tasked with managing a team. For the most part, games play out in about 30 minutes to an hour depending on how much time players spend in the planning phase.

Strategy Talk

Every game plays out in 12 turns. Sounds simple enough, but there’s a decent amount of complexity to keep it from being boring. Points are scored by either getting the ball into the correct endzone (7 points) or by getting the ball to special pads (2 points) randomly placed around the field. The field itself has randomly generated obstacles that change the routes you can run and pass the ball around. These obstacles can block player movement, trap a player in a corner and prevent the ball from being thrown over them if it’s high enough. Each turn has two phases: the setup phase and action phase. The setup phase is done on the player’s time. During this phase, the player can plan out their next action(s) as they attempt to figure out what the opposing player will do. The action phase is where the assigned actions will play out and the results shown. The home team gets the ball and has three passes per possession. When they run the ball, they can no longer pass it until the next possession. When making moves, the players can be positioned, sent in any direction they want and paused in a certain place for a period of time. However, the turn lasts as long as the ball is being run or until a robot catches it, gets tackled by the opposing team or the ball is picked up off the ground. Long throws will create a turn pause when the ball is halfway to its destination. Robots can’t tackle other robots unless they’re carrying the ball. They can only block opposing robots if the original robot is standing still and the passing robot is within range of their block zone. If a robot intercepts or tackles another robot for the ball, they will be immune for a short duration to allow for a running or throwing play. After a player gets the ball into their endzone, the team’s positions are set back to the original places and the next team gets to take the ball first. The end zones and teams swap places every time there’s a score. By the 12th turn, if the losing team has possession of the ball, the game will continue until they score a goal in the endzone or they lose possession. Otherwise, the game is over.

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I think there’s a decent amount of strategy in Frozen Cortex to keep things interesting. There are all sorts of plays you can execute and the randomly generated obstacle course on the field can create a number of unique situations. One particular field I played on had a couple of trap corners that I was able to use to my advantage to get the ball back. Other times, fields would have nothing but high-wall obstacles that prevented throwing in any significant distance. These require you to adapt your strategy as best you can. However, there are problems with FC’s gameplay. FC does a very poor job of explaining itself. Even after the tutorial, it took me several matches just to wrap my mind around the strategy and what we were supposed to be doing. Most of the instructions and information relevant to FC have been put into the “Help” menu. Said help menu is a giant information dump on what stats are about and what players can/can’t do in a game. It’s not as well organized as I would like and I do feel like some of that information should have been in the UI. At the very least, it’s a lazy way to explain the mechanics. Into the 10th hour of the game, I was still looking up the Help menu to explain stats or what a player can’t do. The setup phase doesn’t explain itself very well either. If you know the game well enough, then the UI is great as far as being as minimalist as possible. But new players are going to struggle to figure out what is and isn’t a good idea. Additionally, I can’t put my finger on it but there’s something about the UI in general that bugs me. That it’s too minimalist, doesn’t display information as effectively or something I just can’t quite quantify. 

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This problem is only exacerbated with the planning phase. I would often time have plays that I was 100% certain would be successful but then the action would play out and it didn’t. Maybe it’s because the other player did something different than what you do but it often felt like it was the exactly same play and for whatever reason, their play was successful when it shouldn’t have been. It’s really hard to quantify if this is an actual problem or a perceived one because I can’t look at what both of us did. It’s entirely possible that they did a different enough play to out-do my own. Still, it’s a nagging feeling I had when I was in multiplayer matches. Or, I could just be bad at this game. 

This, however, is perfectly acceptable.

This, however, is perfectly acceptable.

Robot Stats

There are a whopping 11 stats that can change the characteristics of each robot. Speed, intercept, evade, block, strength, resilience, chase, release, throw distance, throw speed and ball zip. I don’t like how FC shortens intercept to int as that sounds like intelligence but that’s a personal thing. These eleven stats are all spelled out in the Help menu as to what they do exactly so I’m not going to repeat it verbatim. But essentially, they make your player better or worse at playing FC depending on how the points were used. Now, as far as whether they’ll affect the games you play, it depends. In custom team fights, you’re free to customize these stats to make certain players better at certain actions. But when playing with random people, the game gives you the option to randomize the stats, duplicate them or remove them entirely. If stats are at play, it does add a little bit more variability to the play because not every robot is a carbon copy of itself. I myself am not entirely convinced the stats system works as well as it should. It’s a little vague on how increasing or decreasing a stat will affect robots until you’re in the game actually using them.

Campaign & Cortex Manager

After a very brief couple of pictures, that quickly try to explain why Frozen Cortex exists as a sport, you’re thrown into the new season. Things happen, team managers chat with you but it’s otherwise a story about a single team winning all of its matches and changing the future of the sport forever. There are reports of corruption, teams that are self-centered/brutal and various types of AIs to fight against. A lot of story feels like window dressing, inconsequential text being thrown at you to give you something to read between loading screens. To make a series of connected FC battles be something other than random events. I should also mention that you can’t lose any of the battles. Otherwise, you have to start the whole campaign over again. Eh, I’ve had better campaigns. 

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I should mention here that there are three personalities that will commentate during the game. They will react to how each team is performing, give the audience “facts” about what’s going on and add a little bit of flavor, to make these games seem like actual sporting events. They will often repeat the same things too in the multiplayer matches. Some of the things I’ve noticed them saying can be pretty funny or eye raising things to read in single player. 

Cortex manager has the player take management of a team and play them through a simulated season against other AI teams. The player can hire or fire bots, make bets on which team wins/loses, buy cosmetic pieces of equipment, new stadiums and more. I’ve asked a friend about how FC’s Manager compares to others in the sports management genre. I don’t have any personal experience to draw upon but he’s pretty into them. According to said friend, it’s in the same ballpark as those other games. However, the decisions, variations and chances to screw up are far more complex and numerous than the ones present in FC Manager mode. (Thank you Josh Knapp for the information). I’ve toyed around with the manager thing, played through about ten or so games. It’s pretty decent, gives you plenty of things to micromanage over. The simulated matches is a neat optional look at how games play out. The story crosses over from the other single player campaign and you can play either regular or team manager whenever you wish. Though the manager mode doesn’t have you losing the entire season over a single loss. However, I just wasn’t that excited by it, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it was lack of incentive to continue or the events going on were just bland.

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This is the screen for simulated games.

Multiplayer

Multiplayer in FC has a ladder you can climb and four casual modes of play. Random stat robot teams, duplicate robot teams, standard games and quick matches. Standard games let you set your own team up from the multiplayer customization menu. Getting into a game is quick and easy, whether it’s with a friend or stranger. There is basic chat support for conversing with each other. Play-by-email is also supported. You can even load previous games you’ve done and watch them again. Frozen Cortex’s multiplayer community has all but died 10 months after the game’s initial launch. You might be able to get a game or two during prime time hours but the rest of the time it’ll be quiet as a tomb. Which is unfortunate and makes getting FC for the multiplayer not a winning proposition. It’s why I’m largely conflicted over whether I should recommend this or not. If there’s no one to play it with, what’s the point of buying it in the first place? 

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PC Settings, Crashing and YouTube Integration

Options are a bit of good and bad. For resolutions, the game gives you fullscreen on or off but when Fullscreen is activated, it goes to Desktop Borderless mode. There’s a quality slider which manages all of the other related settings, allowing it to be set to minimum, low, high and ultra. Ultra is incredibly resource hungry and doesn’t quite work on Linux or systems with low amounts of RAM. I myself had framerate drops running while running ultra. I would say that high is good enough to not need ultra. As you’ll only use the mouse and a few keys while playing, there are no key rebindings. Controllers are supported I might add. FC also includes notification options, three different colorblind options and other miscellaneous settings. Multiple audio sliders are here including master, SFX, Music and Main Menu Music. Of course, you’ll turn music all the way up to maximum, right?

Graphics & Audio Settings

Graphics & Audio Settings

Frozen Endzone seems to have is a tendency to crash when something new is clicked. When starting a new management mode, uploading a video to YouTube, crash it goes. It’s a little random and unexpected but it’s happened enough to me to be worth reporting. The weird thing is that it will only crash once and trying to upload another video works as expected afterwards. It’s a little weird. Then, as I’m finishing up this review, the sound and music have stopped working. I can’t figure out how to get it back. Though just as I’m about to publish this review, the sound and music is suddenly back. I have no idea what’s going on.

Some of the customization you can do to your team.

Some of the customization you can do to your team.

A feature I’ve been seeing more of in indie titles is the ability to directly upload games and footage to YouTube. After you’ve given the appropriate permissions and copy/pasted the code Google gives you, uploading is simple. It still seems to be working as of this review but that could change in the future. I’ve run into older games that used similar but outdated integration and those games never updated to fix that problem. Heck, Steam’s Profile YouTube integration still doesn’t work because it’s using an old version of Auth. While the YouTube uploader does work, its restricted to 720p @ 30FPS. Which is ok but 30FPS isn’t 60FPS and I’d prefer they had gone with 60. You can also download a local file to upload to a different video site entirely. What the game does is record the match’s cinematic camera, giving potential viewers a cinematic experience of a turn-based match. Not a bad idea, except that the cinematic camera has a lot of issues. It will often focus on the wrong place of the action and you can easily miss a good chunk of the action going on if you watched the game only through it. I get that it’s trying to make the game feel more epic but it often feels half-baked and could have used a lot more work.

Final Thoughts

The game of Frozen Cortex is fun to play and an interesting take on futuristic Football. For someone who has never had much interest in the sport, FC is a bit of a surprising title this year. It has at least a decent amount of tactical depth in matches and the manager mode to keep things different every time I played. So, the game itself is worth playing if you can get friends to challenge against. But that’s the trick. The multiplayer community is small and getting smaller by the month. I’m also not sure that the developers will keep supporting it outside of keeping the server online. Even if the server does go down, there is an offline mode but I don’t think this game is worth getting into if all you’re ever going to do is challenge the AI. Plus, the occasional bugs and crashing that occurs is a bit annoying to deal with. The story isn’t anything worth experiencing either. But the game mechanics are solid. So, there’s my opinion on Frozen Cortex.

Thanks for reading! Please share and like this post if you actually did enjoy this review.

-KingIsaacLinksr

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