I am not a particular fan of sports games, which you might think would make me ill-qualified to examine a sports-themed title such as Frozen Endzone, but hold on there a moment -- this isn't an ordinary sports game.
Nope, Frozen Endzone, as you'll already know if you saw our coverage from EGX (formerly Eurogamer Expo) last year, is specifically designed to be a game that, while sports-themed, doesn't demand in-depth knowledge of a real sport. Rather, it's an inventive "future sports" game -- those who grew up in the '90s will remember those -- that is designed to be simple and accessible to newcomers, yet deep and highly competitive to those willing to put the time and effort in. And you can play it right now, because it hit Steam's Early Access program today.
For the uninitiated, Frozen Endzone is a turn-based, futuristic take on football where two teams square off against one another in a randomly generated arena. Both players plan out their team's movements at the same time, commit their orders and then watch the resolution of their choices. This then continues until the match is brought to an end in some way -- usually by one side or the other scoring a touchdown.
The new Steam build is a substantial improvement over earlier beta editions, and it's testament to how much love, care and attention Mode 7 Games puts into its work. Endzone's predecessor Frozen Synapse was the same; beginning as a relatively simple but enjoyable multiplayer-centric title, it gradually blossomed into something much greater, with a substantial (and challenging) single-player campaign included alongside an inventive selection of game modes that ran the gamut from simple "kill everyone on the other team" to more complex challenges. Endzone is presently at the early stage of that same process; while limited in some ways, Mode 7 has lofty ambitions for the end product, and will continue to develop and refine the formula as the team continues to get feedback from the active players who are jumping on board now.
So what does the new version offer? Well, like early versions of Frozen Synapse, it's a multiplayer-centric experience at present, focusing on the "Full Match" mode. The game rules are kept simple and straightforward -- don't pass backwards, keep moving forwards, you can't pass once you start running with the ball -- and the basic mechanics of how your players interact with the other team are easy to understand. Essentially, Endzone is a game about getting yourself into a strategically advantageous position ahead of your opponent -- anyone who is standing still when two robots come into contact with one another will come off the winner of an encounter, so savvy players can use this to their advantage by stunning their rival's robots and clearing a path for the ball carrier to follow. The challenge comes in predicting what your opponent will do, and how to respond to it.
This basic formula was already in place when I last saw the game at EGX, though; what's been added since then, meanwhile, elevates an already fun game into something really intriguing.
The main addition is the introduction of player stats. These determine various aspects of your robots' capabilities, ranging from running speed to the area of "threat" they generate around themselves when attempting to block the rival team. Your team begins as a simple bank of players all with the same abilities, but through a simple points system you can strengthen them in some areas and weaken them in others, allowing you to specialize specific players on your team for different purposes. For example, you might want a speedy player able to nimbly dart around your opponent, a strong player able to knock rivals out of action for a few turns, and players able to intercept passes at longer range. There's no need to level your players or earn points in order to do this -- you can fully customize your team right from the get-go, including giving them names and nicknames of your choice. This helps ensure that everyone is on a, if you'll pardon the cliché, level playing field.
"We're already seeing an exciting metagame develop with the types of team composition people are using," says Paul Taylor from Mode 7. "We're really interested to see what a wider community makes of this."
Indeed, the potential is already obvious; the game really allows you to customize the experience to your own unique play style, and competing against other players' custom lineups will be a true test of whether you've managed to put together a balanced team or an unworkable mess. Or perhaps we'll end up with players who take great pride in playing with a "bad" team and seeing how well they can do? Stranger things have happened.
All this may sound daunting to newcomers, but it's all explained very well through an interactive tutorial, and the new version's other big addition -- a commentary system -- really helps too. Rather than using EA Sports-style digitized commentary -- very TV-like but often repetitive after a while -- Endzone makes use of an AI-controlled text-based commentary system that responds to how you play and your past form. The commentary team will comment on each and every play you make, giving their own thoughts on whether or not they think you've made a wise call. Observing how the commentary team responds to your various plays is a good way of improving your own game -- you'll eventually start to get your head around what they believe to be "good" and "bad" plays, and will naturally improve as a result, though this doesn't necessarily take the inherently unpredictable nature of other human players into account. If nothing else, their banter is genuinely amusing, too, and helps provide some fun flavor to the game.
At present, you can play Endzone either in predefined "skirmishes" against AI opponents, or against other players online. The latter option is asynchronous, so you can take your turns as and when it is convenient to you -- there's no need to sit around waiting, and indeed it's possible to have a number of games on the go simultaneously if you so desire. As with Frozen Synapse, there's a detailed system of stat-tracking in place that allows you to see how your own form compares to everyone else -- and how likely you are to win against an opponent. A simple but effective Friends system also makes it a relatively simple matter to "follow" and keep tabs on players you enjoy competing against.
But it's the as-yet unimplemented single-player mode that could well prove to be the highlight of Frozen Endzone. A far cry from Frozen Synapse's interesting but ultimately linear progression of missions, Mode 7 aims to create a fully dynamic simulation of the action both on and off the pitch over the course of your team's career.
"We want to create a big simulation which incorporates your players, staff and other coaches in the league," explains Taylor. "You'll be able to see where they go and who they interact with between matches, get involved in negotiations and nefarious dealings, as well as taking part in what we're calling 'storylines.' These will be sequences of events that happen which you can affect: for example, a rival coach might fly into your city and start trying to headhunt your players. You could send an agent to disrupt this process or just observe and play the long game."
It's an ambitious prospect and Taylor is quick to note that it's all purely conceptual right now -- though he seems confident he and his fellow Mode 7-er Ian Hardingham will be able to realize their vision.
"Ian has come up with an amazing system that shouldn't actually be too hard to implement, but should facilitate a lot of cool content creation," says Taylor. "I'll be writing all the storylines with him and really trying to create an immersive experience that puts you inside the entire world of the sport."
So when can we expect to see this ambitious addition to the package?
"If there are any significant issues -- crashes and such -- in this particular build, which there hopefully shouldn't be, we'll work on those first," says Taylor. "After that, we will probably be going dark for a while to work on the basis of the single-player game. This is going to be a huge task and will take quite a while.
"I'd like to push some more art content into the beta, like animations and a new stadium when we have those ready," he adds. "We want to have loads more [animations], almost so you never see the same animation twice in a match; [the beta] gives you a little flavor of that. Aside from that, we tend to favor getting stuff into a robust state then working on a quite large update over a longer period of time, so that's what people should expect."
In the meantime, Frozen Endzone's Early Access version already offers a satisfying and solid multiplayer experience -- and one with some genuinely lovely visuals and sound, I might add -- that is well worth checking out. You can do just that here starting at $24.99 -- and all tiers of support for the upcoming game come with a free copy to give to a friend, too, so you'll have at least one person to play against.