Mode 7’s Frozen Endzone is not a sports game in the sense that Madden or FIFA fans would recognise. Yes, it has a ball, robots in chunky shoulder pads, and teams in primary neon hues. Endzones even. But its American-football-meets-Speedball looks are deceiving: this is every yard the intensely tactical game of deception and fake-outs that Frozen Synapse was. You never take direct control of a player in the thick of the action. Instead you occupy the role of all-powerful coach, planning the moves for your team of robotic pawns to be played out in short, simultaneously enacted phases.
As such, it has something of a perception problem. The game’s open beta went live in December, and since then lead designer Ian Hardingham has received a lot of feedback from non-players who “worry that it’s an American football game, and they don’t know anything about American football, or they don’t like real-world sports. That’s something that we’re still looking at addressing, because it’s not a real-life sports game and it’s got nothing to [do with] American football.”
Which invites the question: why make a follow-up to the gunplay skirmishes of Frozen Synapse a sports game at all? Co-managing director Paul Taylor explains it’s a natural result of Mode 7’s goals. “Effectively, we wanted to make a game that took some of the elements of Frozen Synapse, particularly the territorial physical element of the game, making it much more about reading the map. The sports thing kind of came out of that.”
The first months of this year-long beta present only a core sample of the final game, of course. Even so, asynchronous Endzone matches with other humans are surprisingly fully formed area-control tussles, which play out on randomly generated pitches festooned with boxes and scoring zones.
Players take turns on the attack, each facing the same starting setup and handful of possible actions. In the planning phase, you’ll dot waypoints about by right-clicking, which your bots will follow with clockwork precision. A timer can be set at each point to instigate a pause, and a bot in possession of the ball can sometimes make a pass by dragging an arrow to anywhere forward of him on the pitch. Tall cubes will block robot movement and passes, while low ones only impede progress. And just like Frozen Synapse, you can map out the moves you expect your opponent to take, and hit the spacebar to see a simulation of the next few seconds before you submit your plan to the server to see it enacted in dynamically framed bursts.
It sounds simple, but matches get physical fast. Tackles are delivered to any robot that passes within a set radius of an opponent, with priority given to the droid that stops moving first. And it’s this that defied our expectations, making Endzone not a game of breakout runs and pushing your luck, but carefully considered moves and judiciously delivered tackle stuns to create space.
It’s pure and deep, although it’s tough to score points until you truly understand how to mislead your opponents. And there are a few other minor gripes, too: the identical robots are devoid of personality, and without any team customisation options, it’s easy for matches to blur into one. But as you might expect from tacticians par excellence, Mode 7 has already thought this far ahead. “People are definitely looking for some of the stuff we’re going to be adding,” Taylor tells us. “Things like stat progression and team customisation have been the most requested things, and that’s what we’re working on right now.”
The planned February update, designed to coincide with a Steam Early Access release, will bring a lot of what feels lacking in the mirror match-ups. “The first thing you’ll be able to do with the next update is open up the team editor [and] customise your teams to a certain level,” Hardingham says. “If you’re always going to buy more speed then you can’t have as much strength, that kind of thing.”
Personalisation options are coming too, and team names and colours are far from the extent of the ambition, with home stadiums, customisable player animations and even a robot facial expression tool planned. “We’re trying some weirder tackles and hits at the moment,” Taylor says. “We’ve got all kinds of stupid stuff: roundhouse kicks to ridiculous uppercuts to headbutts to every idea we’ve had about how a robot can hit another robot.”
Perhaps Endzone is a closer sequel to Frozen Synapse than those misleading first glimpses of the game would suggest. It follows the same template of perfecting a solid gameplay idea before layering on the polish, after all. While it’s eminently playable in this pared-back form, early adopters have a lot to anticipate in the coming year.