I found myself surrounded by baleful megacorporations, each hell-bent on commanding the eternal subservience of lowly "users" worldwide -- a world enshrouded in darkness and soiled by the sins of consumerism, blood, and meritocratic ideology.
Then I started up Fray.
Dystopian societies have long been a fascination among gamers with piqued interests in the future of technology, politics, and their eventual intermingling; there's something morbidly entertaining about a future where capitalism reigns weightily, using its exploitative methodologies and gains of questionable sources to re-educate and optimize the citizenry for a lifetime of drone-like labor (wait - did I say "future?"). Taking to the streets isn't an option -- no, there are far too many cameras and "citizen protection forces" afoot. If action is to be taken in a cyberpunk setting, it must be done digitally and through use of technological loopholes. They can put guards on every corner, but cumbersome megacorps can never keep up with skilled hackers (queue Sam Flynn on lightcycle).
Brain Candy's Fray sets itself apart as a simultaneous turn-based strategy game; it's a strange amalgamation of RTS and turn-based strategy, which immensely speeds up play time by limiting turns and eliciting instinctive decisions. We initially posted about Fray's 2-for-1 deal here, but we know quite a bit more now.
Fray plays a sort of meta-game with its story: You're playing as a player, in effect, who is acting as a 'squad leader' and controlling four units in a very glowy, very teal, Tron-like cyber environment. The cities are in disrepair and have fallen to the hands of the three preeminent corporations, leaving you to pick your side from within this virtual reality terminal and battle it out with one or more of the other oh-so-benevolent megacorporations.
Devs: "They're not evil... well, that depends on how you define 'evil.'"
Oh, you were wondering about the camera in your bathroom? That's just to make sure you don't hurt yourself in there. You know, for your own protection and well-being.
The story's all quite immersive if you were to truly force yourself to live in the world of Fray, but let's be honest, here: It's a strategy game at heart. Story is secondary and overlooked as soon as gameplay starts. It's all about quick thinking, and mutative, action/reaction mechanics in effort to thwart your opponent and win with the best possible score and fewest possible casualties. Fray's story is a massive bonus, but the mechanics absolutely must stand strong alone for the game to succeed.
"Simultaneous turn-based strategy" is something that has been tried before, albeit to a much slower extent than we find in Fray. Fray and Frozen Synapse (a fantastic game, if you haven't played it) share a few pages between their playbooks -- it's all about speed and planning. Traditional turn-based games like the Heroes series have forever faced the challenge of adapting to a multiplayer environment (especially more than two people) due to the complexity with which turns must be executed. If one player finds him- or herself particularly careful, perhaps spending upwards of five or ten minutes per turn, and the others simply want to shove it into Warp 10 and play, something magical happens: a tear in the space-time continuum is ripped and everyone gets bored and quits. That's where this whole simultaneous ordeal comes into play: It tries to streamline gameplay and keep play interesting and snappy.
Seriously, guys - how do I turn this thing off? It won't stop shooting.
Fray wants to differentiate itself from Frozen Synapse, though; it claims to be faster, opting for a true simultaneous system (rather than an effective 'play by email' system) that limits turns to a preset number of seconds. Watching the timer tick down, growing steadily closer toward the resolution stage (when no more commands can be issued and actions are resolved), forces players to make clutch decisions and concoct more risky strategies.
Easy. In theory.
Each unit is allotted a full "bar" of movement and action opportunities -- as movements and commands are followed, the movement bar solidifies and remaining action points are diminished. Every blown opportunity is largely detrimental to the turn's outcome, and stakes are high.
A standard movement bar from a turn in Fray.
Versatility's the thing
Fray further tries to circumvent traditional turn-based design flaws by adding a mix of on-the-fly actions, including varied stances (defensive, offensive, sprint, fire-on-sight, camouflage, so on), switchable weapons ('nade launcher, LMGs), limited ammunition and resupply, deployable sentries and healthpacks, satellite reconnaissance, and plenty more. Persistent levels across classes also aim to encourage new approaches to maps and pressure players into discovering their own, personalized playstyle, offering unlocks as classes increase in ability.
Strategy games hold playstyle above all else: Are you a risk-taker that kicks off play or are you more reactionary, acting only when you are certain that you'll be secure in your choices? Do you like to send a soloist around the back to infiltrate the rear line's medical support, providing sniper fire from the opposite side and applying pressure to the front with assault? Maybe you're more of the brute force type and prefer to do a position-to-position group takeover strategy, using all of your units in unison to grab and hold defensible locations. All of these are available avenues in Fray and, to be sure, many more will be discovered as the game's community matures and finds its footing in this dark, new world.
Brain Candy levies simultaneous play against time restrictions to enable the game's full depth of planning and mechanics, hopefully preventing those infamous groan-inducing, multi-minute turns that often break strategic immersion.
There are currently six class options, offering an admirable level of tactical intricacy and even more ramifications for poor choices. Depending on the mode selected (described below), there's still plenty of chance for recovery if chokepoints are lost or predictions are false, making for added tension as matches draw ever-closer in point distribution and map ownership.
Three of the six classes.
Here's a simplified overview of the classes (for in-depth information, view Brain Candy's class page):
Optimized for short-range encounters and enduring a hail of bullets, the Tank is primarily useful for holding a position or drawing fire; he excels in defensive land grabs and locating enemy troops ("gee, let's shoot the big dumb guy that's parading down the center of the street"), but will also host a full set of situation-specific abilities when the game releases fully: earthquakes to disrupt clustered positioning, energy shields to absorb incoming fire, and the impressive "anti-bullet gloves." Must be designer fashion.
Assault troopers are the backbone of any offensive army: Most notable for their versatility of weapon choices and clutch teleport ability, Assault units can be used to 'pincer' enemy advancements at chokepoints and surprise attack tactically significant units, like medics or snipers. Assault works incredibly well with flanking Shadows.
Stealthy bastards. Shadows must have been corporate spies in a previous career, because their ability to backstab is undefeated; flaunting a unique camouflage ability (only detectable by a Support's turrets and in a few other situations), Shadows are able to penetrate enemy rank-and-file and wreak havoc from within.
Taking a page from TF2's Engineer, the Support class is gadget-heavy and spec'd to dominate in situational battles. Support can throw down a Sentry BB Ball -- instantly building a defensive turret -- to hold the rear or create an improvised corridor. Equally impressive is the "Fogger" gadget, a device that generates fog-of-war when destroyed. Combining the Fogger and the Sentry make for an easy getaway and even easier Shadow positioning, mix those with the Satellite Recon (unveiling enemy movements) and the spawner (allowing a mobile spawn point for downed units) and you've got an undefeatable concoction.
They heal things! Medics are one of the most important components to any squad; they keep tanks and assault troopers up when the frontlines are bare, plant healthpacks for safekeeping in the future, and have long-range movement for last-minute heals.
Wielding one of the highest-damaging weapons in the game, Snipers take longer to fire a shot than any other unit, meaning you've got one chance per turn to really make a mark. If he's out of position, it's tough to maneuver into a location with better visibility while maintaining a damage advantage.
Mixed with the four different modes, these classes cover all the bases and allow complete control for the player to designate preferential approaches to strategic philosophy. Currently, a standardized deathmatch (FFA with up to four players), team deathmatch, and two unique "fortress" and "survivor" modes are planned.
Words, words, words! Is it any good?
Our policy at GN is not to fully criticize and review a game prior to its complete release (Fray is only in alpha at the time of this review, marked at version 0.54), but I can say this: The developers are friendly, competent, and believe in their game. Each week yields another iterative advancement in bug-fixes and feature additions, and with their current two-for-one deal, it's tough to say no. Community play sessions are hosted regularly and at planned intervals, making jumping in for at least a few hours a week easy. The game's developers are located in France -- as is most of their audience (or thereabouts) -- so for those of us in the Americas, it's tough to find anyone online to play against at night (send me an email if you need someone to match against). Good hours for gaming are normally around 10AM - 3PM EST on weekends or 2PM - 6PM EST on weekdays.
Organization aside, the gameplay is addicting (despite flaws and bugs of alpha) and feels right, it just needs to address issues with unit clumping and debunk consistently reliable strategies by approaching balance carefully. I found myself winning easily by keeping all my units together, and while sneaking around and teleporting was very effective, it was less risky and most predictable to keep all my troops in one heavily-covered location. More risk is more fun, sure, but when everyone wants to win, fun doesn't always take priority (as we've explored previously). I'd imagine as players evolve their own skills they'll be forced out-of-position to prevent staring contests and stalemates, so that may be as much of a player skill problem as it is a design consideration (remember, it's alpha; very few people know how to use all the features).
My 1v1 matches averaged about 20 minutes in length, and since the turns are scalable to all sizes (remember that whole 'simultaneous' thing?), I'd imagine 2v2s shouldn't take much longer. Match length is perfect as is, perhaps closer to the long side, if anything -- though that's all minor and fixable with round limitations.
I'm worried about the very real possibility of cheesing and cheap strategies in team games. I see an opportunity for combining powerful abilities to be completely undefeatable when used with two players; two tanks with shields active, backed by two medics and a few snipers would be devastating, for sure. The class leveling system also poses a threat to inclusivity between veterans and exclusion of newcomers, but that's always been a plague on strategy games. Hopefully all of these balance problems are considered, validated, and addressed before full launch. Brain Candy has a long road ahead of them!
We managed to get a sneak peek at the new CronaMind labs level. You might say it was a triumph.
It'll all come down to map design: How effectively can the team create maps that are both littered with story-compliant debris while preventing stare-downs, collisioning issues, and still provide tactical cover and footholds?
There's still a lot of room for improvement, primarily in functionality and design implementation, but the concept is solid and the balance efforts will be redoubled as community gaming increases. Fray has the potential to change the face of turn-based gaming, but that potential has to be realized and carefully wielded to accomplish such an enormous task on an otherwise resistant-to-change genre.