Hands-on with Frozen Synapse

Taking inspiration from such disparate sources as Laser Squad Nemesis and Bridge, Frozen Synapse is a two-player turn-based tactical shooter due early next year. Those who preorder can get the multiplayer beta right now – and, going by this playtest, that might be all they need.

Two squads of gunmen hunt each other in a starkly abstract maze of corridors, while we and our opponent concoct plans and plot waypoints, micromanaging stances and lines of fire. Then, on mutual consent, our tactics play out in real time.

The devs chide us for turtling. Battles are designed to last five to ten minutes – neat, spartan affairs, the deeper tactics only emerging in replay. We have two gunners and a chap with a bazooka, but each team’s squad loadout is down to the whim of the game. Each soldier acts differently. Machine-gunners are the most independent: it’s a matter of who sees who first, adjusted by cover and movement.

Predicting our opponent will send his men scuttling down to the junction ahead, we instruct a gunner to keep watch from a window, while his teammates cross the hall behind. Our man with the bazooka spends several turns working his way up there. But it’s all too quiet, so we set him to dash to a doorway, shoot a rocket through, then duck into cover. We get a lucky kill: an enemy haplessly wandering into the path of our explosive. But our man back at the junction catches a bullet in return, having foolishly waddled into gunfire.

Despite proving to be a strategist of Chief Wiggum caliber, we manage to score a victory: the last two enemies turn a corner into our remaining gunner’s sights. The length of each bout depends on your opponent’s haste in setting out their commands, but, should they prove to be dawdlers ofour standard, you can always run multiple matches, flipping between them using in-game tabs. The game also tracks stats, from number of wins to longest running streak, and allows you to watch anyone else’s matches in replay, or upload your own to YouTube.

We played the simple extermination mode, but there are other gametypes, the most unusual being Secure. At the beginning of this, each player bids on the amount of territory he will be able to successfully defend. You can select as much or as little as you want, or divide it across the map. There are hostage, bomb defusal and hour-long modes, too, and although single-player isn’t yet available, it’s possible to test your mettle against AI. Randomly generated levels extend the devs’ own calculated designs, but such is the mix of precise control and dynamism, there promises to be as much pleasure in replay. The single-player is still an unknown quantity, but for online bite-sized strategy, the beta alone is moreish.

May 14, 2010