Version tested: PC
The spacebar is my best friend. The spacebar is my worst enemy. It tells me what I want to hear, but it lies. With a tap, I see a preview of the fight to come: the bullets that spray from my guns a micro-second before the enemy turns to see me. Spacebar, do you speak truth this time?
Of course not. That beautiful play, that tactician's dream, the spacebar's best-guess preview of what the next phase in the turn-based strategy game Frozen Synapse might hold - it's not real.
It doesn't account for the shotgun-wielding enemy who crept around my flank. It didn't predict that the machine-gunner I was so sure would stray into my path would instead retreat into cover. It certainly didn't see that rocket fired from the other side of the screen into the wall behind my last sniper. Spacebar, I need you - but I cannot trust you.
The team-versus-team combat of X-COM and its various clones is the clearest reference point for Frozen Synapse's turn-by-turn gunplay. But while some of the core mechanics behind this neon-hued top-down strategy-shooter might be familiar, the resulting experience is not.
Plotting out your orders is not a matter of deciding them and enacting them. It's a matter of agonising over them, watching the spacebar's prediction of what your intended moves might result in again and again, and praying to whatever dark and bloodthirsty gods you think might help that the enemy's soldiers will go where you you're so damned sure they will.
'Commit' is such a beautiful name for an End Turn button. Press it with trembling hand, for there's no backing down afterwards. Watching the Outcome of a turn is up there with staring at the flickering television in a bookie's office, ticket clenched into your sweaty paw as you pound imagined psychic energy into the horse you've bet everything on. This time. This time. It must go as planned.
Despite being a turn-based game, Frozen Synapse can be over within single-digit minutes. The wrong move and the worst luck can see your small squad of green or red men annihilated by the opposing team, and then that's that. It's not a drawn-out experience, but a micro-round of tactical betting: plotting your moves while second guessing your opponent's.
Said opponent can be AI, either as part of a quickie skirmish or in a surprisingly fleshed-out single-player campaign, or another human. The latter obviously offers the most emotional engagement: the sharp and giddy thrill of beating someone real, and just as invested in the faceless-off as you. In its remote matching and turn-by-turn taking of chances, Frozen Synapse bears some resemblance to online poker. Only, of course, the stakes are death (and if that isn't the name of a Steven Segal movie, it should be).
You don't have much to play with, and neither does the other guy: just a few units, each holding either a machine gun, shotgun, sniper rifle, grenade launcher or rocket launcher. Each turn, you'll tell these chaps where to go and where to aim, via an interface that arguably looks more complicated than it is. Double-click to move, drag a target symbol to aim - there's a little more fine-grain control if you need it, but really you don't. You need faith and you need balls. Commit?
Commit. Wait. Pray. Meantime, your opponent's doing the same - it's a game of guns, but you're trying to outthink and outwit your opponents, not out-aim them. And if you're the one who gets outwitted, perhaps you'll fare better in the second, third, fourth, fifth, whatever game you're simultaneously playing against someone else.
A neat lobby/profile screen offers instant access and prompts to whichever matches you're currently embroiled in, with rankings and leaderboards a reward for those who crave them. This is not like the old play-by-email games, as slow as a pensioner on a snowy day; it's whip-fast, jumping from match to match to match, thoroughly modern and pulse-raising despite its fundamental adherence to old, old values.
Frozen Synapse has been in open-ish beta state for over a year at this point, and its once-finicky interface has improved hugely during that time. It still, perhaps, lacks a slickness that the minimalist aesthetic might suggest; for example, the aim and wait buttons are fiddly to click on if you're playing at maximum zoom, as you probably will.
The unchanging, ghostly neon look, reminiscent of the games by fellow Brit indies Introversion, can also wear thin after a time. When you can have any number of matches on the go at once, dancing between waiting opponents as you wait for other game's turns to resolve, it's hard not to wish there were more distinguishing features to each. Change is always guaranteed by the conflict: the maps and even the unit rosters are randomly generated each time (unless you start a game with specific stipulations), while a variety of modes shake up the challenge. But the visuals and the palette will forever be the same.
The single-player campaign pushes things a touch more, introducing a few hand-designed maps (still subject to random elements) that are often built to look weird and play hard. Talking heads pop up too, the only time that the game offers characters outside the spectral silhouettes of your soldiers.
In single-player, your soldiers are 'shapeforms', genetically-created idiots fit only to be bossed around by remote commanders such as yourself and the expository folk who you're collaborating with and conspiring against in a corrupt future city. While the single-player storyline perhaps goes too deep into techno-babble at times - the devs have clearly enjoyed penning their own fiction - the writing is peppered with agreeable pitch. The concept suits what was clearly originally designed as a competitive game remarkably well.
It's the missions themselves that really sing, though. Freed from the fairness and random generation necessary for the multiplayer game, each level is a tailored experience in terms of both map design and challenge. The mechanics remain the same, but the campaign is packed with smart twists on the Frozen Synapse formula: sneaking a hacker into a specific room within a specific number of turns; escorting a VIP across the breadth of a sniper-filled map; assassinating a specific enemy.
On occasion, it can seem cruelly, impossibly difficult, but a lucky turn, a sudden brainwave or (most of all) a gut feeling about what the enemy's going to do can dizzyingly tip the odds in your favour. Without the waiting that multiplayer matches can entail, everything happens in a heartbeat. The tension of guessing, predicting and committing is sweaty and extreme - a testament to how high the stakes feel.
It had seemed doubtful, months back, that this would ever be a convincing single-player game. It seemed wholly designed for player-versus-player, and a Brink situation of strung-together bot matches seemed the most likely outcome. Frozen Synapse is an excellent and inventive multiplayer game, but it is, truly, also an excellent and inventive single-player game - one that provides its own distinct challenges and rewards even as it effectively tutors you to be a multiplayer champ.
But the dizzy thrill of defeating an implacable human opponent - after all that panicky guesstimation, all your courting of the mendacious spacebar - is the sweetest song the game has to sing. That's why your $20 or £15 buys two copies of Frozen Synapse, making an already fair price for a smart and slick game all the fairer.
Frozen Synapse takes the old, the stuffy and the traditionally glacial and it makes it brand new, instant and brutal. It's such an achievement.
9 / 10