Frozen Synapse

Laser Squad's nemesis.

Timing is everything. Half the internet is busy screaming in outrage that the new XCOM is a first-person shooter rather than a turn-based strategy game, and then along comes Frozen Synapse. This is the turn-based strategy game that's going to put its arms around you, stroke your hair and say, "There, there. Mummy still loves you." You have not been abandoned.

Not that Frozen Synapse doesn't have room for more children in its brood. If you traditionally recoil at the words 'turn-based', you're going to be surprised by the accessibility and fluidity of this neon treat. Most matches are done and dusted in under 15 minutes, and the action plays out so quickly that you'll need to squint at instant replays to work out exactly what just happened

While the three chaps who comprise Oxford-based indie studio Mode 7 promise extensive single-player modes come final release, in Synapse's current form - a beta of which is available right away to anyone who preorders - it's very much a multiplayer prospect. So much so that buying the game rather wonderfully grants you two copies, so you can pass one to a chum and have an instant nemesis.

Again, if the mention of multiplayer strategy instantly curdles your stomach acid, there's a good chance this will buck your fearful expectations. There's no building or equipping of units, and the order interface is no more complicated than double-clicking to set a destination or drawing a line to tell your tiny chaps where to look and shoot. The complication comes from second-guessing where your enemy will be, not from trying to work out which one of two dozen buttons means 'Shoot Him, For God's Sake Shoot Him'.

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Looks complicated, huh? Nope. Just double-click to set each one of those waypoints. You can also drag them around if you want to rearrange before committing.

This is the thing: unless you're a baby and play the lights-on, no fog-of-war mode, you can't see anything except what your small squad of soldiers can see. If they can see an enemy, they'll try to shoot him. He will, of course, try to shoot you back. Shooting is largely automated, and it's a one hit, one kill affair. So what happens when two blokes catch each others' eye? Well, that depends. How far away from each other are they, and what weapons do they have? If they're at range, one's got a shotgun and the other's got a machine gun, shottyboy is going down. If they've just bumped into each other in a corridor, the fire-from-the-hip shotgun will certainly best the machine gun.

More interestingly, your units' accuracy and response time improves if they stay in one place for a little while. So if two snipers spot each other, if either one has been lurking in his current position for a turn or two, he'll let off a fatal shot before the other can say, "hey, he looks exactly like me, but he's bright red!"

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Rocket launchers can only be fired at walls. Nonetheless, they'll still kill half the world.

The key is having a strong sense of where the enemy is likely to attack from and leaving your men in positions where they can catch the bounders as they wander by. This brings us to Frozen Synapse's neatest feature - watching an instant preview of how things will go down if your guess is correct. Set your movement and fire orders, hit space and the game will drop into real-time, all your wee chaps running and shooting and hiding in exact accordance with your commands.

This, in itself, is pretty valuable, especially with rocket-launcher troops. Splash damage or a stray bit of wall can nobble your own squad in a bloody instant, so it's always best to check you've not made a rookie error. Better still, however, each previously spotted enemy leaves a last-known location ghost, which you can drag around and position to see what happens if they move to where you think they're going to move. It's psychic chess, essentially.

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