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'.
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!"
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.
Except, of course, your best-guess will often enough be completely inaccurate. Set up your orders, click end turn, and so long as the other guy's also given all his orders, your gambit plays out right away. Click, boom, rattatat, everybody's dead. Frozen Synapse can go disastrously wrong in an instant, but the rapid-fire nature of it means even the most brutal defeat is almost funny.
While you could have another go on the same map with the same units, another one of Frozen Synapse's neat tricks is that, by default, the level layout and soldier roster is randomly generated come each new match. You'll have a new experience each time and, crucially, you won't have to spend any time dicking around with soldier inventories.
This was the great folly of the otherwise splendid Laser Squad Nemesis, the play-by-email TBS by the creators of X-COM, and the clearest inspiration for Frozen Synapse. That game was slower than continental drift as it was, but the set-up times were the real killer. In Frozen Synapse, you're straight into the action: if you're given a rocket launcher, two snipers and a shotgun, that's what you're using. If no shots have been fired by, at most, turn three, then both players are bally cowards.
This is a game about crushing your enemy, punching the air and breathlessly bragging about how clever you are. It is not a game about hiding behind a wall for 48 turns. In a way, it capitalises on the new movement towards turn-based indie gaming, headed up by Solium Infernum and Neptune's Pride, but the fact that it's so quick to learn, quick to play and quick to reward or punish means it could well attract the horde. And so it should - the current beta build needs a little spit and polish, but it is still a shiny diamond of a thing. There's no question that it's taking action-strategy to a much-needed new place.
Also ensuring that Frozen Synapse stays frosty is a healthy bunch of different modes. I'll spare you a blow-by-blow, but suffice to say there's a whole lot more to do than repeatedly gun down Tron-like dudes. In particular, there's a puzzle mode - which proved a big hit with even entirely casual gamers when demoed at last year's Nottingham Game City - and a neat twist on base defence.
The latter sees both players bidding for how much of the map they believe they can realistically defend. The highest bidder gets his wish, while the other chap goes on the offence, able to spawn his guys all over the place and brutally test the wisdom (or idiocy) of the defender. These trials of honour versus sense are likely to prove one of the most popular modes, I suspect; you'll get to wave around a whole lot of willy if you successfully defend, say, a third of the entire map. Bragging rights are also endorsed via a baby Battle.net lobby, with which you can arrange a rematch, gloat over other players' stats and instantly upload entire match videos to Youtube.
There's more cleverness in how the turns are taken and communicated. You can both play simultaneously, the game letting each of you know when the other player's made his moves and the bloody resolution is ready, or you can wander off after you've sent your orders. Then game will send you an email when your nemesis-to-be is ready, or you can leave it running in your system tray and have it alert you with a pop-up.
So, while this turn-based game is likely at its best when played in breathless real-time, it's also something you can play in two-minute chunks across a couple of days without having to allocate a specific half-hour to play with a chum. In other words, if you are boring and old and spend all your time feeding the baby, walking the dog and washing the car, you can still play videogames about shooting other men to death. Welcome back, commander
The full version Frozen Synapse will hopefully be released before the year is out, but preordering it gets you instant access to the beta, and a second copy for a friend.