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Frozen Synapse

Cold war kids.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

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.

Rockets: oh so deadly, but oh so slow. Flank! Flank!

'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).

In single-player, yellow means friendly but moronic. These guys won't make it without you.

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.