With mainstream games having apparently decided turn-based strategy is thoroughly beneath them (the boss of 2K even said as much the other week), it falls to smaller and indie studios to keep that founding flame of PC gaming alive. Frozen Synapse is about as perfect an example as you could wish for of taking something terribly traditional and infusing it with thoroughly modern values and, as is only right, it appears to have been a huge success for it.
It’s turn-based squad combat in the vein of classics such as X-COM and Jagged Alliance, with the key difference being that it’s primarily geared towards two-man multiplayer. Each participant doles out orders to his small of squad of shotgunners, snipers, machinegunners and/or grenadiers, based on where he thinks the enemy is most likely to be. Get it right, and you’re rewarded with a blissful realtime pay-off in which your chaps gun down his chaps. Get it wrong and… well, your guys lurking uselessly by a bit of wall is the best you can hope for. The worst? That your opponent has out-guessed you, headed you off at the pass and shot all your blokes in the back.
It’s a flat-out thrilling game of cat and mouse, where the focus is not on knee-jerk gunplay but on carefully analysing the situation and making tactical predictions about how it’s likely to play out. For all its measured nature, it’s as adrenalised and nerve-wracking as any flat-out shooter. Turns and orders are synchronized online, and while you could just go away and wait until the other guy’s filed his, more likely you’ll sit there anxiously awaiting the result. A game could be over in five minutes or five weeks, but it’s when two players are at it more or less simultaneously that it’s at its most tense.
Despite all this, Frozen Synapse is a pretty cracking singleplayer game too. A series of semi-scripted missions document a saga of conspiracy and corruption in a cyberpunk world featuring clone bodies and self-aware AIs. At times it’s a bit overwrought, but it does a surprisingly decent job of adding context and purpose to a game that seems so resolutely competitive. It’s also a chance to play with the game’s systems a little more, in a way that the randomly-generate level structures and unit types of multiplayer doesn’t. Puzzle levels, hostage retrievals, stealth incursions and the like all feature, forcing even FZ dab-hands to think about the challenge before them in wildly changing ways.
Still, it’s a multiplayer game at heart – which is why you’re given a bonus copy with every purchase. Pass your spare to a friend and the game will make ten times as much sense as on your own, though of course you can wade into random matches whenever you fancy, thanks to a slick and non-intrusive invitation system.
To nitpick, the look of the game could stand more variety (cold blues can grow wearisome after a while) and there are elements of the interface that tend towards the fiddly, but the cleverness and deftness of the concept rises far above this. Not to mention that bonus goodies such as instantly uploading match replays to YouTube makes it a doddle to chest-thump about your finest hours.