Frozen Synapse review

Frozen Synapse review

Frozen Synapse review

With its multiplayer beta open to preorder customers for the last year, Mode7's game of tactics and shooting has grown a formidable reputation as a top-down, turn-based Counter-Strike. It's well deserved. Even now arriving at release with a substantial singleplayer campaign, it's easy to recommend on the basis of its multiplayer alone, in which players hatch plans for each turn separately but simultaneously, before witnessing how their intentions crash together and resolve.

It manages to be both chaotic and clinical: dynamic enough to catastrophically confound even the most meticulous plans, this is nonetheless a game of tense second-guessing, bluffing and duplicity, one that forces you to engage with the psychology of your opponent and dig deep into the game's mechanisms to eke out every advantage. Viewing the level's abstracted blue topography from above, each player plots movements for his guntoting squad members in intricate detail, appending waypoints with instructions to stand or duck, aim particularly carefully in one direction, or ignore individual enemies entirely.

But the brilliance is this: as you agonise over the finest details of your own team's operation you can plot your opponent's supposed movements too in exactly the same manner, hitting a button at any point to see how all the pieces' paths intertwine. Finally, when satisfied that you have crafted a foolproof approach, or simply gambling on blind luck, you can submit your turn by fearfully clicking the 'Prime' button and wince as the outcome unravels before you in neon, bullets and blood.

Any downtime while waiting for your opponent can be spent flitting between concurrent games, but with such granularity to the commands, one often proves plenty. Though the unfortunate alignment of a series of windows and doors often means a bullet in the head, covering the angles is only small a part of it: there are a host of other variables which make the difference between life and death – not all of them clearly communicated.

The amount of cover, your squaddy's movement speed and his target's movement speed are the more obvious dials with which you can fiddle, but these are all complicated by the interplay of weapons and the inscrutable priorities of the AI. Even when you think you know the ins and outs, the results nearly always surprise – a suddenly exploded wall may give your unit a glimpse of some distant enemy, distracting him long enough for his intended nearby target to fill him with holes. This level of emergence is what makes the game ceaselessly thrilling, but occasionally you do wish you better understood the factors at play.

Of course, the ability to test out plans in advance allows you to probe the kinks of the game's systems, and the interface does a mostly commendable job of conveying a large amount of information. There are hiccups, however: tweaking your unit's aim is fussy and misleading, with the dashed line which indicates the direction emerging from a node hovering near your unit rather from the unit itself – a curious choice in a game where line-of-sight is so critical. Attempts to edit the order or detail of actions, meanwhile, often involve deleting the lot and starting again.

But these are gripes – the fundamentals of the game are intoxicating. Finnicky and opaque though it sometimes is, the various foibles of the interface are quickly circumvented with practice. This kernel offers a repeatable delight by itself, and yet it is flanked by a 55-mission-strong singleplayer campaign. Being cut from the same cloth as multiplayer, the campaign offers no great mechanical shift and its charms (save for the dauntingly smart AI) are much the same. Nonetheless, it’s far more than an offline training mode for the real deal: instead, it's a robust and varied sequence of challenges, juggling defence, offence and yet more unusual objectives, always lent a degree of craft and clever asymmetry missing from the randomised level-playing-field of multiplayer.

One mission sees your small squad face a host of entrenched rocket launchers, which you can simultaneously detonate so long as you survive long enough to infiltrate a control room; another forces you to hunker down and hold ground against an overwhelming attacking force or safeguard a VIP through a bloody retreat. Most surprising of all, however, is that the narrative offers wit and an intriguing world to neatly frame the abstracted bouts of combat.

There are a wealth of game modes besides – ones which demand territorial control, hostage rescue, or the plundering of data – each of which can be played 'dark', meaning that only the last known location of enemy troops is visible to you. Then there's the matchmaking, in-built chat and integration with YouTube: this is a sizable offering. Yet, thanks to its gripping central tenets of simultaneous scheming and emergent multiplayer, you may never even notice.