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Beta Impressions: Frozen Synapse
by Chris Hawke

You remember Frozen Synapse, right? The indie title we had an interview about here? Yeah, the one with the blue lights. Well, Mode7Games have been kind enough to part ways with a beta key so that we can bring you the verdict on the game's beta. And guess what? It's totally awesome.

Frozen Synapse doesn't really 'do' story. It doesn't bother itself with tales of heartbroken soldiers going through hell, or heroes traversing wastelands to save the human race. Because Frozen Synapse is a game for men. Not protein-guzzling, rugby-playing men who bump fists and work out 10 times a day - real men. The kind who see a problem, take a deep breath, and get right on to solving it. At first glance, it's very hard to tell whether Frozen Synapse is an action game, or a puzzle game.

You play as green. You must defeat the red team within five turns, without losing all of your green men. So far, so simple, you're thinking: just like every mission-based puzzle, there's always a certain path to take, right? Frozen Synapse shakes all that up brilliantly. Missions are, apparently, infinite. The game randomly generates a playing field and units, which instantly turns each battle into an absolute joy; suddenly, clicking the 'play' button isn't just another step in a grind to finish the game, but a totally unique experience, each one subtly different in its own way. Sometimes, it's a tense 1v1 in a tiny map, as each soldier slowly checks corners and carefully advances upon a last known position. Other times, it's a huge 10v10 on a battlefield the size of the moon, with rockets and grenades flying left right and centre.

Controlling your tiny men might seem like a mammoth task considering the wealth of options at your disposal (move, duck, stand, continue on sight, engage on sight, aim, wait, etc.), especially with the fact it's all mouse controlled. But Frozen Synapse has possibly the best user interface ever. It's clean, crisp, simple yet relentlessly powerful, and within a matter of minutes you'll be chaining together incredibly complex actions with ease. The tutorial is split into both an introductory video, and an in-game walkthrough, which is as informative as it is funny. The fact that it's so easy means the game flows perfectly.

You'll need to perform a lot of actions. After all, this is a thinking man's game - there's no rushing in with a shotgun and pumping the walls with lead. You'll need to factor in direction of aim, stillness, cover, and fight sight in order to successfully down your opponent. In the first of five turns, as you survey the battlefield you have to command your troops conservatively, due to the fact you can't see what the computer will do until you click the 'go' button. Having a tactical mind is key - do you place your shotgun in the window to mow down anyone across the hallway, or move him outside in order to ambush where you think the enemy will go? Does your sniper take up position at the edge of the map to take potshots from a distance, or use him to lure the enemy grenadier into the path of your machine gunner? The only thing we can think to compare it to is Splinter Cell: Conviction: you know the feeling of power and accomplishment when you Mark and Execute an entire room of bad guys, unseen? Frozen Synapse has that sort of ebb and flow; you spend a good minute planning, thinking, second guessing, hoping, before unleashing the action. If you've done it right, that feeling of destructive power as your entire squad swiftly ambushes the enemy in a single turn is one that few other games muster up.

And that's our favorite part of Frozen Synapse: it's incredibly fresh. Medal Of Honor, a hugely expensive AAA title which we tested, struggled so hard to craft an identity of its own, as so many games seem to do these days, getting bogged down in 'me too!' gameplay. Not Frozen Synapse. Effortlessly blending action with thinking, it's decisively unforgiving, deliciously moreish, and unlike anything you've ever played before, blending a brilliantly unique concoction of tense firefights with tactical skill.

There's a multiplayer, too. We almost missed it due to the joys of single player, but it's there, and it's possibly even more stunning. The 'lobby' page shows you the rankings in the world, who's online, what matches are being played, and other cool features. You can even join a huge chat with everyone else in the game, which the developers often frequent to answer questions. The multiplayer is just as you'd expect - both players organise their troops around, trying to guess where the other will move, again in totally randomised maps that are always challenging, yet never broken or one-sided. Then, once you've both pressed 'go', the action happens, but with a twist - the enemy then disappears. After the initial go where you see everything, like some sort of omniscient future-Haig, the enemy's soldiers don't show up on the map anymore, meaning you have to work on memory and fluke sightings to cut them off and win the game. It's difficult at first, but once you learn never to rush out into the open, it's one of the best and most unique online experiences you'll have had. The ability to share smack-talk via the chat button is a blessing, too.

The developers say they're aiming for a January 2011 release, but from the beta, you'd think it could be out tomorrow. Everything is polished to near perfection, and the framerate and graphics are as smooth as they are crisp - think DEFCON, but more interactive. There are a few small oddities - while the blood is superb, the death animations are stiff and repetitive, and the random map generator seems to shy away from big games with rocket and grenade troops, instead favoring simple machine gun vs machine gun, but the developers say they're working on these. The music is great, beautifully complementing the military and minimalistic mood, the UI is flawless, the AI is competitive, and the graphics and art style are unprecedented in their creation of a one-of-a-kind atmosphere.

It's not totally perfect, of course. The fact that each of the five turns is only five seconds long means that, sometimes, a turn or even an entire match can end just as two soldiers engage each other, which is odd. Also, once finished, the game just seems to stop - you can click the 'get result' button to see your score, but there's no 'you win!' or 'play again' option, just an odd eternal pause.

You can get the beta when you preorder the game, and we really can't encourage you enough - it's cheap and it's amazing. If you ever looked at the upcoming games in 2010 and felt your heart drop when surveying the number of sequels, copycats and bland, boring FPSs, immediately purchase Frozen Synapse - it's a small slice of gaming heaven.

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- Chris Hawke

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