Breeding addiction with the Frozen Synapse beta

I've never quite understood the numeric rating schemes applied to things like video games. Distilling a wholly subjective experience down to a single digit seems entirely too arbitrary when a game's merits can be far better argued with eloquent prose. I suppose reading is becoming increasingly difficult for a generation brought up on instant gratification and 140-character tweets, so I'm going to acquiesce and give Frozen Synapse a four. That's the number of hours of sleep I've lost to the game in just the past two days—not the hours I've played, but how long I've kept going after telling myself it was time to go to bed.

When you've been a gamer for as long as I have, you know that One More Round Syndrome is an obvious sign of a blossoming addiction. Mode 7's turn-based tactical shooter isn't even out of beta, yet I'm already jonesing for my next fix. Even the name sounds like a drug. Frozen Synapse doesn't say a whole lot about the game itself, though. Thankfully, the pre-order trailer sums things up nicely:

The game reminds me a lot of the planning phase of the early Rainbow 6 titles. You get a top-down view of the world and plan each unit's movement and actions using a series of waypoints and simple commands. Rather than entering a first-person shooter to participate in your carefully crafted plot, you observe the symphony of violence as if seated in a situation room buried deep in an undisclosed location.

The view from above is highly stylized, and I love the overall aesthetic. Sure, the game could have prettier effects and more eye candy, but then it probably wouldn't run on low-end rigs. Frozen Synapse's system requirements are pretty lax, proclaiming that the game works on netbook-class hardware with just 512MB of RAM. There's even an OS X version compatible with PowerPC-era Macs.

While I like the look of the game, the interface needs a little more refinement. The icons used to signify each unit's planned actions are quite small, and things can get a little messy when you're coordinating multiple combatants in tight quarters. Fortunately, it's easy to zoom in for fine tuning. The fact that each turn only lays out five seconds worth of action also helps plans from becoming unmanageable.

In addition to setting waypoints that define a unit's movement, you can tell it to duck or aim in a specific direction. Units can move while doing both, but they'll do so at a slower pace than when standing and not oriented toward a specific target. There's also an option to toggle whether units engage or ignore the enemies they see and to wait at a specific point in the plan for a particular length of time.

The units under your control wield a short-range shotgun, a medium-range machine gun, a long-range sniper rifle, a grenade launcher, or a rocket launcher. Grenades can be bounced off walls, while rockets are used to destroy them (and everything else within the blast radius). Adding another layer of complexity, explosive payloads are targeted and fired manually in the planning stage, while your unit AI is left in charge of spraying bullets.

Although the number of variables at one's disposal is small enough to make Frozen Synapse easy to pick up, there's more than enough depth and precision for hardcore players and obsessive-compulsive types to really dig in. The single-player modes provide instant skirmishes against AI opponents or a more gradual progression through a full campaign. This campaign appears to be a new addition to the latest beta, and the associated storyline is forgettable at best. The dialog is not, if only because it's spread across multiple message boxes that require entirely too much clicking to speed through. When the incessant clicking didn't annoy me, the cheesy writing did.

Really, though, this game is all about the multiplayer experience. There are numerous different modes available for online battles, plus the option to enable a fog of war that hides your opponent's units when they're not in view of yours. Feeling ambitious? The turn-based nature of the game allows multiple matches to easily be played at the same time. You can even choose to have email notifications sent out when an opponent has completed their plan and is waiting on yours.

Perhaps in part due to that play-by-email option, Frozen Synapse feels to me like a combination of chess and Counter-Strike. There's something very cerebral about trying to anticipate the tactical maneuvers of a worthy adversary, and few things are more satisfying than watching a perfectly choreographed round end in victory. Hannibal said it best: "I love it when a plan comes together."

Mode 7 is currently selling Frozen Synapse pre-orders for $26, which includes instant access to the beta. That's awfully expensive for something that very much feels like an indie title. If you pre-order now, however, you'll get a second copy of the game (and a second beta invite) absolutely free. With the full version due out on May 26, time is likely ticking on the early bird special.

Because this is exactly the kind of game I want to share with friends, I'm happy with my $26 investment based on the contents of the beta alone. Besides, with randomized skirmishes and a strong multiplayer component, replay value seems guaranteed. Steam integration is promised with the final cut, too, and there are loads of other neat features, like an in-game IRC client, Facebook and Twitter integration, and an export-to-YouTube feature for sharing your strategic genius with the rest of the world.

At first, I thought that Frozen Synapse captured my attention purely on the strength of its addictive gameplay. This refreshing twist on the tactical genre is certainly well-realized, but that's not the only element that leaves me wanting more. No, the real kicker is how accessible the game makes itself, whether you only have time for a turn or can devote an entire evening to waging war on multiple fronts. Sometimes, the best game in the world is the one you can find time to play—especially if it keeps you up at night.

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