Discard any notions you have of the original Syndicate – other than the futuristic cyberpunk setting, these two games have very little in common. The original is an isometric tactical shooter where you guide a team of cyborg operatives through missions of industrial espionage in a morally blank world run by corporations. The new reboot of the franchise, developed by Starbreeze, is a fast paced, gory, and explosive first person shooter where you play as just one of those operatives working as a lapdog for ‘Eurocorp’, which are of course based in America. It is a pity that there was not enough confidence to make it a true remake, as if done properly, it could have been a surprise hit rather than just another lackluster fps.
Forget about any comparisons to Deus Ex either. Again, apart from the aesthetic, these games are not comparable. Deus Ex is an open ended, exploratory experience that encourages stealth and includes multiple moral decisions that shape the story. Syndicate is a straightforward, arcade-like and linear fps that encourages in your face violence. Once you get rid of these comparisons and view Syndicate in its own light, however, you’ll find an entertaining and frantic shooter with potential that unfortunately cripples itself by being short, rushed and uninspired.
The game begins with Miles Kilo, the silent protagonist, in restraints and being awoken by a punch in the stomach. The restraints are swiftly dispatched (along with his captor) as version 6.1 of the DART chip inside his brain kicks in, augmenting his strength and bringing up a visual tactical display which labels objects just in case Miles doesn’t realize what a desk is. As you take over and start to run, Miles is soon met by a hail of bullets. Talk about a bad day.
The plot is trite and predictable giving you no choices throughout its abrupt course. There is no time at all to build any relationship with the characters, but you’re seemingly meant to care about them regardless. When a moral choice does come your way it’s sadly only an illusion of such a thing and you’re forced down a very narrow path towards the end. Linearity within a game isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as Half Life 2 is incredibly linear and yet a masterpiece of design. Syndicate seems to take a nod to it in that all of its ‘cut scenes’ are in the first person and allow you to hop around madly or at least swivel your head in a disinterested manner as the characters talk around you.
Unfortunately Syndicate provides very little charm in the delivery of its dialogue or the depth of its characters, so you’re mainly just left numb to whatever is going on – as blank and mute as the protagonist. Although at least the oppressive atmosphere of the settings are implemented effectively, and the brief stories you pick up in the world through data logs or simply the despair you witness are more interesting than the plot itself.
The entire world is governed and policed by various competing corporations, the upper and middle classes are all chipped, while the rest of humanity is seemingly nothing more than a subspecies cut off from society and left to wallow in abject poverty. Hence nearly everything in the world, from elevators, to doors, to gunships, all have chips in them that can be hacked by Miles. There’s no silly hacking mini-game, you simply hold down the button and the interaction occurs. The door opens or the gunship shoots something else – there’s no choice here, it just happens. You can hack chipped people too, as well as guns which leads us to the core of the mechanics of the game.
Through a series of vector graphic tutorials reminiscent of Tron (which really should have been made into a fleshed out mini-game of their own), you learn of the three primary hacks you can perform. You can overload a gun in an enemy’s hand, making it backfire which can harm and stun them, leaving them temporarily vulnerable to damage. You can force an enemy to commit suicide, and most seem to have a handy grenade in their pocket, seemingly for this very purpose. Finally you can persuade an enemy to change sides and shoot their own comrades until they can’t take anymore and kill themselves. You cannot spam these abilities, but rather they regenerate through killing enemies. You’ll also get bonuses for head shots or killing successive enemies in a row, which regenerates them faster. This is combined with the DART vision mode which when enabled gives you a mixture of x-ray vision, bullet time, heightened damage and health.
Working in tandem, these mechanics are beautiful to behold. They’re simple to use, and provide multiple violent and hilarious ways to dispatch your foes. As your threats become more diverse, you have to think how to apply them best to each situation. It feels very fresh and unique, and is the stand out portion of the experience, allowing the game to shine through the sameness that permeates the modern fps genre.
The game is equally unafraid to give you multiple, horrendously powerful weapons and vividly display their effects on human anatomy. They range from a gun that shoots high powered shards that lock on and track your enemy, to powerful laser rifles. Even fps staples such as the sniper rifle or minigun, the latter of which wonderfully comes with infinite ammo, are brutal in their sheer, vicious impact. There’s certainly a sick, visceral thrill in shooting somebody so hard their body rips in two with a thick spray of gore. This suits a bleak world which brilliantly contrasts its black and white nature through the grimy dirt ridden slums and gleaming, corporate buildings that make up its environments.
Boss fights and special enemies add a great spice of variety to the constant, aggressive gun fights. These take the form of different corporate agents like yourself, each with their own upgrades that provide unique challenges to overcome. Once these are defeated, you can pry your way into their brain and gruesomely extract their chip, which can then be used to upgrade your own abilities. The upgrades are all fairly simple – extra health, more damage in DART mode or hitting more enemies with your ‘backfire’ ability. It would have been nice to see a lot more options here, as the primary strength of the game lies in the unique manner your chip allows you to kill enemies. The powers these agents themselves possess such as super jumps or splitting into multiple ghost forms would have been very fun to be able to use yourself, but you are disappointingly unable to do so.
Bosses are not the only specially equipped enemies, however. The more basic are just regular guards equipped with riot shields that deflect most bullets, while more advanced ones have protective armor that must be disabled before they can be attacked. Some enemies also hold jammers or throw EMP grenades which briefly disable your tactical screen and ability to hack.
Syndicate is able to keep you on your toes, though is still very quick and easy to finish. Despite the mechanics lending themselves to some sort of points based system that encourages you to replay sections again for a higher score, this is absent. It further exacerbates the lack of replay value.
The co-op mode is the saving grace of the title, allowing you and four friends to go fight through nine different missions, some from the original game. It highlights the game’s core strengths, namely tight, intuitive, enjoyable shooting and hacking mechanics. It even adds a point system to track how well each player is doing. Players are able to take on different roles, from healers to upfront fighters, based on a wider amount of upgrades than is seen in the main game itself. These upgrades are purchased with experience you collect as you play. It’s very enjoyable and makes you think that they should have played up this mode as the main selling point by expanding on it even further. It adds a much needed longevity, though even this will likely become repetitive after a while.
There’s no local mode here, so you’re forced to play online. A competitive element would have really livened things up, as fighting against simple AI will always eventually become dull and allow boredom to sink in. Some sort of team versus team mode pitting you against another group to complete objectives or even a basic death match mode would not have gone amiss. I can understand that multiple players all using slow motion could become hectic and would be difficult to implement well, but it can be done. Crysis 2 managed it, as has the upcoming Max Payne 3. Heck, even one team being the agents and the other the guards could have been a blast, but even something as simple as that is nowhere to be found.
While it seems to have potential, Syndicate falls short of the mark, becoming just another fps in an overcrowded genre. The single player is devoid of any real impact apart from the admittedly engaging shooting mechanics, and becomes boring even before the short ride is over. The developers have failed to place an emphasis on the aspects of the game that make it stand out and nothing else remains to pick it up. Perhaps a sequel could fix these issues, or maybe somebody, someday, will have the balls to make a true reboot of the franchise. Until then, Syndicate is worth picking up if it’s cheap or you have some friends with whom to enjoy the co-op. It’s not a bad choice, but not a great one, either – there are better options already out there.
Syndicate was released on February 21st, 2012 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Review is based on the PC version.