Back in 1993, Peter Molyneux (of Fable fame) produced a game with Bullfrog Productions called Syndicate. The idea was simple: in the not-too-distant-future you control a squad of four super-soldiers called "agents" whose goal was to sabotage rival mega-corporations, all the while upgrading your team to make them more competitive. It played out as a real-time tactical simulation when on the battlefield, but also on a larger, Risk-esque world board as your corporation vied for global dominance. Apparently, it was something of a cult classic... not that I'd know, I found all this on Wikipedia! Look it up some time though, it actually sounds quite clever....
Fast-forward to 2012 and the game has been given the reboot treatment by Starbreeze Studios (known for The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick games). The new, shinier version of Syndicate shares the name, the basic premise, and not much else. Instead, we get yet another FPS in an over-inundated market... with enough originality and fun toys to make it worth playing.
In 2017, the largest corporate merger in history leads to the creation of a mega-corporation the likes of the which the world has never seen. The power of Eurocorp rivals nations, their influence more potent than any government. They create a new technology: DART chips. These bio-mechanical neural implants are fueled by adrenaline and allow those who are "chipped" to access data through the ether without digital devices. Within fifty years, half the population of the planet is connected, governments lose their authority, and those who aren't "jacked in" are essentially ignored. The only thing these giants of industry need fear are the others like them, namely espionage and sabotage from rival corporations... or even worse, defection. It gives hostile takeover a whole new meaning!
Now it's 2069 and you play as a silent protagonist by the name of Miles Kilo, an agent of Eurocorp. Agents are the elite, serving as both defender and aggressor, who act at the bidding of those in charge. They are enhanced with the latest technology: bypassing security, remotely controlling other technology, and even hacking into the chips of those around them. From the beginning, you are tasked by Eurocorp CEO Jack Denham, to take out the head scientist of the Aspari Corporation. But as you messily extract his cranial implant, you start to learn that there is more going on here than meets the eye....
That's all I'll give you regarding the plot. As interesting as the basis for the game sounds, it's wholly predictable and far too scripted to really be engaging. The fact that Kilo never utters a word makes him seem more a sociopathic machine than a man with a conscience. This is even more disappointing considering the phenomenal cast they got to voice the characters. Rosario Dawson plays the head Eurocorp scientist, Lily Drawl. The aforementioned Eurocorp head is brilliantly portrayed by Brian Cox. Michael Wincott does a great job as your psychopathic partner Agent Merit. They all do wonders with the drab script, but just not enough to save it.
So what does save the game? The action, of course! As a shooter, Syndicate works as expected. The controls work fairly well and you have a whole slew of inventive guns to ruin the day of whoever gets in your way. But the real star of the show is your DART implant. While only lasting a little while, activating your cranial chip shows everything around you, and I do mean everything... enemies in cover, points of interest, data ports, even inconsequential things like teddy bears or hobos. It's like X-ray vision on steroids. And that's not all DART does! In DART mode, time is slowed down due to your enhanced reflexes. The bullet-time mechanic works well in dangerous situations, as you feel suitably bad ass taking on small armies by yourself. When engaged, DART also increases damage resistance as well as damage dealt, making you pretty beastly.
But wait, there's more! Your special DART chip allows you to hack into those around you and influence their actions. There are three different types of so-called "breaching." First is "Suicide," pretty straightforward really... you hack an enemy and they will blow themselves up. It's especially effective against groups. The second is the "Persuade" ability: this causes foes to join your side, fighting against their former teammates and acting as a decoy before offing themselves when there aren't any left. Lastly, your "Backfire" breach causes enemies weapons to explode in their faces, dazing and making them more vulnerable for a brief time. You gain the ability to breach by increasing your adrenaline, and you increase your adrenaline by killing enemies. It becomes cyclic: you use your breaches to more effectively kill, thus recharging your breaches more quickly for re-use.
Strategy comes into play as you need to pick and choose your moments to maximize your effectiveness. The weapons are effective, but the sheer volume of enemies often thrown at you requires good use of cover, as well as efficient use of your DART to both slow down time, heal, and breach. Every time you kill a major player or boss, you gain an upgrade for your DART. These range from increased health, to faster recharging of DART abilities, to increased damage from your breaches, to being able to carry more ammo for your weapons. Combining a futuristic, fun arsenal with your DART enhanced abilities and combat can be an absolute blast! It's a nice change when you actually feel like the super soldier you're supposed to be!
As awesome as the combat can be, there are some odd design decisions that temper the fun somewhat. The DART overlay is essentially your HUD, and you see everything to the point that it's almost overwhelming. However, one thing is very noticeably absent... namely, a map. The directional markers are sometimes confusing even in what are fairly linear areas. A mini-map would have been greatly appreciated.
My only other problem with Syndicate is that there are some progression issues. Late in the game you lose some of your abilities, and if you had spent points on those specific upgrades, these sections can be frustrating. Considering how rare upgrade points come along, essentially losing them can be all the more maddening. Random puzzles pop up at seemingly random times. In a game that revolves almost entirely around shooting everything that moves, they seem completely out of place. I was actually waiting for enemies to come climbing out of air ducts or rappelling through broken skylights before finally realizing what I was supposed to do. The fact that they are poorly implemented makes these brief sections even more annoying.
The world of Syndicate is well-realized (think Blade Runner meets The Matrix... Kilo even wears a trenchcoat) for the most part, with some beautiful background scenery and futuristic lighting. But as is often the case, things look great from a distance but upon closer inspection, lose their luster. As stunning as it can be (seriously, take the time to look out some windows occasionally), there are some odd moments with rough texturing, bad pixelation, and jerky animations. But what is really bizarre is the glaring lighting effects. When it works well it gives the game that futuristic, slightly out-of-focus, filtered look. But frequently the glare becomes too much, like looking too close to the sun. Honestly, I found myself squinting at times. It was far too distracting, and made some firefights frustrating.
After each level you are scored on multiple points: everything from breaches to headshots to total time. You are then given a "Corporate" level ranking. Usually this sort of thing annoys me to no end, but I can actually see myself replaying some levels of Syndicate to try and beat my previous scores. I think it comes down to the presentation... I know I can get more headshots next time!
Unfortunately, I can't comment too much on the co-op, although it's billed as a big part of the experience. I played a couple of the levels with a buddy. They are separate from the campaign but follow many of the same locales. The idea here is that you can team up with three others to form a hit squad for a rival corporation. What I like about the co-op set up is that, while you lose some of the more dramatic breaches from the single player campaign, you have the opportunity to upgrade more team-focused augmentations. While they are fun to play, there is a catch... it's definitely designed to be played with a full compliment of four players. It's disappointing considering how little marketing went into Syndicate (which, considering it was published by EA, is all the more bizarre); not many people know much about it. I had to convince a mate it was worth checking out, just so I could at least try the co-op. I'll be honest though, while I don't normally get into this sort of thing, I think I'll be hanging on to Syndicate for a while in the hopes that I can find more players.
Syndicate may not be for everyone. Purists who enjoyed the original back in the day might well be disappointed by the direction Starbreeze took it. But if you're into sci-fi shooters this is definitely worth a look. I know it didn't get much press, and as a result flew under a lot of people's radar. Sure, the story is predictable and the pacing, combined with the repetitive nature of some of the levels, sometimes left me wondering what they were thinking... but those were the most disappointing parts of what was essentially a fun shooter with some great mechanics. Actually, I had more fun than I expected, and am looking forward to trying more of the co-op aspects of the game if I can convince a couple more friends to join the party.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Syndicate provided by Electronic Arts.