Apparently, in the future business disputes won’t be sorted out in the courts. In the dystopian world of EA Games’ Syndicate, a business disagreement is more likely to be settled by cybernetic agents storming the facilities of the rival outfit than by corporate lawyers.
Syndicate is a first-person shooter based on the classic 90s squad-based real-time strategy game of the same name. The game is set in a future where national boundaries have been deemed obsolete and the world is run by ruthless mega-corporations known as syndicates.
If I’m truthful, I wasn’t a great fan of the original Syndicate. I found the game a bit too fiddly to get into. The same goes for its console companion, Syndicate Wars. Still, I was surprised to hear the news that EA and Starbreeze’s Syndicate reboot was to dismiss its real-time strategy roots and instead reimagine the game as a more commercially acceptable first-person shooter. I’d imagine that quite a few fans of the original are going to be pretty disappointed by the change of genre.
Syndicate's campaign mode story is about as clichéd as it gets. We have all the textbook hooks of a modern cyberpunk outing, including the bleak future, the mega-corporations, the cyborg augmentations and the protagonist with a forgotten past.
In this world gone to hell, borrowing the Syndicate strap-line, business is war. Players take control of Miles Kilo, a cybernetically augmented agent working for the Eurocorp Syndicate. After a nice action-packed orientation sequence, Kilo is dispatched on a mission to sort out a patent infringement. This being 2069, a cease and desist order will not suffice; more direct action is required. With the help of fellow agent, Jules Merit – who seems to enjoy the dirtier side of business a bit too much – Kilo is sent down a path to unravel a plot against Eurocorp that’ll have him question his allegiances, and eventually lead him right into a deadly corporate war.
Whilst the story is pretty generic, it serves its purpose of propelling the player into an assortment of combat situations that are both fun and interesting. The plot, as derivative as it is, is nicely told with the help of the game’s excellent voice work. Thespian heavy-weight Brian Cox provides the vocals for Eurocorp boss Jack Denham, and Sin City’s Rosario Dawson voices disillusioned Eurocorp scientist Dr Lily Drawl.
The game presents itself with the sort of polished visuals that you’d expect from a current-gen title. The in-game lighting is a bit over-the-top and often feels as if you are viewing the world through steamed up glasses; once you get used to it, though, you hardly notice it. Also, some of the cut scenes, created using the in-game engine, are not as smoothly animated as I’d have liked. All very minor gripes, none of which are deal-breakers; but they do mar an otherwise decent effort in the graphics department.
The campaign game also does a good job of hiding the limitations of some rather so-so level design. It’s only when you start to try and explore alternative paths that you realise just how much the game shepherds players along a predefined route, exposing the campaign game for what it is: a very constrained corridor shooter. This can be fine – the likes of the Half-life series do this very well – but Syndicate makes only a decent job of it.
Whilst the level design could be a bit more inspired, the weapons provided more than make up for it. In order to aid a bit of good honest corporate warfare, Miles has access to a meaty arsenal of weapons. As well as the usual assault rifles, sniper rifles and shotguns, there is also a range of super-weapons, including the EMW-56 Gauss, with some nifty bullet tracking that is guaranteed to hit a locked-on target even out of line-of-sight. I also had a lot of fun with the Coil, which fires a single continuous laser beam, and the Swam, which launches a battery of 12 guided missiles. In short, the game has eighteen of the most satisfying weapons that you are likely to ever use in an FPS, and offers a total of eighty-five ways of upgrading them.
Kilo also has help from the experimental DART-6 bio-chip implanted into his brain. The main ability of the chip is to carry out hacking attacks referred to in-game as breaches. Breaches allow the player to interact with and disable various targets such as doors, mines and shields. Also, as you progress through the game, you get access to three very special breaching abilities that can be used directly on most enemies. The backfire breach detonates the target’s ammo, causing a bit of damage, stunning them momentarily and exposing them to double damage for a short while. The suicide breach forces the target to take their life. And finally, the persuade breach brainwashes the target into attacking his own side.
All these abilities drain energy from the DART chip. The only way to replenish the chip’s energy is, would you believe, to kill more enemies. The more enemies killed and the better the execution, the more energy received.
Another very useful ability is the DART overlay. When activated the overlay highlights previously located items of interest, such as enemies and targets. It also slows down time, and increases the amount of damage dealt out whilst reducing the amount of damaged sustained.
The DART chip can be upgraded in the field by carrying out a chip-rip. Certain opponents are equipped with chip augmentations which Agent Kilo can, gruesomely, extract and use to gain further enhancements to his abilities.
The above would suggest that Agent Kilo is rather over-powered, but this is not so at all, as players are going to need all the help that they can get. The average FPS is usually let down by predictable and dumb AI. Your AI opponents in Syndicate don’t mess about, and they’re not shy either. There’s no getting away with playing the game like a duck-shoot. You may think that you are in a safe location from which to take out the enemy, but be aware that they will advance and try to flank you.
Whilst really I’m not a fan of boss fights, I’ve got to say that the bosses in Syndicate are well balanced offering decent challenges without being torturously difficult. Also, you are usually rewarded by having the opportunity of wrenching the fallen boss’s chip from his skull.
Overall, the campaign game serves up a competent single-player shooter experience that adds little to the genre, but without taking much away either. It is fun to play, but nothing to get excited about. A few times during play invisible walls kept me from taking cover in corners, leaving me exposed to fire. I also experienced a few, ‘where to now?’ moments (which is ironic considering the very constrained level design). Again, not the end of the world, but these things will snap you straight out of the game.
The co-op online multiplayer mode is where most will find Syndicate has its longevity. As fun as the single-player game is, without the multiplayer element, I’d feel still feel very comfortable dismissing Syndicate as a no more than derivative ten-a-penny FPS. In fact, it is the four player co-op multiplayer mode that actually offers players something more akin to the original real-time strategy game.
Syndicate’s co-op mode features a team of up to four agents (as opposed to the mainly lone protagonist of the campaign) executing objective-based missions against rival syndicates. The action is fast-paced and, especially with friends, really good fun. I can’t help but think what a difference it would have made to the game if the developers had gone down the same route as the Left 4 Dead series and concentrated solely on the co-op mode.
Featuring all the weapons and abilities of the single player game, successfully completing a mission in co-op will earn the participants tokens which can be used to upgrade equipment and skills. It is worth pointing out that the co-op missions don’t require a full complement of four agents to play; you can jump in single-player if you wish, but be ready for some tough competition. Fingers crossed that the multiplayer community takes off.
Overall, Syndicate is a fun, if mildly disappointing reboot of a classic game that die-hard fans of the original would do well to avoid. The rest of us are left with a competent, futuristic, action-based first person shooter that does its job and no more. The co-op multiplayer is inspired, but I’m not sure it is enough to push the game into the big league. Did I enjoy it? Yes I did. Would I play though the single-player game again? I’m not so sure.
Lasting appeal: 6.5
Played on Xbox 360