Series reboots seem to be the in-thing right now. This year alone SSX, Twisted Metal and Tomb Raider are amongst those that will be returning to the gaming landscape with new ideas and new production values. None of those might be as controversial as Starbreeze’s Syndicate reboot though, that not only attempts to build upon Bullfrog’s classic game, but place it in a new genre entirely. Can Syndicate breach a new audience in an already crowded genre? Read on to find out.
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Before the original Deus Ex and its William Gibson-esque take on the corporately owned future, there was Bullfrog’s 1993 strategy game, Syndicate. A story of cybernetic enhancement, corporate conspiracy and a whole bunch of back and forth one-upmanship. With those plot elements just about intact, this latest iteration of Syndicate takes us to the year 2069 where you’ll be taking the reins of Eurocorp agent, Miles Kilo. Accompanied by Giles Merit, a callous and psychopathic fellow agent, you’ll be sabotaging, killing and kidnapping for the sake of feeding Eurocorp’s desire to stay ahead of their rivals.
For the most part you’ll struggle to be engaged by the game’s narrative as it plods and stumbles, never really gathering serious momentum. That doesn’t mean to say Syndicate’s plot is awful, because it’s far from it. It just doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. There’s a certain inevitability attached to being a cyborg for an evil corporation that leads to familiar stirrings such as freedom or questioning one’s own motives that won’t really surprise or keep you guessing. Fans also hoping to relive former glories might be disappointed to find only the odd throwback to the original game here and there – Overpowered mini-guns, hobo mutterings about the ‘Church of the New Epoch’ and the ability to persuade enemies might have your nostalgia clawing away at the door it’s been locked in for the past two decades, but any similarities the two games share in single player modes are tenuous at best, in their gameplay and in their narrative.
Before you get into the game, the first thing you’ll notice when booting up Syndicate is how polished and eye catching the front end is. If making a good first impression was the be-all and end-all of video gaming then Syndicate would almost definitely be waking up next to you in the morning without having to buy you dinner, such is the slickness of the Swedish developer’s visual design. Fortunately, the main course isn’t too shabby either, offering some solid graphics, smooth animations and some beautiful contrast between the uptown futurama and the forgotten slums that it left behind.
It seems Starbreeze have quickly become a style unto their own in recent times and Syndicate upholds that reputation with animations that are superb throughout. Particularly on trivial motions such as running and climbing that are easily overlooked in other games but go a long way to improving the feel and immersion dramatically. There’s also the DART overlay that echos the way Dead Space utilises its HUD by placing holographic images above and around your weapon. Although Syndicate doesn’t do away with the standard HUD completely, the clinical white overlays look well placed in the futuristic setting and asides from a few jittery frame rates in the more dense areas of the game, there’s some excellent visual design to be found.
As if torn straight from the Bladerunner’s guide to soundtracking, Syndicate’s score is filled with cascading synths and eerie swelling pads. Most of it merely serves as atmospheric rumblings but does manage to add something to the experience despite its slightly repetitive nature. Although you won’t be meeting many new characters on your journey, the voice acting of the ones you do stand up pretty well against their often stiff appearance in cut-scenes. On top of that, there are a few rare occasions where you’ll find the music is slightly misplaced or even absent in areas of the game that really need it. Overall though, all futuristic beeps and tones are present and correct and all compliment the visual presentation well.
Any doubt that Syndicate shared anything substantial with its ancestors would quickly dissipate once you’ve discovered that every ounce of strategy and squad based shooting has been dumped to make room for your typical first person shooter.
Of course, every shooter has its own twist on gameplay. Syndicate’s is a mechanic it calls ‘breaching’. This ability lets you hack the chips implanted in your enemies causing them all sorts of irreparable harm. Want to stun them? Have them kill each other, or even just kill themselves? No problem. Eurocorp has got it covered with their front of the line DART 6 chip that’s implanted in our protagonist. Breaching adds an interesting puzzle element to gameplay, not just with the way you tackle the bad guys, but by also allowing you to effect your surroundings by removing enemy cover, re-routing power to open doors or just operating out of reach electrical systems. It’s almost a shame that the mechanic wasn’t developed more, as it’s by far the best aspect of the shooter.
The single player sets itself out into ‘milestones’ that will see you carrying out Eurocorp’s bidding from locations such as dystopian New York and China to a sea base and what seems like the now obligatory train shootout. For the gamer who likes self improvement, using the breaching mechanic in conjunction with your guns effectively will be important because the game tallies up that effectiveness at the end of each mission in a corporate assessment-like fashion. The only scores to beat will be your own sadly, as there’s no online leader boards to compete on and no way of sharing them.
Asides from the breaching apps that are given to you during tutorials masquerading as virtual training exercises, there’s also bonuses to unlock via a skill tree that make your cyborg life a little easier. It’s important to use these health bonuses and skill boosters wisely as running and gunning won’t cut it against the strong enemies you’ll encounter. Although there’s nothing spectacular about the enemy AI, they’ll use cover well when needed and exploit any weaknesses you have if a certain amount of caution isn’t used while progressing through the game. Unfortunately, part of this tactical element is lost once you reach the somewhat frustrating bosses.
When Deus Ex: Human Revolution received criticism for the outsourcing that left its boss fights out of context with the rest of the game, Starbreeze must have been napping. Although they’ve taken the idea on themselves, they’ve still managed to negate the entire single player experience by adding these underwhelming set pieces. Like the aforementioned cyberpunk shooter, Syndicate renders the most engaging aspect of its gameplay obsolete by making all your breach abilities useless in favour of a straight out gunfight. This wouldn’t be so unbearable if most of these bosses didn’t require you to simply just hide behind something or run away until they repeat their cycle and you can start shooting again. During one fight even the music gave up waiting for a resolution, leaving me crouching behind cover in silence while the enemy carried out its tedious routine over the other side of the room.
Syndicate conforms to the standard idea of having a separate multiplayer mode alongside the single player and the co-op is by far the stronger half of the package. With segmented objectives rather than an overall plot confining the mode, the game finally gets a chance to breath. The levels are not only more open-ended but are far more reminiscent of Bullfrog’s 1993 version which sees you and three others tear up the future. Your abilities also play a bigger role; with each agent given the opportunity to customise their loadouts, a team ethic can really make for an engaging experience as you work together towards your goal. By participating in the co-op mode you’ll be given points to level up and increase your arsenal in a number of ways, plus you can create you’re own syndicate clan-style – both which increase the mode’s appeal and longevity.
It’s hard not to play Syndicate’s co-op and not wonder what the single player could have been like if some elements of the two modes were combined. Whilst even the multiplayer runs dry eventually as you max out upgrades and you begin to anticipate enemy advances, it still feels like it holds the essence of the franchise, with the good-but-not-great campaign’s inclusion solely intended to satisfy the modern day FPS blueprint.
Syndicate’s short single player might put off some only coming in at around 6-8 hours, whilst the challenge of beating your own mission stats might not appeal either without an online leader board to gloat on. The story itself will offer little incentive to play through the single player again, even with the few collectibles you can aquire in the form of extractable data that offer some narrative boosters for completionists. What you will get however, is a co-op multiplayer that gives you plenty to do and without the constraints of the campaign hindering the experience there’s hours of replay value to be found with friends online.
Syndicate wants to please everyone and, as a result, conciliates more than it excels. However, there are areas where Syndicate’s conformity pays off as it offers some engaging gunplay, exceptional visuals and sets some new standards in co-operative play – a mode that with a little more development and honing might be a real winner. Although it’s hard not to recommend this polished first person shooter, you’ll be left wondering what could have been if Starbreeze had shown their usual ambition and creativity. As it stands, Syndicate runs the risk of falling victim to its own ambiguity in an overly crowded genre – a shame for a game that has so much potential to flourish, if only it had been given the chance.