Syndicate is a new first-person shooter from Starbreeze, the same people who developed the Riddick games and the first Darkness. While I like to think of myself as a well-rounded gamer, I often find myself playing and reviewing shooters. It’s probably a combination of my natural American predilection for guns combined with an extreme saturation of shooters on the Xbox. At any rate, Syndicate has a very thoroughly developed universe and rather novel gameplay mechanics (for a shooter), but some lack of follow-through leaves it just a bit shy of greatness.
History lesson: I should add that this game is a reboot of an earlier PC series developed by Bullfrog Productions, a defunct studio formerly spearheaded by Peter Molyneux of Fable fame, and responsible for Dungeon Keeper 2, one of my favorite old games. The original Syndicate series was an isometric shooter and was known for its deep storyline.
This new game also has an intricate backstory, some of which is carried on from the previous series, some of which is new. Taking place some 60 years in the future, the world of Syndicate is filled with megacorps that have essentially taken over the role of governance. Most people who aren’t completely destitute or hippies have been “chipped” by their parent corp; a DART chip being an implanted biometric device that tracks them – a process not unlike declaring citizenship or allegiance, coupled with wearing a homing beacon. The chip also allows people to access the internet (“dataverse”) directly, rendering communication devices like phones obsolete. Those who refuse the chip are forgotten as primitive outsiders. A select few are genetically engineered and have been installed with advanced chips. These “Agents” have high levels of training and education which, along with their special chips, allow them to accomplish amazing feats. The most basic power of Agents is the DART overlay, which brings up x-ray vision and slows down time.
Agents have the unique ability of influencing the chips of others to extreme levels. There are three main methods of accomplishing this, known as “breaching”. The Suicide breach, as its name suggests, allows you to hack an enemy’s chip and force them into killing themselves. The Backfire breach lets you damage an enemy’s weapon and disorient them, leaving them open to quick melee finishers. The Persuade breach temporarily converts an enemy to your cause. Chip-based abilities are purchased with upgrade points earned by “chip-ripping” enemy VIPs, a process as gruesome as it sounds. Agents have access to other, more passive abilities that grant more health, power, or speed. Others increase your facility with weapons. The upgrade tree is not so much a tree as a buffet, as you can pick and choose the powers you want without having to worry about prerequisites.
Syndicate offers some interesting weapons, such as a gun that can shoot around corners and other obstacles. The gunplay isn’t perfectly smooth, however, and occasionally bullets that should have hit simply do not; although thankfully this isn’t a common occurrence. For the most part combat is stylish, brutal, and diverse, as you breach enemies and the environment alike to your advantage, wreaking havoc by littering the battlefield with suicidal, charmed opponents, converted enemy grenades, and mechanical devices that malfunction in your favor. The game has some truly impressive set pieces, such as the first boss fight, which is a showdown against a rival Agent. The breach is a novel gameplay mechanic in a genre that has seemingly little room for novelty.
While the developers have clearly put a lot of careful detail into the game’s world, the stoyline comes up a tad short. The production value is there, what with the likes of Hollywood talent Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson, and Michael Wincott providing voices, and Richard Morgan, writer of Crysis 2, handling the script. I simply couldn’t get into it though. From the abrupt and poorly explained beginning through the entirety of the game, my boring silent protagonist was marched through empty cutscenes and on-rails monologues that showcased acting more than story. That’s not to say it’s poorly written, or that I’m irritated that it didn’t hold my hand throughout – a complicated, tightly-written story would have been welcome. An incomplete narrative with little regard for its audience is decidedly less so.
The game’s style and mood are familiar, but not grating. It takes definite cues from cyberpunk material like Blade Runner and The Matrix, and high-tech dystopian video games such as Deus Ex. High technology meets urban decay, with a dash of corporate espionage and gore thrown in for good measure. The music is spot-on, with its pounding bass and techno grooves right at home amongst the bullet-dodging, person-hacking sci-fi antics on screen. The visuals utilize the developer’s proprietary Starbreeze Engine, the same used in the Riddick games, meaning that the graphics are quite good but have a bit of wear and tear. The art design is full of bright, vivid colors, a la Mirror’s Edge, with one anomaly. Light sources emit a significant bloom that can obscure vision. While I’m sure this was an aesthetic choice to convey the sterile light pollution that apparently all dystopian future cities will have, it can become a distraction in combat. There is a gamma reduction setting for the Xbox version that helps a little bit.
The game wears its tech influences on its screen, such as when new enemies are introduced, as they are analyzed via a short computery cutscene. All information is relayed to the player character via the DART chip, imparting a feeling of immersion as lines of data stream across the HUD and you receive frequent software updates from your corporation’s servers. In between chapters you will find virtual reality training simulators for new breach abilities, a welcome change from loading screens. Finishing a chapter gives you a detailed readout that compares your most recent performance to your all-time scores, offering some replayability for score junkies.
Syndicate‘s multiplayer is more Horde-style co-op action, no surprise there. You and a few buddies (or strangers – no shame) can log into recycled campaign maps and take down masses of enemies with the same guns and chip abilities found in the single-player campaign. It is a fun, albeit relatively light addition to the main campaign.
I do recommend Syndicate for those who want a competent shooter. I don’t necessarily recommend it for those who want a strong narrative; it’s no Half-Life or BioShock. It does kick ass though, in a glossy, stylized, Hollywood fashion.