Syndicate Review (PC)
The video game reboot is a tricky thing. As much as we remember loving a classic game, technology, not to mention our tastes, marches on. The experience of actually playing a game can never match the way we remember it, particularly if we’ve gradually adapted our memories to fit the technological possibilities we now enjoy. There’s also the tricky matter of game genres waxing and waning in popularity. That puts tremendous pressure on the developer to reinvent the game to resemble whatever it is people send their hard earned video game dollars on these days.
Such is the dilemma facing EA imprint Starbreeze Studios, as they try resurrecting 1993′s classic real time tactical game Syndicate. The original Syndicate helped define the way the cyberpunk aesthetic would be expressed in gaming, and also happened to be a great deal of fun. In the nearly 20 years since, numerous (aesthetic) imitators like Perfect Dark and the Deus Ex series have enjoyed fantastic success, so it makes sense to bring Syndicate back for a new generation of gamers, not to mention their
parents ahem older peers who loved the original. Alas, any orgiastic celebrations may have to be postponed, at least until the sequel.
Gone is the isometric real time tactical game of yore. In its place, a first person shooter that superficially manages to capture something of the original’s flavor. The wonderful setting and beautiful aesthetic retains a kernel of the original game, and with exciting combat a winning gameplay system and wonderful co-op it has a lot to offer. Unfortunately, for all of it’s successes, Syndicate’s narrative is dull, underdeveloped and derivative, and it suffers from some rather annoying visual problems. But if you can set aside your longing for the Syndicate you once knew (and embrace the clever way the reboot nods to that game), the new Syndicate is very promising, even if it is also a mess of missed opportunities.
Syndicate (2012): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC (reviewed)
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Released: February 21, 2012
Very, very loosely based on the 1993 game, Syndicate has a marvelously updated setting that should have been the basis for a great single player campaign. In 2017, “the world’s largest corporate merger” leads to the creation of Eurocorp, a company so large that it causes a new cold war, as rival companies rush to their own mergers. By 2069 (the year in which the game is set), the nation state is dead and in its place, competing multinational corporations – Eurocorp, based in New York, Aspari Corporation, with a North American HQ in Los Angeles, and Cayman Global Syndicate – vie for control of the world’s territories.
The basis for this corporate hegemony is technology invented in 2025, the DART chip. The DART is implanted in the human brain and imparts a permanent connection to the an expansion pack version of the Internet called “the datasphere” (this connection to the Datasphere also happens to be the basis for your in-game HUD). Each DART chip also functions like a cattle brand, denoting one’s social and economic class, granting them tiered access to technology, regions and other perks, and offering authority figures access to their neuro-functionality. Imagine life in which a corneal implant functions as both an iPad and a taser and you get the idea.
No wonder then that a large, permanent underclass refuses – or is denied? – access to the chips and chooses instead to live in poverty. By 2069, the world has settled into low temperature Mexican standoff, with rival corporations battling each other diplomatically, covertly and occasionally with actual open warfare, and the underclass upon which they all trod throwing their shoes into the works at every opportunity. This is the background against which the player, playing as Eurocorp special agent Miles Kilo, will progress through the single player campaign.
Elements of the game, taken individually, are often excellent. Syndicate is an aesthetic marvel, with glorious views at every turn, gritty streets, shining cities with ‘highways’ full of flying cars, enormous buildings, decaying slums, every scene offers you something genuinely impressive. While it is certainly drawing shamelessly from other recent games (see below for more), Starbeeze has managed to carve out an original vision of a very troubling future that doesn’t feel as derivative as it does paying homage. This aesthetic beauty extends, mostly, to gameplay itself. Each level contains a high degree of verticality, offering players plenty of things to look at, as well as places to miss enemies, crawlspaces to crawl through, floors to break, as they battle through levels.
Syndicate also manages nicely to subvert the ridiculousness of benevolent architecture that litters all cover system-having first person shooters. There are indeed plenty of conveniently placed cover locations, but in more than one instance, as you enter a room full of enemies, you’ll see them knocking things over to use as cover, giving the impression that corporations of the future don’t simply design their buildings with firefights in mind. Bystanders also cower in terror (and can be killed if you’re not careful) and appear to genuinely run randomly, making it a real challenge to avoid them as you’re shooting enemies. That you’re often told casualties aren’t even a concern for your employer adds nicely to the idea that in a world where profit is the highest law, people are simply corporate assets to be discarded when inconvenient. Adding to this bleakness is the ability to execute wounded opponents and sometimes even random bystanders, usually with a brutal kick to the face. Whether this is an intentional comment on a free market obsessed world or simply a cool way to test a gamer’s moral compass, it’s a nice touch.
Finally, it boasts a smooth framerate, smooth transitions between cutscene and play and generally functioned so well from a gaming perspective that the best you can say is, aside from aesthetic errors we’ll discuss below, you didn’t have to think about the graphics, other than to be awed by them.
At the heart of Syndicate’s gameplay experience is the DART chip, a plot and gameplaydevice that immediately presents the player with a varied experience well beyond simply ducking and shooting. First is the DART overlay, basically this game’s version of Bat vision. Switching to DART overlay gives you xray vision that helpfully identifies all threats, a slightly slowed down perception of time and reduction in damage. Naturally, these aren’t particularly new ideas, but what saves Syndicate’s version from total derivation is that it comes with a strict time limit, after which you’ll have to wait for it to recharge. This forces you to avoid using it as a substitute for getting around the game’s punishing visuals (see below), instead relying on it to get your bearings and plan out your attacks. That’s important because Syndicate’s decent AI means you will be punished for trying to run and gun your way through levels.
The DART interface is good for more than just lightly ripping off Bat vision. It also functions kind of like Navi from Zelda, automatically noting points of interest as you glance at them, which turns out to be occasionally helpful (more on that shortly). You’ll be able to identify weak points and act accordingly, and you play, gain abilities like the option to disable shields protecting robotic minibosses, making them easier to take out. Syndicate puts DART interface to best use with the “breach” mechanic, which allows you to literally hack targeted opponents and override their free will. As we mentioned, most people on earth have been outfitted with DART chips, keeping them constantly logged onto the Datasphere. As it turns out, the human brain is much like any networked computer with so-so antivrial software, and as you progress, you’ll gain “Breach” abilities that allow you to issue some very awesome – and terrible, when you stop to consider things – commands.
One option gives you the cyberpunk version of the confuzzler from Ratchet and Clank, turning your enemies into temporary allies who fire on their own team (it works on many robotic weapons as well.) Another allows you to jam an enemy’s weapons (these also having DART chips of their own), causing them to explode and inflict damage on their owner and anyone standing nearby. It knocks riot shields out of your enemies’ hands, knocks other enemies down and allows you to take them out quickly. The best, or perhaps worst from a moral perspective, is the suicide breach option. This renders an enemy inoperative as they vainly struggle to resist, only to see them die in a most grisly fashion as they detonate whatever explosive they’re carrying. For extra goodness, they’ll take out anyone standing next to them, making it a very effective way of removing several enemies at once without wasting ammo that the game thankfully doesn’t simply throw at you.
The Breach feature is incredibly cold-blooded, and perfect for a setting in which the entire world has been divided up between warring multinational corporations for whom human beings are just another exploitable resource. Fortunately, like the DART overlay, these options also come with limits. Once used, a breach option is depleted and must be replenished before you can use it again. You replenish by killing enemies, and a lengthy killstreak (a “Rampage”) increases the speed at which the spent ability is restored. Since Rampages aren’t always possible, these limits force you to wait until a specific command can be best used; there’s no point, for instance, in forcing a suicide on a lone enemy you can easily shoot when it’s better to wait until he’s standing alongside 5 companions.