Syndicate Review (PC)
Combat and Co-op
When it was revealed the reboot of Syndicate would be FPS rather than real time tactics, it sounded like a bad idea, but Starbreeze did a marvelous job updating a tactical game into a shooter, ensuring that players never become too reliant on a single weapon or a single tactic and actually consider their environment in decision making.
This is partly due to how DART abilities can be upgraded. You do so by stealing DART chips from certain designated targets after killing them. (This comes with a very cool animation showing an xray view of their skull as your… tendrils… snake around inside them and rip it out. Stolen chips give you points to spend on improvements ranging from enhanced damage, faster health recovery and increased damage protection, faster weapons stability and of course an extension to the length of time you can use DART overlay. It’s very similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s upgrade system, though with vastly smaller complexity, but it gives you a reason to keep playing. You’ll earn these point slowly enough that you’ll never become complacent, and even fully upgraded you’ll never be invincible.
Syndicate’s interesting range of weapons also have their limits. For particularly interesting weapons, like an automatic rifle with Fifth Element-style target-seeking bullets, you’ll have very few occasions to restock. Even for more mundane weapons, enemies don’t always drop a particularly large amount of ammo. This requires the player to be very careful to plan their shots with care, lest you find yourself forced to rely on the game’s very limited melee options and get yourself killed.
Fortunately, combat itself fast paced and varied enough that it never feels like you’re pinching pennies to make it through a level. Enemy A behave somewhat unpredictably and punish you for being lazy. Taking cover is always a must, but because your enemies will actually try flanking you to flush you out, you’ll spend more time trying to avoid being penned in rather than camping. You’l find yourself trying different combinations of DART, Breach and conventional weapons as you work your way from one objective to the next.
These factors continue to Co-op, which is where Syndicate truly shines. Co-op is meant for four players, a deliberate throwback to the original Syndicate, but unlike that game in which the player manages a corporation and can control up to 4 cyborg soldiers on various missions, you and your party must actually work together smoothly in order to survive each challenge. There is for instance a real incentive for teams to coordinate from the start, including their loadouts. As in the single player campaign special abilities need time to recharge after use; a team with identical or incompatible loadouts will probably end up dead quickly.
The challenges themselves are variants on standard co-op multiplayer, with missions resembling capture the flag or escort missions, but it’s the actual play itself that makes it work so well. As in the single player campaign you can steal chips from major enemies for a temporary bonus to your powers or even temporary new powers, though you’ll have a very limited time in which to extract it, not easy when enemies are relentless and unmerciful. They’ll swarm on you with a variety of different weapons and tactics, forcing some hard decisions on teams. You might have to sacrifice grabbing a chip in order to make sure your team isn’t taken out. (You can revive fallen squad members, but it’s hard to do effectively in the middle of a battle, meaning you might find yourself having to Rambo your way out of a situation first.)
It all sounds like a lot of fun, and it is. It’s just too bad that for everything Starbreeze got right, they missed the mark enough times that they crippled their game.
What Doesn’t Work
Before going further,we need to point out the cybernetic elephant in the room. You are going to compare Syndicate to Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Whether by coincidence or by design, Syndicate is liberally sprinkled with elements that beg the comparison. Some, like DART 6 vision and the HUD are rather superficial; others not so much. Set pieces largely occur in huge corporate buildings amid giant sci fi megalopolises based on what are, at present, ordinary, non science fiction cities like LA and New York. Society has become literally stratified, with the very poorest living in low level slums and the wealthy in glittering high rises. The protagonist is an elite corporate agent with an ambiguous relationship to both his employer, and the scientist responsible for his hi tech body. As it turns out, he was was almost literally born for the job, and both his employer and the scientist know way more about that than they’re letting on. And incidentally, there is a rebellion against the march of technology and the ruling order ushering it in, and this ties directly into the plot.
At every turn you’ll be thinking you’ve seen this somewhere before, and you’ll be right. But as I expounded upon at length, Syndicate has a really great setting, the kind of well crafted universe in which dozens of games could be set. It’s sad then that rather than writing a complex story that lets the player to soak in the universe, Starbreeze opted instead make the player do the rest of the work.
To begin with, there is the lazy way the game fills the player in on things. A brief, and visually confusing opening cutscene describes the world of Syndicate, but then you are dumped into an opening mission that waits until the end to reveal itself not as a flash forward, but as a training mission. You are then forced to sit in a.. science chair thing… while the three main characters have a conversation about you, and right in front of you. One character insults you in private and you must simply take it, mutely. And the game is littered with moments like this, made worse by the fact that you can’t skip them. This carries on into every moment of story exposition. People explain things to you, or talk to you, or talk about you, and you just watch, dumbly, until it’s time to get back into the shooting.
What is particularly galling is that the majority of truly important universe, and in some cases, plot, information is given to the player via the select menu encyclopedia. As you go through the game you’ll be able to acces points of interest which upload data to the encyclopedia. You can read it at any time, and it isn’t mandatory, but every in-game conversation, except for those directly connected to your character’s backstory, are handled as though you totally understand everything happening. I suppose it’s meant to feel like real life, where we simply consult wikipedia any time we need to refresh our memory about the history of IBM, but it’s a tedious way to build a universe.
Compare Mass Effect, which uses an in-game encyclopedia to expand on the universe, give the player further context or simply keep track of what they’ve learned. Mass Effect never uses the codex to make up for the player experience. Crucial information is always provided in some form via conversation or cutscene. Syndicate simply dumps you in the middle of everything and assumes you’ll work it out on your own. What makes this all the worse is that the game boasts some excellent voice talent, including Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox (whose character looks exactly like him), and the underrated Michael Wincott. Unfortunately, Starbreeze decided to make the protagonist mute. This voice talent is also often wasted, as you’ll spend the majority fo your game hearing from a faceless computer voice reminiscent of the operator in last year’s dismal Bodycount.
That’s terrible storytelling, and the result is that no matter how much fun you’re having, you never feel more than a cursory connection to the story. Even as you reach the end and discover the requisite dark secrets about the world in which you live, you don’t really care.
Possibly the worst thing about Syndicate, and it’s almost a point in the game’s favor considering that it affects every single aspect, is the absolutely terrible lighting and color aesthetic. Despite the beautiful views and well designed environments, everything is awash in horribly oversaturated colors, typically candyland Reds and dark, detail obfuscating blues that turn every combat interaction into a chance to exhaust your eyes from squinting. I’m not going to suggest you kids try this at home, but if you’ve ever taken certain illegal substances that induces bright colorful hallucinations, you’ll recognize the effect.
This problem is exacerbated by the terrible color contrasts and a kind of dull white brightness. Scenes often transition quite seamlessly from too dark to make out your environment, to too bright and colorful to tell what, precisely, it is that you’re looking at. Switching to DART Overlay helps considerably, but because of the very short time limit, even after you’ve upgraded this mode is best for quickly getting a handle on where your enemies are then ducking back behind cover.
The final problem is the information overload caused by the DART interface. It points everything of note out to you whether or not it’s even relevant. Beer bottles, computer terminals, possibly even shoes. If you haven’t seen something before, chances are it will pop up in your field of vision. This could have been interesting, but there are moments where your attention is drawn both to discarded ammo and to irrelevant trivia, and it clutters your screen needlessly.
Syndicate’s constant back and forth between interesting combat and a derivative, unremarkable story (centered around a personality-free protagonist) makes for a very tedious experience. It is also a visual mess. But it had so much potential, with excellent combat, genuine challenges, fun co-op and some actual beauty. Syndicate had so much potential, in fact, that one ultimately hopes it sells well enough to warrant a sequel. I just hope they get that game it right.
* The setting is excellent, full of potential for future stories.
* Co-op combat is genuinely challenging, exciting.
* Intelligent AI that actually forces players to think tactically during single player campaign.
* Gorgeous scenery and in-play environments.
* Gameplay features, particularly breaching, are well designed.
* Oversaturation of colors, screen is often cluttered with irrelevant information.
* Derivative story that fails to utilize the excellent setting.
* Undeveloped protagonist denies the player any real connection to the game.