“In a world where evil corporations continually attempt to strive higher in their next quarterly earnings at the sacrifice of their heart, goodwill, and decency towards others, we witness both Syndicate’s thematic material and a…really awkward parallel here with EA’s decision to reboot this beloved classic as a first person shooter.” Yeah, I wouldn’t put much stock in this one either.
For those of you who may not have been aware, the original Syndicate (1993) is an adored isometric real-time tactical game by the now-defunct Bullfrog Productions. After remaining in EA’s backlog of owned intellectual properties that have gone nowhere for over a decade, Starbreeze Studios, developer behind the awesome “Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay,” has been given the reins to reboot this series for a new era. Even though that worry of a publisher getting their grubby hands on an old license and bastardizing it by wanting a game emulous of the most lucrative titles out in the market was in the back of my head before purchasing, I still had a degree of anticipation for this title due to the pedigree of the developer. Though Syndicate (2012) only extrapolates the universe from the original, there’s hardly a need to squint in order to see if you can spot anything familiar due to the fact at how liberally it borrows from much more audacious shooters of years past.
The game starts out with an opening cut scene placed before going to the main menu. In 2017, Eurocorp, the first mega-corporation, was born. With each passing day, governments were toppled in favor of these “Syndicates” taking over the world, leaving a wake of assassinations and espionage in the process just to find any leg up against the competition. The haves versus the have-nots is even more pronounced as chipped individuals get to enjoy life in the skyscrapers while the unchipped dregs of society are left to rot on the Earth’s surface.
The year is now 2069. You play as Miles Kilo, an up-and-comer agent for Eurocorp equipped with the latest DART 6 chip. The narrative campaign begins with Kilo waking up to a masked man punching him, with your first actions being a set of quick-time events in order to break free (*sigh*). From there, a robotic lady voice (complimentary of the DART chip) and an objective marker will be about as much contextualization as you’ll get while understanding the controls and killing a bunch of soldiers, possibly a pedestrian or two. The whole narrative is structurally similar to that beginning: insignificant progressions forward that stay vague to you for as long as possible until ultimately feeling pointless.
For so much verbosity present, it’s astounding to see so much of what’s being said end up nowhere. What’s the biggest fault about the story is just how easy it is to disinter the trite cyberpunk tale behind it and just how rigorously the writing tries to dissemble unsurprising character motives at every turn. Dozens of moments solely dedicated to beefing up narrative exposition—and trying to get as many spoken lines out of Brian Cox as possible, it seems—with intentionally-vague dialogue are really just tawdry bits that pretend as if there’s some importance behind them. The reason these pretensions feel all the more obvious seems to be due to Kilo being treated more as a person everyone addresses by happenstance rather than as a main character. When he’s the one who discovers a traitor to Eurocorp, no real consequence ends up occurring from it aside from tangential threads coming into focus in order to progress the plot; he’s the sole agent that’s able to extricate a kidnapped scientist, yet they’ve already saved themselves and had an escape charted out; there’s a kill/let go choice of a specific someone towards the end of the game, but you’re DART chip doesn’t allow you to kill that person anyways and you get the same non-interactive cut scene regardless, making the choice completely irrelevant. It’s almost hilarious to think that the clearest moment in which you feel like ‘your own character’ in this story is the nebulous scene right before the credits roll.
But I don’t want to get too carried away in pouring on complaints against the story and storytelling; in fact, there is one shining aspect here that displays very good writing, but also shows another big problem. Naturally, a dystopian future that had such a pedigree back then must’ve sold the world-building through design and writing quite well. Beneath this over-arching story too, a lot of world building is taking place that alludes to a greater set of events that’s mostly relegated to text in an Infobank. And it’s an impressive amount of good writing: all of the ‘corporate doublespeak’ is there such as killing someone in competition to the company is coldly described as the “liquidation of a soft asset;” all of the cyberpunk fictional details have been carefully woven into this backstory; and there’s copious extras to find in character profiles. While perusing through this, I began wondering if a novelist was involved, which actually turned out to be true (penned by Richard K. Morgan). This compliment might lead some to compare it to other recent titles with that kind of dedication for the game’s lore, perhaps Mass Effect or something else, but the difference being here is that these high quantities of text dump are unremittingly shoved down the player’s throat and used to act as a replacement for proper storytelling rather than a reinforcement.
What’s the saddest part of it all is that there’s nothing inherently wrong about the idea of just having a typical narrative around this kind of setting; it just needs to be properly framed and designed to make the idea work. Having Kilo, i.e. the player, slowly dealing with the question of whether he’s more man or product to this corporation wouldn’t be a big revelatory thing in game subtext but still ultimately be an effective one with the violence in the background; yet, when that opportunity is trimmed down to a five-to-six hour campaign where grandiloquence is confused with intelligence, players getting to read more quality material in the infobank then in experiencing it through the main story, and stilted storytelling pacing that’s content to quell the excitement that’s previously been built up without much payoff of its own, it becomes sort of a dramatic irony to see just how manufactured it all feels.
When it comes to the artistic design, I’d actually say there’s a more consistent motif in the visual metaphors of the action occurring around you then in the narrative. Running, jumping, shooting your way through various antiseptic buildings just act as a façade in a game intentionally designed to show off as many fluid animations of severed limbs and splattered incarnadine as possible, punctuating the tagline ‘Business Is War’ on the back cover. All of the form and glitz promised by the trailers does an effective job of trying to transport you into this emotionless and clean world: propaganda is scattered everywhere left unseen to the naked eye; the UI is mostly bright blue and white colors that highlight and identify numerous objects on your HUD. That dedication to the minor details is actually the infuriating part about it. For the first time in a long, long time—perhaps ever for me, I initially got a minor headache from just trying to get used to this HUD, the plethora of little floating tags popping up almost everywhere you turn, and the overabundant bloom lighting that can blind you during important bouts of shooting. Given just how good the technical graphics are and the consistency of the performance, I suspect overproduction to be the culprit behind these foibles in the subtleties.
Sound is the best asset to Syndicate. The standout performer here would have to be the Skrillex remix of the original Syndicate theme song (can be heard in the release trailer as well). For one boss fight in particular, that strident dubstep and the cacophony of other techno beats within the background perfectly encapsulate the violent, manic action on screen. A shame that song is only there a couple of times throughout the whole campaign in favor of expected, albeit well-made, techno cadences. And with another AAA-budgeted title comes that demand to put some Hollywood actors here as well. Despite being cardboard characters with a script that gives them little reason to try, B-listers like Rosario Dawson and the previously-mentioned Brian Cox as the leader of Eurocorp do a great job of selling these characters. Between the atmospheric moments and the all-out action, technical sound design also carries its weight: the sci-fi aural queues feel meticulously fashioned and guns sound like they pack the punch they should. Practically all facets here are consistent and well-fashioned.
Looking at the first-person shooting mechanics alone, Syndicate does feel exceptionally-made. The arsenal itself is made up of mostly traditional takes on sniper rifles, assault rifles, pistols, and shotguns, with a few special weapons such as the Gauss Gun that allows you to lock onto an enemy and bends those projectiles towards him. It’s less about exotic weaponry but rather taking a mostly-expected line of guns and polishing the look and feel of firing down to a mirror sheen. Weapon handling extends beyond the fluid animations and the great sensation of impact they all have, though. There’s also a dynamic cover system that can feel almost too responsive at times. If you’re almost peeking out of the corner of a pillar while standing up, you’ll automatically twist your gun around the corner to continue firing. Digging in and pushing against a box you’re crouched behind will automatically put your weapon in a blind fire position. It’s all subtleties, to be sure, but this Starbreeze polish melds so well with the slick corporate agent appearance.
As exciting as it is, shooting bullets at enemies isn’t the only means of getting through this linear experience. The DART chip implanted in Kilo allows him to use “breaching” abilities against select objects and go into DART Vision. DART Vision (activated by hitting RB) is basically bullet time and the added ability to see friends and enemies through walls, highlighted blue and orange respectively, that comes with a cooldown timer. Breaching is available for a copious amount of things in this game. In the environment, you can breach random objects to fight in your favor, disarm thrown grenades, temporarily disable shields, and more. Against standard chipped enemies, there are three abilities that can be employed to thin their numbers: Suicide, Backfire, and Persuade. Suicide makes them take out a grenade and kill themselves; Backfire temporarily overloads their gun in order to stun them; Persuade makes that breached enemy temporarily on your side before killing himself. All of these different powers sound like an interesting way to remix fluid shooting with a very light tactical edge to it. Momentarily, it succeeds at doing just that…until you realize just how quickly every concept has been given to you, leading to the increase in enemies feeling like busywork as you just shoot people and press the LB button ad nauseam.
The biggest problem the campaign has as it slowly sinks into tedium is just how any novelties only serve as gimmicky distractions to its conservative structure rather than building a game around them. As you run through the plethora of combat arenas, you’ll never have an opportunity to see through walls and discover enemies before fighting them in order to proactively plan your next move; instead, enemy spawning only occurs after stumbling into the next combat zone, which strikes me as undermining the possibilities for DART Vision and player application with breaching abilities. Since you’re waiting for that enemy to enter through that door typically on the other end of the combat zone—and sometimes having to wait for DART Vision to finally highlight them, opportunities to use these powers feels scripted by the game with little chance for player improvisation. So, the core design falls back to feeling like an unadventurous corridor shooter with some mind control gimmicks in a sea of other games that have implemented that idea in a more involving way. The same problem is present for chips you acquire that allow you to choose from a set of passive upgrades, but don’t do anything to make you rethink your approach anyways.
With any sort of gameplay nuance losing steam quickly, Syndicate’s single-player campaign just falls back into being a formulaic shooter with some inconsistent level design that can steer you to dead ends—a reminder as to how partitioned many battles can feel. What hurts level design the most is how well the game can be at building up thrilling action scenes but then throw in pseudo-puzzles that are basically ‘breach platform and then jump on platform’ level of difficulty and platforming sections. Even one level is structured as such: kill two unsuspecting baddies, walk down flights of stairs, squish EMP pulse, and fight boss.
When it’s all said and done, it’s tough not to come away feeling blasé about the campaign. There’s really no gameplay facet that’s inherently bad, and some is even quite sound on the playtesting side of things, like the balanced difficulty and AI that performs adequately. What stings the most stems from this side of the production feeling so mean-spirited viz. when seeing such an inspiration as that focused design and Persuade-o-tron from the classic and then seeing these half-baked ideas like gleaning passive abilities from acquired chips or the thrown-in breaching abilities. With such a testament to look towards, you’d think more of that would be embraced instead of downtrodden. A shame to even state that when knowing Starbreeze, you know…the crazy Swedes that have outperformed the original Riddick movie franchise twice now, are the ones that crafted it.
That feeling of high-functioning mediocrity from the campaign is nowhere to be found in the thrilling cooperative mode, though. Some will probably make first-impression parallels to the original Syndicate since up to four players can blast their way through an objective but I liken it to Resistance 2’s co-op structure with half the numbers and without that ‘MMO rigidity.’ In R2’s cooperative, up to eight players were able to choose between three different classes based on the ‘holy trinity’ within MMO’s: a heavy tank player, a damage dealer, and a healer. Each of them were really only capable of the job assigned to them whereas within Syndicate’s co-op all of those options are available to each player to a certain degree, making it feel more fluid. Every player is able to heal each other when they’re hurt, so long as they’re in line of sight upon initiating a breach, or revive one another if within close range. The compare/contrast between the two titles isn’t to say one is conceptually much better than the other—I personally think they’re both great in that regard, only to show just how complimentary they can be to a gamer’s library despite having a similar structure.
Another aspect improved in the co-op is the greater amount of breaching powers available compared to the paucity of them in the campaign. Able to carry three abilities, players can opt for more team-oriented powers, such as ‘Squad Heal’ healing everyone else at once or a temporary damage boost to the team’s weapons, or more singular-focused ones, such as be able to revive yourself or giving an enemy a chip virus that slowly takes away health. There’s an array of other options that you and a dedicated team can try to experiment with and mold different tactics.
After finishing a mission and seeing where you rank up on the aftermath scorecard, your agent will gain levels in order to upgrade and have more upgrade tokens to spend on weapons and applications. It all runs the gambit of the metered progression from Call of Duty. The passive skill tree is similar to the campaign, but since more experimentation is afforded here there’s a legitimate process in trying to think through what you should put those points towards first. Weapons and applications require the investment of tokens in order to unlock certain trinkets. For instance, say you put in enough tokens for anything on an SMG; all you have to do is invest research on a specific feature like a red dot sight, acquire the right amount of experience and it’ll be unlocked. Improving applications works in the same way. Naturally, a structure mirroring Call of Duty would have clan options as well. Here, clans are actually called Syndicates and there’s a corporate twist to the whole thing: leaderboards are visually changed to look more like monthly reports and chart graphs printed out by huge companies. It’s just background, but I think it’s a nifty extra.
All isn’t perfect to this nuanced mode, however. Firstly, despite these nine levels having a tighter design without the fluffy spectacle from the single-player required here, they can all be completed quickly. It’s rather funny to think I would quietly yearn for a couple of map packs to be available as I began passing level twenty. Secondly, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of scaling to fit a lesser number of players, should you just want to play with one friend. Thirdly, there is a noticeable amount of lag—even for someone such as me with a decent connection. It’s certainly not getting in the way all of the time, but there’d oftentimes be a few moments peppered about in matches where that quarter-second/half-second delay in a kill is registered (since green text pops up in your HUD and informs you of each completed action) or there’d be those inconsistent running animations when looking at teammates that makes it look like the frame rate is chugging along. Little details like that which didn't drastically harm my experience yet did enough to annoy me sometimes.
In conclusion, Syndicate is a title that’s difficult to score because the annoyances aren't fundamentally pointed at broken qualities but instead at being frustrated at a somewhat-enjoyable shooter that desperately pretends to be something more. Try as one might to reap only the fun out of the good qualities here, it’s nigh impossible to see just how disparate the amount of soul is between these two modes that are available. One in which a committee extrapolates old source material and churns in a bunch of unnecessarily-convoluted claptrap mysteries to make it look smart and under-cooked mechanics that are “inspired” by the original to make it look like they care; in the other hand, a developer that can understand modern sensibilities and uses this lucrative template to at least experiment with the formula in subtle ways. By most dispassionate measures of a game, this is certainly one that can excite you for its technical prowess and polished shooting; looking beyond that though, there’s just so much quality ‘nothingness’ to it that makes it the quintessential example of an inoffensive time sink.
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