Developer: Starbreeze Studios / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes]
My fondest memories of Starbreeze Games–the girlfriend segment in The Darkness and wandering around in Escape from Butcher Bay–always turn out to be the times I’m not actually playing. In that way, Syndicate is the Starbreeziest game of all. The best parts of Syndicate are the small glimmers of inspiration that poke through. Thinking “what if” now that Syndicate has been rebooted is very exciting… but this game isn’t.
GAMEPLAY AND STORY
As implied, the single-player campaign in Syndicate succeeds more in establishing an interesting setting and play mechanics than actually delivering on them. You play as Agent Miles Kilo, an elite soldier groomed for use by Eurocorp, one of a handful of super-corporations called syndicates that now govern the planet.
As a fan of cyberpunk, the setting and premise for Syndicate immediately hooked me. They even punched right to my soft spots by including a glut of neon Chinese and even a shootout in a nightclub to the score of thumping Asian pop. This world is as gritty as it gets; society has been completely stratified between a 100% consumerist population that lives in the clouds and the have-nots that are neglected and ignored on the bottom. Corporate warfare is cutthroat and brutal, and it would’ve been fantastic if the story of Miles Kilo embraced any of these aspects. Instead, Kilo moves through this world and takes part in a story that’s as boilerplate sci-fi as you can get.
Most of my enjoyment of Syndicate’s world came from all the detail in the main story’s periphery. Bioware-esque codex entries tell amusing stories that are unique to Syndicate, such as the employee that was verbally reprimanded for espousing crazy conspiracy theories, but immediately fired, blacklisted, and escorted off the premises for wondering if the company’s stock price might drop. These codex tidbits wind up being much more novel than the plot of the campaign itself, wrapped around Kilo’s own story.
At least from a gameplay perspective, Syndicate delivers a more unique experience. As an agent, you have three “apps” that you can use to hack into the brains of your enemies. These apps recharge when you kill enemies, so a tactical element is involved with clean playing. If you use an app but don’t get the appropriate return on investment in terms of kills you have to enter the next room without any backup abilities. Additionally, Kilo is also equipped with a DART chip, which enables him to flip-on an overlay that slows down time and highlights enemies, allowing you to flank your enemies or shoot them through cover.
That all sounds lovely, but the level design doesn’t reward clever or tactical use of abilities other than killing men with maximum efficiency. Most combat encounters involve an arena-like room, into which goons pour at intervals through doors and elevators. Some enemies require some hoop-jumpery to kill (liquid armor that requires hacking, camouflage that requires an EMP hit), but the skill system implies more intelligent play that simply isn’t there. By the end of the campaign, I was ready for the real one that both showed me more of Syndicate’s world and made good on the potential of the shooting. Here’s hoping that will exist some day.
Syndicate’s co-op component does a much better job developing an identity. In it, you play as one of four agents for a fictional syndicate, tackling nine missions with up to three other players. As is the fashion, you can customize your agent’s loadout with different apps and guns, and the points you earn in-game translate to gun-improving research projects, upgrades for your apps, and chip enhancements that buff the base stats of your agent. You can even create your own syndicate, which is re-skinned clan support. The functionality is nothing novel, but it is appreciated.
This mode reminded me a lot of running dungeons in World of Warcraft. First, there’s a trade-off between teamwork and autonomy that makes the difference between a successful mission and a thirty-second failure (and I’ve seen plenty of those). Apps can work together in novel ways–some will give your team a temporary shield or heal everyone standing close to you, while others directly damage the enemy. Being part of a coordinated team feels great, while playing with four snipers with the same apps is boring as hell.
That said, it’s also like WoW in another way. You memorize maps after you run them once or twice. After the tenth time it’s just a grindfest to get that new scope/upgrade/shiny bauble. Depending on your team, you can plug through all nine maps in under two hours. While harder difficulty levels do notably extend the life of this content, it’s just not enough, especially considering it’s the best content in the game.
I’m usually forgiving of a game’s attempt to look visually distinct, but holy shit Syndicate has taken bloom to absurd new levels. At the very least it never interferes with gunplay, but there are areas so bright you’ll sear your retinas if you look the wrong way. Syndicate’s other unique aspects work better. The UI seems absurdly cluttered to start, but in multiplayer it’s genuinely helpful to see the status of your entire team at a glance. That begs the question, though: in a UI crammed with bars, numbers, and trinkets, they couldn’t find any room for your health bar? I died a lot simply because I didn’t know how close to death I was until I keeled over.
The first hours in Syndicate are frustrating because there’s ten pounds of controls crammed on to a five-pound controller. Several buttons have both a tapped and a held function, the most awkward of which being the grenade (tap Y to switch guns, hold Y to switch to grenade). Mix this with skills you can target on enemies, environmental objects that can also be hacked, and a UI that has numbers and bars splashed all over and it will overwhelm your brain for a while.
I really want a sequel to Syndicate, but not because I loved this particular game. Its premise has so much more to give. Syndicate is an incredibly ambitious, stylized, but definitely flawed game. I’m confident with another attempt, Syndicate could be something really special. I just hope that it gets the chance.
7.5 / 10