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Syndicate Hands-On: The Suicide Rate Is About To Skyrocket

Remember how you were all ready to hate Syndicate for not being an isometric strategy game? You might want to reconsider.

Just another company man.
Just another company man.

Hey guys, what do you want out of a Syndicate reboot? OK, fair enough, it's a loaded question, but it's been hard to ignore the rising voices of those who are, shall we say, less than satisfied with the news that Starbreeze has been working away at a first-person shooter that will bear the Syndicate name. It all feels like a replay of the recent XCOM hubbub, where longtime fans of a strategy game stood up and said something like "a first-person shooter? Great, we really need more of those."

So here's the potentially crazy twist. I got to play a brief chunk of Starbreeze's Syndicate recently, and it has tons of potential. The quick mission I embarked on--which showed off the basic powers at your disposal, a couple of weapons, and a few puzzle-type situations--might only be looking to capture the basic spirit of Bullfrog's classic, but if it pans out, it might also make for a great shooter with a skill tree. I was pretty taken aback by what I saw and played.

Syndicate is set in a chipped future, where most every human and plenty of inanimate objects contain embedded chips that, in the right hands, enhance humans. In the hands of an evil corporation bent on taking out their rivals at any cost, though, they can be subverted to do all sorts of nasty business. In the game, you'll play as an agent named Miles Kilo, a prototype that has the ability to hack nearby chips, allowing you to carry out said nasty business on behalf of your bosses. Kilo, raised by the corporation, is totally controlled by his chip and, at the beginning of the game, has no real moral compass. This will allow, or perhaps even demand that you behave in a ruthless manner. And, based a brief conversation I had with someone associated with the game, you probably don't need to be a genius to guess how this plot's major story beats go.

But enough about that. Manipulating, or "breaching" the world is your main way of interacting with things. In some cases, you'll need to turn on a vision mode to find a breachable object, which opens a secure door. There's no hacking minigame here, you're simply holding down a button until a meter fills up. The demo, which has you seeking out a member of a rival corporation, who is in possession of a chip that you need, opens with a moment that you'll see in the game' s trailer. You happen upon an interrogation room and are, in a tutorial-like fashion, commanded to breach one of the two authorities inside the room. This causes him to grab his head in pain and go into suicide mode. He quickly pulls out a pistol, guns down his associate, shoots the guy they're apparently interrogating, and then, just for the heck of it, he stuffs the barrel of the pistol into his mouth and finishes the job. The force from that blast sends the body crashing through the window between you and the room, giving you access to the next area.

But the abilities aren't strictly for scripted moments or opening doors. After acquiring the chip you're searching for--another bloody moment involving a guy that seemingly can't wait to off himself--you gain access to the three basic powers. Suicide works as advertised, causing any enemy to flip out and kill himself. If you're lucky, he'll choose to use a grenade, which might take out other nearby targets. The backfire ability appears to cause gun malfunctions, and it essentially knocks your target down for a bit, giving you time to react. Persuade flips the alignment of the targeted enemy, causing him to shoot at his own guys for a bit. Each power has its own meter, and the meters are charged by adrenaline, meaning that you'll fill them up by killing enemies the old fashioned way.

The vision mode is called
The vision mode is called "DART." That probably stands for something.

You start the mission with a pistol, and some augmented reality HUD elements put ammo counters right next to the pistol. When running and holding the pistol, Kilo cocks the gun slightly diagonally, letting you run and fire wildly as you are doing so. It looks pretty awesome. I was also told that you can slide and shoot at the same time, but didn't see this in action. The other weapon was a gauss rifle that lets you hold the left trigger to lock onto targets. Once you're locked on, you can step around a corner and fire. The bullets will curve to find their target. This is useful for flushing out enemies that are behind cover, and is especially useful when you combine it with the game's vision mode, which reveals enemies that are behind walls. The gun is also used for a bit of puzzle-solving, as one sequence requires you to lock onto a door's vulnerable side and blast it open.

Along the way, you'll earn experience points that funnel into a skill tree. The usual assortment of number tweaks for health, recharge time, and so on appear to be present, though your three powers will also develop, too. Doing things like gunning down several enemies in a row will give you a little XP bonus.

It's stylish, though its high-tech look is sure to draw some initial comparisons to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It's a sensible comparison, but even though these are both first-person shooters with RPG elements and a futuristic, cyber sort of theme, the brief bit of Syndicate I played didn't feel too similar. Syndicate appears to be leaning more on its fast action and shooting than Deus Ex usually does. We'll have to hold tight and see how the rest of it turns out, but the sort of crazy part about all this is that we won't be waiting that long. Alongside the game's first trailer, EA announced that the game is due in February 2012. That's pretty soon.

Jeff Gerstmann on Google+