It does little, but damn good
Note: This review is based on the single player campaign. I've played a couple of sessions of the co-op and it seems superb, but I can't comment on it in any detail.
I had an absolute blast with Syndicate's single player campaign, and I didn't expect to. I was a big fan of the original game, and I was as much a skeptic as anyone could be, but Syndicate won me over very quickly, and became its own game. That game stands out as the best first person shooter I've played on a console since the original Bioshock, but for nearly directly opposite reasons.
Bioshock was a game about story and character progression. Syndicate is a game about shooting bullets out of guns into people while watching lots of progress bars that end in some sort of explosion. Bioshock was a story game. Syndicate is a gun game.
It would be grossly unfair to say Syndicate doesn't have a story. It has one, but it is predictable and relatively uninspired. It is told quite well however, with characters that come alive through great performances, in a world that is pretty much gorgeous to look at. Syndicate's world is delightfully cruel and direct, which was the first thing that felt like a real call back to the original game. There are several such call backs, and they are all delightful to spot. One moment in particular regarding a certain piece of medical equipment had me grinning.
But Syndicate is a game about going from A to B while shooting almost constantly, and while other games would be crippled in such a case of an anemic narrative over repetitive gameplay formulae, Syndicate thrives on it by simply being a damn good shooting game. Every single weapon in this game is loud and violent, and thanks to the game's dedication to the first person perspective, the character's weapon handling help each gun become a memorable physical object in its own right. Some of the designs are wonderfully inspired, with rifles coming with back up red dot sights at a 45 degree angle being the standouts. It's actually kind of shocking; How dare they take the age old rule that if it shoots far it's shit up close and smash it so thoroughly? It's a great example of how the game is more about enjoying firing a weapon than struggling with it. There is no bad gun in Syndicate. If you can see it, just pick it up and shoot something. You will have fun.
Of course, the excellent sound design helps a lot too. If Syndicate isn't the most inspiring game to look at (though it certainly has a clear identity, with the rampant blooming color nearly blinding you most of the time), it certainly sounds the part. You'll want to shoot guns just to hear them. The minigun in particular made me cackle the first time i got to turn it on people. That thing is the best gun I've fired in an FPS in a long ass time. The soundtrack is a great mixture of synths, ambient and industrial techno, with Skrillex' abomination of a "remix" thankfully only showing up for a couple of short moments.
Beyond the excellent shooting of many many people, Syndicate's main gimmick is "breaching", which starts out feeling somewhat undercooked, but comes into its own as the game ramps up the difficulty. The process boils down to pointing at a dude and holding down a bumper until a progress bar fills (or you hit a sweet spot and release), which will then trigger one of three effects: One will cause the target to pull out a grenade and blow himself (and bystanders) to bits. Another will make him turncoat and become a short-lived ally. A third can affect several enemies at a time and will knock them back for a moment, making them vulnerable for a quick kill. On top of this, some enemies carry shields, which must be breached to disable. The tactical spaces are typically littered with other objects such as explosive objects to shoot, cover to move, or turrets to turn to your side.
At first, the 3 main breaching abilities feel similar enough that the difference is sort of negligible, but later in the game the difference between suicide and persuade are huge. I found myself playing the game much more smartly near the end than I was at the beginning, and I came out of the campaign wanting to play through it again now that I knew how things really worked. Breaching is cool, quick to pull off, and god damn if filling those progress bars up isn't somehow satisfying in its own right.
There's something depressive about reading other reviews of this game; Isn't it enough to be a solid shooting game anymore? Is the genre itself "bad" to the point that merely being "excellent" drags it all back down to "good"? There's this idea that a game must be wildly ambitious and innovative to warrant a good rating, but Syndicate is an absolutely superb game because it knows the limits of its design and does incredible work tuning and polishing that design to be the best that it can be. Syndicate wants to be a great shooting game, and it comes out as one of the best in years. It certainly has innovations - The aforementioned dual sights on rifles, the simple and intuitive cover system, and the ability to run into enemies to push them over come to mind - but this is not a game about advancing the art, it is a game intended to perfect it. If you like frantic, brutal, satisfying shooting in an interesting and uncommon game world, Syndicate is well worth your money.