Syndicate’s future world is about divisions; the divisions in the economic and political landscapes, between consumer and outcast where people are interfaced with the Datascape through neural chips that feed them a constant stream of data. That world is run by the mega corporations who plot, steal, manipulate and sabotage for the sake of patents, personnel and profit and each employs its own military and special agents to safeguard its bottom line. The original Syndicate from the mid-nineties offered a bleak, violent cyberpunk world- one perfectly suited to the brutal and creative skills of Starbreeze Studio’s.
Miles Kilo has just been outfitted with Eurocorp’s prototyped Dart 6 chip, which promises to give the company an edge in the market. Moments after testing the new features, word comes down that competing Syndicate Aspari International is developing their own chips based on the DART specs. Kilo and veteran Agent Jules Merit infiltrate Aspari to engage in their own violent, brutal counter espionage.
And if the chip makes everyone as powerful as Kilo, that could be dangerous. When active, the DART Overlay displays body heat through objects, enhances perception and reflexes to slow down time, and most importantly, allows you to interface and breach other chips and tech that are in your line of sight. By breaching, guns will backfire, enemies will pull out a grenade and detonate themselves and anyone in the immediate vicinity or turn the barrels of their guns on their allies before putting it in their mouths. While simple, these tools are incredibly powerful and allow the player to control the battlefield. Each move spends energy, recharged by adrenaline from kills, headshots and melee attacks. It’s a system that promotes aggression rather than caution. Chip capabilities can also be upgraded at key plot points throughout the campaign to raise base functions and enable new ones.
But the capabilities of the DART 6 were built to work in conjunction with the weapons Starbreeze has built. The studio has always given players interesting combat options but paired them with mediocre gunplay. That’s not the case with Syndicate. The gunplay is spot on with today’s standards but smartly designed weapons and alternate firing modes make every one interesting. The design allows you to be breaching one enemy while shooting another and makes the whole affair visceral and dynamic in a way that few games can be. Part of its success comes from the physicality of your movements; there’s real sense of weight and effort behind all Kilo’s animations, whether he’s performing a long jump, breaking through a vent cover or peeking over a barricade to blind fire. The biggest issue comes from a narrow field of interaction that requires that you face an object before you can interact with it- that’s fine when you’re trying to press an elevator button when no one’s around, less so when you’re trying to snap a guys’ neck under fire. The combat scenarios, too, can be very limited for the tool set that you’re given, partly because of the small scale locations and close-quarters environments you’ll occasionally be fighting in. These often create a situation where you’ll go down several times in a single area without learning anything only to inexplicably lay waste to everything without really knowing why.
While the narrative is serviceable and hits all the appropriate plot points, the real use of the story is to put you in locations that fill out the scope of the world that at its best show how stratified the lives of the chipped are from the un-chipped; Aspari’s high rise, Cayman Global’s floating city, the slums of the Downzone. The game offers a terrific sense of place, the graphics are crisp, the skybox well-detailed. Collectibles come in the form of business cards and propaganda littered about the world, with the latter appearing as graffiti from the resistance to newscasts and pulled from data terminals. You also get an in-depth look at the different corps and their Agents during boss fights that, while all different, aren’t particularly engaging and tend to last too long. Every weapon you pick up, every boss you encounter fills out your Infobank that nicely details the fiction that the story doesn’t. The only real offense with the story comes from a gratuitously artificial plot contrivance that puts Kilo right where he needs to be, right when he needs to be.
The campaign lasts about seven hours and doesn’t overstay its welcome, but Syndicate’s co-op mode will end up sucking most people’s time. While fundamentally the same as the single player, co-op puts you in the shoes of one of four Eurocorp Agents to complete missions and earn experience. Where breaching in the main campaign has Kilo turning enemies chips against themselves, co-op chips are all about buffing your squad or focusing your attentions to breaching the defenses of tougher enemies. It’s a great system in that it promotes teamwork without being a class-based.
While initially overwhelming, the ranking system is robust and fully featured and allows you to build out a character to your liking. Killing enemies, healing and rebooting allies, breaching enemies and capturing intel all award experience and leveling gives you a single point that can be spent on passive upgrades to buff your character. If any of your allies rip a chip from the head of a high ranking enemy, from heavies to Agents, everyone will receive Blueprint tokens that can be spent to open up new research on weapon parts and competing missions give Application Tokens that do the same for new chip abilities. Once new research is available, players can funnel exp into one research per category to improve them. The progression isn’t identical to what’s available in the campaign but you will still end the tree powerful and better equipped to tackle the missions on higher difficulties.
There’s a narrative running through the mulitiplayer component, but really only acts as context within each map and to justify the next. The maps are static from one game to the next and you’ll only be doing a handful of things across all, but the objectives in each change to create a progression that comes out the other side being interesting; from eliminating rooms full of enemies, to escorting a laser cutter to get through a wall, to taking on a group of powerful agents. And you’ll want to complete them all as doing so the first time earns the right to research specific upgrades you are otherwise locked out of. The maps don’t scale difficulty, so you’ll want to find at least one other. To make that easier, the developers have built an in-game clan system. By creating and joining a Syndicate of your own, preferably with its own cyberpunk megacorp name, you can see what every member is doing and set up private matches that can make completing every mission on expert that much easier.
In the end, it’s the tools Starbreeze has built into this beautiful and dirty world that make every mode worth playing. The single player is great, but the moment to moment combat scenarios and sometimes frustrating setups keep it from being stellar. That’s less of a problem in the multiplayer, where the larger player count allows the game to throw more enemies at the team in larger locations, making those situations more interesting.