Syndicate is the kind of game that haunts everyone who has worn a tin foil hat in their life. The precious government we all know and love has been replaced by a handful of malevolent conglomerates who control all five of our senses with brutal efficiency. This may not be the precious isometric RTS you remember from ‘93, though Starbreeze isn’t new to spawning something fresh from old IPs.
The year is 2069 and you play as Miles Kilo, a promising agent for a giant, can’t-possibly-be-evil corporation known as Eurocorp. Eurocorp, along with a handful of other massive conglomerates, researches and manufactures advanced microchips that are implanted in your brain. Being “chipped” lets you interact with pretty much every piece of electronic you can think of. TVs, computers, toaster ovens--all of it can be controlled by a single thought. And with no government to enforce those pesky regulations, the free market has essentially become a war zone. Your employer is your country, defected employees are branded traitors, and company secrets are a commodity worth killing for. That’s where you come in.
As an agent, your job is to infiltrate Eurocorp’s competitors and steal the precious company secrets locked away in the chips of their top researchers. Being a Eurocorp agent, you’re equipped with the D.A.R.T. 6, a special militarized chip that allows you to breach other people’s chips and bend them to your will. With that bad boy rolling around in your noggin, you can overload your enemy’s guns, make them commit suicide by detonating a grenade, or persuade them to flip sides and fire on their buddies until no one’s left, where they’ll promptly plant a bullet in their skull--saving you the trouble. All these abilities are recharged through adrenaline which you gradually gain during the throes of battle.
The dynamic push/pull system between traditional gunplay and chip abilities encouraged me to stop and approach every situation tactically. I see a group of enemies clustered together? Make one go into early retirement with an active grenade. A sniper’s keeping me from poking my head out? I’ll make sure he gets a nasty surprise after his next shot. There’s a guy with a mini-gun providing cover fire for his friends? Let’s just go ahead and make that my cover fire. I made most of these decisions while using the dart overlay; a handy mode that highlights every enemy I’ve seen, along with increasing damage output and slowing down time. The overlay doesn’t last longer than a few seconds though, which ensures the action maintains its swift pace. You’ll also encounter some special enemies like UAVs and soldiers in special armor that need to be hacked before becoming vulnerable, forcing you to abandon your cover to get within hacking range. You need to stay on your toes if you want to survive Syndicate’s unforgiving dog-eat-dog world.
The rest of the combat is pretty much the same “aim down the sights” gunplay you’d expect from a modern first-person shooter. Most of the weapons are traditional assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols, though occasionally you’ll come across some shiny future toys like an electric mace that stops all but the most stalwart enemies in their tracks. All of them are an absolute blast to use thanks to each one’s impressive stopping power. Even after mowing down groups of corporate drones with an assault rifle, I was more than happy to pick off the stragglers with my equally lethal pistol.
Most, if not all of the weapons in Syndicate’s arsenal also have some sort of alt fire mode which serves to broaden a weapon’s usefulness. For example, if you want to pick off some distant enemies hiding behind cover, you can use the assault rifle’s semi-automatic mode which uses a magnified scope. Your rounds are also specially pressurized, making them capable of piercing everything from riot shields to slabs of concrete. But if you’re in an enclosed hallway with no cover, then you can easily switch to the fully automatic mode, which replaces the scope with a handy red dot sight on the side.
The cover system on the other hand is hit and miss. The game let’s you know you’re behind cover by lowering your gun when pressed some form of cover. Pushing up against it will make you raise your weapon above your head Killzone style, though you can sacrifice a bit of cover to aim down the sights if that’s more your style. Blind firing works fine for the most part, provided the enemy you’re aiming at is directly across from you, as aiming to the side will make you to slowly inch out of cover where enemies will promptly riddle you with bullets.
Overall, Syndicate does a great job at making you feel like an unstoppable badass, while forcing you to be a cautious tactician as well. Most enemies don’t take too many shots to go down, but neither do you--and they have the numbers. Whenever I’d forget about the state-of-the-art chip in my head, the game brutally reminded me with a couple swift deaths. Even on normal, the game doesn’t let you get away with being stupid. The only time I ever felt cheated was during the punishing boss encounters. The enemy agents who comprise these boss encounters are basically bullet sponges with a couple annoying abilities tossed in. They all hit hard and of course, are immune to your chip abilities, effectively taking out the dynamic mash of breaching and shooting that make the regular encounters so much fun. Instead, I found myself activating the dart overlay, pumping round after round into the agent’s skull, and then hiding behind cover until the dart overlay recharged. Then I’d do that all over again until the agent was no more than a bloody stump. It’s dumb, it’s linear, and most of all--boring.
Thankfully Syndicate’s more aggravating parts are still fun to look at. The game stays away from the gritty cyberpunk aesthetic and instead takes on a look similar to Mirror’s Edge. You’ll spend most of your time in the sterile “upzone” which consists of white spotless buildings mixed with a handful of vibrant primary colors. Then there’s the decrepit “downzone” where the poor, sick, and unchipped reside; breaking the illusion of a fantastical paradise carefully crafted by the corporations that forgot them. The music is passable, but the gun shots are what really stand out. Everything from a minigun to a pistol sounds dangerous and downright intimidating. I’ve got to hand it to Starbreeze, not many can give DICE a run for their money when it comes to sound design, but they pulled it off.
The story touches on some current concerns--like the growing influence of corporations--but it never delves into philosophical intricacies like Deus Ex: Human Revolution did last year. And that’s completely fine. Not every cyberpunk game has to painstakingly analyze the human condition, but there are several plot points that, if fleshed out, would have turned Syndicate’s semi-interesting popcorn flick of a story into something worth caring about. The war between corporations, the agents who fight these wars, and the resistance movement comprised of the “unchipped” trying to tear down the corporations that left them behind are all subjects the story briefly addresses. It just never really goes further than that, making everything feel just a tad bit shallow. The celebrity voice actors like Brian Cox and Rosario Dawson perform an admirable job selling their characters, but again, none of them were fleshed out enough for me to truly care about them.
The six to eight hour campaign is also accompanied by an extensive co-op mode where you and up to three other players have a choice of nine missions to complete. Each mission has a slightly different set of objectives, though none of them really deviate from “go here, kill this guy/get this thing”, which is fine, as they all require some level of cooperation with your teammates. You’ll gain a certain amount of experience depending on how well you do after completing each mission, which you can then use to upgrade your chip, weapons and abilities. The chip upgrades are pretty much the same as the ones found in the single player, letting you breach faster, take more damage, and run as long as you want, among other things. The weapon and application research is all tied into your experience points. Prior to each mission, you can spend weapon and application points (which you earn from “chip-ripping” special enemies during missions) to unlock the ability to upgrade them. You then set which upgrades you want researched, where they’ll unlock upon earning enough experience points. I was partial to the “shield” ability which, as the name suggests, shields you and your team mates from a little damage. Other applications like virus and focus breach slowly drain an enemy’s health and temporarily boosts your breach speed respectively, though I mainly stuck with applications that kept my team alive the longest.
Every player’s a little unique thanks to the different weapons and applications, though I never felt like I was traditional class. Everyone can heal (or “reboot”) each other by breaching downed squadmates, which is encouraged on normal difficulty, and all but essential on expert. Strangely enough, I never felt the need to use a mic, as most of my squadmates seemed to know what they were doing. Your results may vary.
Overall, I’m pleasantly surprised by how Syndicate turned out. Having never played the original ‘93 version, I didn’t really know what to expect other than crazy suicides mixed in with a little dubstep (which there actually isn’t a whole lot of). What I found was a solid first-person shooter coupled with a surprisingly deep co-op mode and a few fresh ideas that reward those who are willing to invest.