Fantastic Co-op manages to save Syndicate from mediocrity
In this age of multi-million dollar shooters and inflated development budgets, it’s impossible to imagine a reboot of a 90’s classic strategy game not undergoing some serious changes to appeal to the average player. Rather than try to update an old formula, Starbreeze Studios (they of The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness fame) have taken the name and a few thematic elements of 1993’s Syndicate and bolted them on to an admittedly competent and satisfying first-person shooter that manages to justify its existence despite a stilted and monotonous single-player experience by delivering some extremely solid co-operative action.
The original Syndicate traded in cyberpunk themes of corporate espionage and extrapolated technology that had never really been explored before. Similarly, “New” Syndicate puts you in the role of a corporate agent in both single-player and co-op for an immensely powerful multinational corporation. In Syndicate’s world, people have chips inserted in their brains that are connected to a particular corporation. As this is a cyberpunk-themed game, you can probably guess that all manner of dubious goings-on surround the use of these chips by competing corporations. Enter Miles Kilo, i.e. you, a death-dealing agent with a particularly powerful DART chip that gives him an edge over his counterparts working for the competition.
This chip grants you the power to hack enemy agents and soldiers using “apps”, letting you turn your enemies into temporary allies (before they blow their own heads off), cause them to violently commit suicide and/or make their guns explode. This may be window-dressing for something akin to a plasmid but it’s a novel enough conceit to put a different spin on the first-person shooter.
While this setup sounds intriguing, Syndicate never really delivers on making both the story and the world in which its set seem that interesting. The single-player campaign barely capitalizes on its premise over the 6 hours it’ll take you to complete it, feeling more like the lengthy build-up to a more interesting game than a complete experience. The narrative is a non-event for the most part, rather than throwing in twists and turns that might have prevented the tale from getting predictable, Kilo’s story plays out in fits and starts with huge dumps of information occurring at odd intervals throughout the campaign, the contents of which you can guess hours before they happen. Though Brian Cox and Michael Wincott do sterling work as your pragmatic employer and gruff partner respectively, they don’t have much to work with. The whole tale comes off as underwhelming despite their best efforts to imbue it with some character.
While plenty of games manage to provide an engaging campaign despite having a dull narrative tying it together, Syndicate isn’t one of them. Levels are linear progression of so-so action sequences with little in the way of enemy variety or opportunities to manipulate the world with your abilities. There are even a handful of tedious and repetitive boss battles you’ll have to undergo that are split up by the game’s stop-start pacing. 6-hour campaigns may be the status quo for today’s shooters, but at least their short runtime is devoid of much filler. Unfortunately Syndicate doesn’t stop feeling anything more than rote until you’re two-thirds of the way in and by then you’ll have realized that the cyberpunk world is little more than garnish.
At least the garnish is pretty. Syndicate sports a clean look with a striking use of lighting and bloom that verges on the blinding. It’s a divisive choice, and players will either love the pristine, eye-searing glow of some of the environments or reach for their sunglasses. The futuristic setting, though a bit bland in the artistic department, is quite detailed with clean textures that give a generally polished look to everything. It’s the facial animations that truly impress far beyond the bright lights and angular environs, Wincott’s Jules Merit is especially expressive, carrying the unmistakable mark of Starbreeze’s characteristic attention to detail that’s absent from the rest of the campaign.
The reason you’ll want to stick around and then try your hand at the co-op is because Syndicate is a thrill to play on a raw mechanical level. Your chip-based apps are fun to pull off, making each fight play out differently as you maximise your offensive capabilities by choosing which targets to convert to your side or have them commit suicide explosively. The shooting, movement and aiming also feel tight and responsive in a way that previous Starbreeze titles have lacked. The arsenal complements the solid mechanics perfectly; each and every gun gives the impression of being powerful and they're all perfectly suited for dealing with the sharp enemy AI that does its best to keep you guessing. At its best, Syndicate makes you feel like you’re control of the firefight, softening up the intelligent opposition with your powers before popping your DART overlay to slow down time and finish them off with the satisfying weaponry at your disposal.
This strong moment-to-moment action may save the campaign from being a complete chore but it shines when you team up with some fellow agents and venture online. The 9 co-op missions available for up to 4 players run the gamut from escort missions to fetch-and-carry objectives and are much more methodical and tactical that the single-player game. Your app set is limited to active and passive abilities that encourage teamwork and support. Players need to heal each other in order to stay alive, and the “Persuade” and “Suicide” apps from the singleplayer are replaced with apps that buff the team as much as they benefit the user.
Because the missions default to being downright unforgiving and the lack of regenerating health makes going at it alone impossible, the game forces a level of interdependency between players that’s wholly unique. Not only is it profitable from a character-progression perspective to engage in teamwork, it’s also mandatory for success. It makes for a great experience whether you’re playing with strangers or friends, something that’s rarely the case in other co-operative shooters. As you work your way up the difficulties you’ll discover entirely new layers of depth as team members will be forced to take on specific roles such as breaching, healing and buffing others with abilities in order to progress. Said abilities are enhanced by a research system, allowing you to choose which upgrade you want to dump all the experience of a round into which encourages the player to find their niche and specialise in what they enjoy most. When married with the faultless shooting mechanics, the emphasis on teamwork and smart character progression provides an experience that you’ll want to return to long after you’ve seen each of the missions through to completion. It’s clear that the bulk of the effort went into Syndicate’s co-operative offerings and it shows. As a team-based co-operative shooter, it comes close to the juggernaut that is Left 4 Dead for the sheer thrill of 4 players taking on seemingly insurmountable odds.
It can’t be stressed enough how superb the co-operative side of Syndicate can be, and how in contrast this fact is with the bland singleplayer game that it sadly has to share a name with. If you’re looking for deep cyberpunk themes and fiction then you’d be better served picking up a copy of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but if you’re hankering after a fantastic co-operative experience with some of the tightest gameplay in the genre then Syndicate delivers where it counts.