The original Syndicate is a beautiful, brutal strategy game that gave you a team of futuristic super agents, the drugs you'd need to keep them under control, and a cyberpunk setting that was just enough to let your imagination run wild. In 1993, back when we weren't busy trying to cram network connectivity into every single device we interact with, from cars to refrigerators, that was enough. The gameplay was stellar and the Gibson-style setting fit with our increasingly "cyber" times. Some of those basic ideas translate well into Starbreeze's new Syndicate, which takes on the same "megacorporations as the new government" as the original Syndicate and so many other pieces of cyberspace fiction have in the past. The world view and ideas put forth in this Syndicate reboot are decidedly well-worn territory, but it's still a world worth exploring, mostly thanks to Starbreeze's continued gift for crafting first-person action games that don't feel like just another Shooter of the Day experience.
It's 2069 and you're an "agent" for Eurocorp, one of the aforementioned megacorporations. Your name is Miles Kilo, which is either the greatest or worst name for a video game character of all time. But his name hardly matters because you'll spend much of the game as a largely faceless guy that has a prototype version of a chip in your head that lets you access the "datascape," which is Syndicate's fancy term for "the future Internet." This chip is what gives you your abilities, like a tactical overlay that lets you track any enemy you've spotted even when they're behind a wall by using an alternate vision mode. And testing out the capabilities of this new version of the chip is how the story gets started. From there, you delve into acts of industrial espionage, which in the future means preventing Eurocorp employees from defecting to other corporations and protecting company secrets by any means necessary while the unchipped proletariat sit in their slums, attempting to find a way to make all the corporations come crashing down.
With the overlay from your DART chip enabled, you'll also slow down time and take less damage, making it absolutely necessary if you want to stay alive. You'll also have three abilities to use. Backfire overrides the chips found in most weapons and causes them to, well, backfire. This knocks down up to three enemies at once, opening them up for extra damage while they scramble to recover. The suicide ability causes your target to pull out a grenade (in the future, all enemies have grenades!) and detonate it, which is potentially useful for taking out large groups of tightly-clustered enemies, but I didn't run into too many of those outside of the training simulation where you're first learning how to use the ability. The final power is persuade, which is a clear nod to the Persuadertron found in the original game. Persuading a target in Syndicate flips his alignment for a period of time, causing him to target his allies and open fire. If he runs out of targets or time, he turns the gun on himself and blasts his own face off, which is a terrific and brutal touch. All three abilities recharge as you take down enemies with your firearms, which are your primary tools for interacting with the world of Syndicate.
There are a lot of people to shoot in the Syndicate campaign, and more than enough guns to do it with. Most are fairly traditional takes on sub-machine guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and shotguns, but you'll run into a few other interesting tools, as well. The gauss gun--which was actually a rocket launcher in the original game--is an automatic rifle with a lock-on targeting system that lets you bend bullets around cover. You'll see that sort of lock-on a little later on in the game when you encounter a rocket launcher that can fire at multiple locked-on targets, too. But the game isn't really about flashy weaponry. It's more about making every weapon at your disposal feel great. Even the default pistol is fun to fire in Syndicate, largely because when you start to run, your agent holds the pistol out at a slight angle and, unlike the other weapons in the game, you can fire that pistol while you're still running, giving it that Hong Kong action cinema style that, even after all these years, still makes you feel like you're a bad dude.
The way the game handles its weapons is more than just a running animation, though. It has a fairly dynamic cover system that automatically reacts when you're ducked behind an object. Pushing up against cover causes you to raise the gun up and over cover for a believable-looking blind fire animation, and you can easily pop up for shots by hitting the aiming trigger. When you approach doors, walls, and other surfaces, the agent automatically moves the gun appropriately--lowering it when you're pressed up against a door, angling it around corners, and so on. Again, this isn't something that directly translates into gameplay, but all that weapon handling gives the game a great look and helps establish a more realistic tone... right up until you saw a cowering scientist in half with shots from an assault rifle, of course.
Between the gunplay and the abilities, you're given a good number of options when it comes to dealing with a combat situation. Sometimes you'll encounter UAVs or armored enemies that must be "breached" with your hacking ability in order to make them vulnerable to weapon fire. So part of the game deals with closing the gap on those enemies to get within hacking range while finding a way to not get ripped into pieces by a heavy enemy's minigun or flamethrower. Dealing with high numbers of enemies, some of whom require special tactics, keeps you on your toes and forces you to use every ability at your disposal. The agents in Syndicate certainly aren't invincible--you'll go down quickly under sustained fire--but when you're comfortable with the mechanics and using everything properly, it all clicks in an extremely satisfying way. That feeling carries over to the multiplayer, which replaces your default campaign abilities with some more configurable options.
The multiplayer is a series of cooperative missions for up to four players. You can opt to play with fewer, but even a properly upgraded agent will have an extremely hard time taking on four enemy agents at once, and the difficulty doesn't appear to scale to fit the number of players. Prior to going into one of the game's nine scenarios, you can set up your loadout of weapons and choose two abilities to bring with you. As I seemed to be matched up with a lot of gung-ho lunatics that clearly didn't understand how to stay alive, I found the shielding ability, which gives your team a bit of armor when you pop it, to be pretty useful. Any teammate can heal and revive other players if they go down by breaching them the same way you'd breach a grenade to prevent it from going off or breach an enemy to drop his armor. But I also found the squad heal ability to be useful, since you need to have line-of-sight on a teammate in order to use the standard heal. Other abilities speed up your breaching, infect enemies with a health-lowering virus, and so on. If you're playing with a crew of people who know what they're doing, this means you can easily specialize in certain tasks and designate a healer, a breacher, and so on. But on the game's normal and hard difficulties, that doesn't seem to be required. More tactics and deadly accuracy seem like they'll be the things that allow players to complete the missions on the hardest difficulty setting, though.
As you play online, you'll gain levels and earn upgrade points for your agent, your weapons, and your applications. The agent upgrades are similar to the single-player upgrades and they let you spend more time using your vision overlay, carry more ammo, regenerate health more quickly, and so on. Weapons and applications must be researched, so you'll spend tokens to, for example, allow the virus ability to spread from one enemy to another, and then you'll have to earn a set number of experience points with research on that item active before the upgrade is enabled. Red dot sights, secondary weapon abilities, improved damage, rate of fire, and so on all work the same way, but use weapon upgrade tokens, which come when you "chip rip" a heavy enemy after downing him during a mission. In a weekend of intense co-op play, I was able to unlock the vast majority of agent upgrades and most of the weapon and app upgrades that fit my play style.
The cooperative mode attempts to follow a loose story about your up-and-coming corporation fending off challenges from other, more-established units, but it's really only told during the mission briefings. The single-player campaign doesn't really go too deep, either, but voice work from Rosario Dawson and Brian Cox, who's clearly doing what he does best by playing yet another slimy government/corporate dirtbag, keeps things moving just the same. Michael Wincott does a nice job with the role of your early-game partner, Jules Merit, who provides the requisite amount of gravelly voice that is now required by law in any game dealing with a dystopian cyberfuture. If you're interested in the backstory behind the world, you'll find plenty of additional items in the world that fill in a codex-like list of entries about various characters, locations, and syndicates. I found myself somewhat interested in reading things as I found them, but you won't miss anything vital if you skip it. All told, the campaign lasts around six hours and doesn't linger long enough to overstay its welcome, though a few of the boss fights provide difficulty spikes that some may find annoying. The cooperative campaign will probably take longer to complete, depending, of course, on the quality of your teammates.
Syndicate looks and sounds great, for the most part. You'll find a crummy texture here and there on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but it makes up for that with some terrific lighting and a good sense of style. The nice "upzone" areas where the sheep live have the pristine, futuristic look that you'd expect from a world run by corporations that want to keep the populace in line. Alternately, your trips downzone, where the unchipped live and are regularly identified by your HUD as simply "hobo," look every bit like the forgotten slums they're built up to be. Also, despite what the pre-release promotion may have led you to believe, this game is not accompanied by an all-dubstep soundtrack. That Skrillex remix of the original game's theme song makes it in during a boss fight, but the rest is standard, moody video game music that fits the tone of the action just fine. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is, obviously, up to you.
I had an outstanding time with Syndicate and really took to the game's cooperative mode in a way that I really didn't expect. The teamwork required there is just enough to get you angry when someone's letting the side down, but not so much that you'll have to organize and coordinate every little move. Rushing into a room full of enemy corporate scum and mowing them all down as they scramble for cover makes you feel invincible due to your own skill at playing the game, rather than some sort of overpowering ability or story reason that puts you above all. The smart players will rise to the challenge and feel like they've been appropriately rewarded for their prowess. The campaign gives you a great look at an interesting world, though its abrupt, too-clean ending feels out of place. It's a somewhat disappointing reward for an otherwise exciting adventure that puts a terrific and fun spin on first-person shooting.