The cyberpunk revival started by last year's Deus Ex: Human Revolution continues with Syndicate, a reimagining of the 1993 cult classic as a first-person shooter. Corporate warfare has transformed, as global corporations vie for control over the world's population by selling them brain chips that transform them into the uber-consumer many marketers surely dream of, perpetually plugged into their controlled information networks. Those without chips barely even qualify as humans anymore, as they're left behind by a society that literally does not register their existence.
Fertile grounds for a dystopian narrative, then, but unlike Human Revolution, Syndicate doesn't have the confidence to tackle these issues, instead sending the player forth as Miles Kilo, a mere puppet of one of the syndicates, Eurocorp. Having developed a new chip, your masters want to make sure Eurocorp stays ahead of their corporate rivals, so you are tasked with taking out the competition, mostly by shooting them or hacking their chips to make them commit suicide.
While the setting provides a great backdrop for the action, it's used as little more than window dressing for a solid first-person shooter campaign. Much like Starbreeze's last game, The Darkness, Syndicate is commited to its perspective, never breaking away from it except, inexplicably, to introduce the occasional level bosses, which are anachronistic pattern-based fights that don't quite feel at home here. Unlike The Darkness, Syndicate never manages to make you care for any of its characters, as it only makes a half-hearted attempt at creating empathy towards your mute protagonist that comes far too late in the game. The protagonist is important - he is the lens through which a game's world is viewed, but as a total blank slate, there is no context except that handed to you by your obviously morally bankrupt superiors. It could be a conscious commentary on the absence of morality in a future dominated by greedy corporations, but that would be undercut by the obvious plot twist that is supposed to make you hate them. Miles being a blank slate would work if the player could exert any influence over the narrative, defining him in our minds, but the story is entirely scripted, so we're left to guess about the motivations of the protagonist. This creates a big emotional detachment from all of the events on-screen. If that were the point, why would Starbreeze try to stir up some empathy for the protagonist late in the game?
The narrative, then, is as confused as it can be, which comes as a surprise from the makers of the sure-footed The Darkness. Fortunately, the action does hit home. As Miles Kilo, you've been outfitted with a prototypical new chip that gives you some tricks the competition does not have. Going into DART mode slows down time and highlights enemies, whilst also reducing damage taken and increasing damage done (don't ask how, maybe the bullets go faster?). Turrets and environmental objects can be hacked simply by looking at them, removing enemies from covered positions. Stronger foes come with shields that need to be hacked before they are susceptible to conventional damage. Most amusingly, you have the power to turn an adversary into an ally for a time, until they either die or commit suicide when there are no more targets for them to shoot.
This bag of tricks complements a fairly prototypical weapon selection consisting of the usual assortment of rifles, shotguns and pistols, with one rifle standing out for being able to curve bullets around cover, a concept lifted straight out of Insomniac's Resistance games. They're almost all fun to shoot, however, and pack a great visual and aural punch. The sound design is reminiscent of DICE's excellent work on the Battlefield games. Both the sound and the visuals conspire to make the guns feel like tools of pure death and destruction, as bullets literally tear the limbs off those unfortunate enough to be in their path. Syndicate portrays detailed graphic violence in a clinical, detached fashion, which fits with the visual themes of the game, all bright lights and glass monoliths above dirty 'downzone' slums where the unchipped eke out a living. It's a great look, if a bit heavy on the light bloom.
Kilo's abilities can be upgraded throughout the game by spending the chips you acquire by viciously murdering specific characters and literally ripping their chips out of their skull, but there aren't enough of these to make for a fully fleshed-out progression system. There are about 20 skills to upgrade, but you only acquire around seven chips to spend. Meanwhile, you earn points for kills and other actions, which only serve as a scoring system. A means of gaining experience, providing the player with transparency on their upgrade path, would have made for a more satisfying upgrade system. As is, it feels underdeveloped and murky, never knowing when you will get to upgrade again.
This is all the more confusing because the four-player co-operative component does feature a fully fleshed-out character advancement system. In this mode, you do earn experience points for basic actions and specific milestones, which count towards your overall level, with each level giving you a point to spend in the skill tree. You also have access to many more chip powers in this mode than the Suicide and Persuade options of the campaign, each of which can be upgraded further. You can act as a support player, providing the team with damage-absorbing shields or bonus weapon damage, a healer, a direct damage-dealer or anything in between. Weapons must also be individually upgraded by researching specific components. In short, there's always something to look forward to. No matter your play style, you can be an asset to your team and earn points for doing what you enjoy.
In many ways, co-operative play is the meat of the game. With its robust character advancement system, a suite of nine stages with varied goals and three difficulty settings, the highest of which requires excellent teamwork, it gives you plenty of reasons to come back to Syndicate after finishing the fun but fleeting campaign, which feels like it ends just as the story picks up. At its best, it's reminiscent of the intensity of Left 4 Dead combined with the team tactics of a World of Warcraft dungeon boss. Unfortunately the levels are fairly statically scripted, unlike Left 4 Dead's diabolically directed chaos, which means subsequent playthroughs become somewhat rote. Still, the persistent character building and satisfaction of beating a tough challenge with friends or strangers gives players plenty of reasons to keep coming back.
Unfortunately, as of this writing, Syndicate seems to be plagued by infrequent but frustrating crashes, necessitating a reboot of the Xbox 360. I managed to play through the entire campaign without this happening, but it has happened numerous times in the multiplayer. Hopefully, it will get patched out, but buyer beware.
Syndicate doesn't quite have the staying power of the games it emulates in spirit, but it provides an interesting new paradigm in co-operative FPS gameplay that I hope to see return in some form. It's too bad the campaign doesn't give you anything to fight for, but it's an enjoyable diversion nonetheless.