A proper reboot into a new generation
If you told me they were remaking Dungeon Keeper as a third person hack and slash with a linear story and a remixed intro by Nicki Minaj I might slap you - but it’s this sort of gut reaction that so often tends to steer us away from good old fashioned fun. Syndicate is a game developed by Starbreeze known for their fine work on the Riddick franchise and their knack for presenting an immersive first person experience. Modeled, loosely, after the early 90’s isometric game bearing the same name - what we have here is an extremely fast paced and hectic first person shooter with a couple of really interesting systems at play. While XCOM showed us how you can remake a classic the right way while keeping as close to the original formula as possible, Syndicate is a shining example of how to take core elements and create a brand new experience while respecting the base material.
The year is 2069 and war is brewing among the corporations. In a future not too difficult to imagine, the world is run by gigantic corporate entities that serve in lieu of nations and government. Abduction and hostile (and armed) takeovers are the order of the day and company secrets are guarded literally to the death. Digital networking has reached an all time high and everyone has corporate chips in their heads that let them interact with their environment. As the player you take on the role of Miles Kilo, an agent for the Eurocorp corporation who has been outfitted with the most cutting edge DART 6 chip. Agents are the wetworks specialists that are sent in to take care of delicate assignments such as “recruitment” of soft assets (kidnapping) or simply raiding another corporation for their secrets. The story in Syndicate is a fairly basic one and while you remain a mute protagonist throughout it all, no one else really evolves past their cast stereotypes either - and somehow this is all ok because at the end of the day the gameplay manages to carry that weight.
In Syndicate you will be doing a lot of shooting. The action moves at an incredibly fast pace and soon the player has to learn to do something you’re not often faced with in modern first person shooters, which is multi-tasking. Thanks to that DART chip in your brain, you will be able to interact with a variety of objects and people in your environment through “breaching” a fancy future term for hacking. As the story evolves, Kilo will gain access to three primary breaching abilities - persuade, backfire and suicide. Persuade lets you turn your enemies to your favor, backfires causes enemy weapons to misfire and knock their owners to the ground, while suicide will force them to kill themselves by pulling the pin on their own grenades. While engaged in real time combat a prompt appears over the enemies heads and by holding down a shoulder button you will begin breaching that individual via quick progress bar, complete with a Gears of War-ish ‘perfect reload’ sweet spot that if hit will dole out extra energy. Once your breach is in progress you can run around a corner, shoot, reload or high tail it out of there as far as you wish and it will not interrupt the breaching procedure. This free-form mode of combat allows the player to go around the room killing off guards while causing another guard to blow himself up down the hall you just passed. When you are later faced with tougher heavy enemy variants who have protective shields you need to breach several times before they go down, combat turns into a flurry of evasions, micromanagement of abilities and smart use of cover. All your skills have varying cooldowns and are powered by adrenaline which you rack up by getting kills. In addition to all this breaching business you also posses DART vision which highlights your enemies through walls, slows down time and increases your weapon damage while simultaneously decreasing damage taken. Despite what you might think, even on the normal difficulty with all these abilities at your disposal the game is no cakewalk and you will often have to find the perfect approach to eliminating a room with a heavy opponent present. You can think of it as a much more involved form of the “combat puzzle” from the Halo series. Thankfully the checkpointing is quite generous although certain boss encounters can drag on for quite a while.
Syndicate is flooded with visual effects, from heavy light bloom to film grain but it all fits in with the dystopian future aesthetic. Much of the game takes place in hyper futuristic spires of glass and steel with the perfect mix of future, and real-life grounding to make you believe this is the direction in which we're heading. Every item on the ground has a digital tag floating in the air and everything seems connected, portraying an eerie taste of what Facebook might look like in 50 years. With the rise of wireless devices in our everyday lives, Syndicate paints a future that might be much closer to us than the year 2069. Throughout your journey the DART6 chip is constantly “talking” to Kilo in a soft female digitized voice, and alerting him to mission objectives or threats which in a way makes you feel that you’re never really alone. The signature Starbreeze first person elements are also present. Unlike other first person shooters you are not a camera floating in space, but rather have a physical body you can see and definitely feel as you move about. Every time you vault over a wall, grab a ladder or slide on the floor, you see Kilos hands and feet reflecting those actions. Especially gritty are sequences when you extract chips from hostile agents by literally ripping them out of their heads.
While the singleplayer offers a fun and straightforward thrill ride - the expanded cooperative multiplayer really steals the show. In the coop mode up to 4 agents can take on a variety of unique missions on brand new maps, all with their own specific objectives. Agents work together, level up and acquire upgrades for their weapons and chips. Unlike the single player, there are a ton more “applications” you can install ranging from shields for your entire team to the ability to reboot yourself from a downed state. Thats a whole skill tree to go through granting you faster reloads, more health and bullets or higher level applications. What feels really great about this mode though is the level of cooperation. At any time when you see a teammate taking damage you can “breach” them in order to reset their health back to 100%. Likewise if anyone is downed you can run up and “reboot” their system from afar to get them back on their feet. Agents can work together to breach a single item a lot faster or work separately to thin out the herd. You can often get as many points for hanging back and supporting your team as you would for charging head first and getting the most kills.
Syndicate is completely unique that took the core foundations of the original game and evolved them into something of their own. While the single player campaign is a bit short and lackluster in its conclusion the gameplay itself does more than hold up all the way to the end of the game. Running in a room full of enemy personnel, combining your breaching abilities with swift headshots can be quite exhilirating. Sometimes the special effects can be a bit overbearing, it’s not always super clear where you have to go next and you spend a minute running up against identical looking future doors until one opens and boss fights seem especially prolonged with what appear to be never ending life bars at times. Those are really minor nuances in the face of an excellent action game that features some really clever game mechanics. If you were pining for a comeback of the isometric strategy game from the 90’s set in modern graphics then no amount of innovation will sway you to the dark side. It’s truly a shame that most people will only ever know that Skrillex wrote a dubstep remix for the game and that it’s just another first person shooter ruining a classic franchise. That said Syndicate really does get it right, and introduces a lot of new ideas to the first person formula that has been so saturated with left trigger, right trigger shooting galleries for a while now. While I’m not sure how I feel about the future our world is heading in, if the future of shooters is anything like Syndicate then sign me up.