The year is 2069. The government as we know it is obsolete. In its place are various syndicates, all racing to develop the most advanced bio-digital implants that allow their host to connect to the dataverse, and even control it. Syndicate is a telling of that story, originally written by Bullfrog Productions in 1993, and rebooted into the first-person shooter by Starbreeze Studios that hits stores today. You play as an agent of Eurocorp, Miles Kilo, tasked with infiltrating and investigating competing syndicates.
That corporation-controlling-society story has been done before, and not always to great results. Didn't we just recently play Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Wasn't Mindjack kind of a disaster? I still like the concept of the business world becoming less of a metaphorical warfare based on increasing stock value, and more of a literal one with double agents and terrorists making plays for power. It's an interesting area of storytelling to explore, especially considering how powerful corporations already are today. So I tore off the shrink wrap on my 360 copy of Syndicate with hopeful anticipation.
What I found inside involved every angle of conspiracy a corporate-entangled society would be subject to. There are corporate overlord baddies with penchants for greedy business moves, and a disputable "hero" on the inside trying to make a difference with attempts to expose the moral indecencies of the syndicate in question. Whether Dr. Lilian Drawl plays the role of a genuine hero in Syndicate can be up for debate, especially when Kilo starts to identify a very particular pattern in her behaviour (I'll leave it at that to save from spoilers).
This isn't the tactical shooter that you may remember from Syndicate's past. In an attempt to modernize what became such a cult favourite in the gaming community of the '90s, Starbreeze has opted for a first-person shooter take on the story, with the added flavour of digital-dependent abilities.
In addition to the standard stock of weapons and grenades (if you're in one of the few levels that houses the grenades) at your disposal in Syndicate, your newly-installed bio-chip also opens other areas of tactical fighting. These abilities — Suicide, Backfire and Persuasion — come in handy when you're faced with aggressive rival agents, who often actively pursue you and flank you from all angles. As an alleged "elite" agent, I was surprised to find that enemies more than just outnumber you; they're coordinated, they have impeccable aim, and they are equipped with some of the most powerful weapons - amongst them lasers and flame throwers - even before you're introduced to them.
The good doctor is introduced in the game as a respected lead in her field, and she's also the doctor who oversees your experiments. These experiments typically involve implanting an unbalanced and untested chip into your brain. While your role in the storyline is mainly to obey orders given to you by the CEO of Eurocorp, Denham, Lilian is in a position to change the way bio-chips and the Dart technology that powers them are made and used. Most of your time spent in the game is to investigate what competing syndicates are funding their scientists to create in their labs, and to keep tabs on what exactly Lilian's intentions and loyalties are.
The only advantage that you have fighting the security agents you're often up against is the ability to manipulate both the environment and the chips implanted in their brains. You can breach certain constructions to create points of cover, or alternatively breach existing cover to have them retract into the floor, thereby exposing enemies to your rapid gunfire and the now-uninhibited echoes of your cackling laughter. Your breaching ability can also activate EMP blasts, or move platforms to create new pathways. The Dart 6 chip can affect enemies outside of breaches that impact the environment. The Persuasion ability, for instance, forces your enemies to fight on your side. Or you might prefer to watch as your opponents kill themselves after being subjected to your Suicide commands. A simple Backfire attack will turn the agents' weapons against them, basically blowing up in their face for some gleeful damage.
Even with the latest Dart 6 technology, Syndicate was a lot more difficult than I anticipated. You'll find yourself forced to scamper around the level, hunting for proper cover (which is all too often scant), while your enemies wield massive rocket launchers and riot shields. Even if you do find a good place to hide while taking out enemies one by one, the agents are typically very mobile and fast. You'll start learning to depend on activating your DART Overlay ability that works like something similar to bullet-time. Once you start upgrading your chip, you'll begin to see added benefits rather than just the standard slowed-down time and highlighted enemies; you can look forward to health regeneration and increased damage that makes a huge impact on your standing against the other syndicates' defences.
These upgrades are paramount to enjoying the game. They ensure that boss battles aren't infuriatingly difficult. But even so, you're still prevented from using many of your Dart abilities on bosses, including one boss fight in particular where you aren't even given a weapon. I do have to hand it to developer Starbreeze for making boss battles that are wholly different from one another. After successfully combating a boss that can split into multiple duplicates, you'll be pushed to rethink your once-proven strategy for the next boss that renders himself invisible. You'll have to find new ways to complete the same task.
Reaching the latter half of the game at around 10 hours in means you've probably upgraded to a formidable chip against bosses with lock-on targeting rifles and other equally exasperating situations. It also means that the storyline finally starts to pick up and gain some semblance of an actual plot. You'll finally see how citizens are impacted by the corporate takeover — mainly consisting of homeless drones blindly soaking in televised propaganda — rather than just tediously shooting down suited-up, faceless enemies in pristine buildings with white walls.
At this point in the game, players will also start experiencing a light puzzle aspect in breaching elevators and doors, something akin to a far less beefed-out version of the concept of Deus Ex: Human Revolution's hacking mechanic that requires you to complete a mini-game to effectively hack through a door's lock. You'll have to breach certain security systems and locks in the right order to be able to gain entry to the next level. It's an interesting concept that could have diversified the gameplay had there been more puzzles, and more challenging ones at that. The ones I was "challenged" with were more like walks through a park while eating cake. Unfortunately this means that puzzles end up being just a minor, yet refreshing bonus in the few levels where they are available.
Syndicate constantly makes me feel like an inadequate agent compared to the beefed up, heavily armoured and armed enemies. Fights against bosses almost always favour my opponents beyond a line that I'm comfortable accepting. I wanted to feel challenged, not infantilised. But when I finally had the elusive scientist, terrorist or other opponent on their knees and extracted the chip from their respective brains with what could only have been technology straight out of the Matrix, it was incredibly gratifying to finally have bested them, seemingly against all odds.
Co-operative missions open the door to several new Dart abilities. These range from defensive strategies, like Squad Heal, to more offensive options, like Damage Link that boosts the damage output from every team member. The game feels much more suited to a co-operative experience based on the fact that power by numbers proves to be a huge asset, and that far more tactical strategies are open to you with the addition of more than several Dart abilities. Each map is just as lacking in terms of cover as single player is, but you have up to three teammates to cover your back and, regardless, the fast pace required of you rarely allows for taking advantage of them.
Every team member can heal one another, and even reboot you when your systems have crashed (also known as death). This will happen often. Enemies flank you from every direction and height, and they're just as troublesome as they are in the single player campaign. Most missions task you with retrieving items of importance — usually stashed in a briefcase — or guarding a robot while it cuts down metal to make new routes for you. These babysitting missions add an extra layer of challenge to an already hefty one, but they're welcomed additions when taking them on with a quality team. Each map set culminates in a seemingly impossible battle against health-regenerating agents with unlimited ammo and apparently no need to stop to reload. Teamwork is not only encouraged, it's essential. You'll need someone to watch your back with suppressing fire, and another for healing while you make a mad dash to the ammo case after you realise that unloading on your enemy isn't, in fact, fruitful at all.
Each mission completion rewards you with options to level your guns and chip, and modify your loadouts, a la Call of Duty and Battlefield. It's clear that Starbreeze Studios intended on creating a robust enough multiplayer for players to continuously revisit the title. I daresay it's likely I'll be doing just that. Co-op is exciting, tough, and incredibly gratifying once you finally figure out the strategy that each cluster of enemies requires before even being vulnerable to your attacks.
The one recurring problem that I foresee that is unique to the multiplayer mode was forcing a team to decide who gets to extract the brain chip upgrade when a the appropriate enemy gets taken down. It felt reminiscent to Borderlands when having to democratically split the prized loot. But playing with random gamers online, how often is that possible?
Various flaws and oversights aside — like an unreliable save system that puts you at the mercy of the game developers, or a consistent and tiresome use of button mashing to open doors throughout the campaign — Syndicate is an unexpected challenge.
You've already played hundreds of first-person shooters, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution may have satiated your desire for corporate conspiracies and transhumanism, but Syndicate pushes you to react quickly in the face of dangerous, well-organised enemies. Think of the game as a chance to test your multitasking skills while you breach the shields off turrets and command agents to commit suicide.