Syndicate: The Kotaku Review

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 The government as we know it is obsolete.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.

WHY: Syndicate challenges your brain's flexibility in chaotic situations, while testing your ability to adapt to new threats.

SYNDICATE

Developer: Starbreeze Studios Platforms: Xbox 360 (Version played) / PlayStation 3 / PC Released: February 21 (US), February 24 (EU)
Type of game: First-person shooter with light RPG levelling aspects.
What I played: Cleared the main campaign on Normal difficulty in 15 hours, and completed all co-op missions on Normal difficulty in 5 hours.

My Two Favourite Things

  • More than just a first-person shooter, Syndicate requires you to juggle your abilities for appropriate tactical play against challenging enemies.
  • It's fun to contemplate the potential outcomes of themes like corporate takeover and transhumanism.

My Two Least-Favourite Things

  • You play as an agent who is horribly disadvantaged at every turn. Enemies best you time and again with their weaponry. Feels like bringing a revolver to a rocket launcher fight (and that actually happens).
  • Oddly paced storyline takes more than half the campaign to start getting you more involved, and to start to get more interesting.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • "Syndicate challenges you in ways most first-person shooters can't." -Tina Amini, Kotaku
  • "I'm inspired to enroll in experimental medical programs so I can start controlling doors with my mind." -Tina Amini, Kotaku
  • "So much patent leather you can practically hear the squeaking." -Tina Amini, Kotaku

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.


Comments

    This is kotaku australia right?
    I thought this game was refused classification?

      I'm just as confused. Yesterday I was in Blockbuster and they were advertising Syndicate. Odd.

        So was Video Ezy (of which I work) and I brought it to their attention.

      Have a look at the article on the front page. If there is an Australian flag then the article is from Australia. They also cross promote the US Kotaku news.

      I'm actually happy to get the review. Good to see that the reboot isn't bad either which makes me happy that one of my favourite series from my childhood wasn't ruined. Thanks for sharing Kotaku US.

      you can buy the serial from g3play.net or a similar site, activate it via origin or steam and you can play the game here.
      Origin and steam dont block it, just stupid politicians who think only children are gamers...

        Origin and Steam are blocking sale directly to Australians, but they won't block it if you register it... And even then, product keys for Syndicate WILL NOT activate on Steam, only on Origin.

      I just bought a copy on eBay no probs :)

    Same, I was wondering the same thing

      We need to know
      a) is it any good, following the whole "OMG it's not the same style as the original Syndicate"; and
      b) whether we ought to be obtaining the game from overseas (but shush about this one).

    To all the people wondering - this is a post by Kotaku US, that has just been reposted to AU, as it may be of interest to a lot of people. :)

      Especially since we have ozgameshop. And I'm definitely buying this - but later in the year. If I order it now it'll arrive when ME3 comes out, and I ain't doing nothing but ME3 until I've completed it 2+ times. After that, I'll have Silent Hill HD collection/Downpour. So maybe April.

      I'd feel bad about not supporting the studio by buying closer to launch, but good ol' EA has already laid them off.

    Definitely grabbing this on import when I can afford it.

    Loves me some scifi.

    Now give me a new Blade Runner game! The point and click was awesome x1000

      That Blade Runner game was fantastic

        Very much agreed. I keep an older laptop around for that and a few other games I have on Discs that don't play so nice with modern systems.
        I really want a new Blade Runner game, but then I wouldn't want it to be forced into a FPS or TPS formula either...

    This is easily the most positive review I've read regarding the game. I'd suggest reading Jim Sterlings review if your only interested in the coop.

      Hah, I was just about to comment regarding Mr Sterlings review and how much more detail was in this one.

    IMO we should not buy this game out of protest to show developers not to mess with what was once a great IP and genre. The dumbing down of games for mass market appeal makes me sad.

    Could have been such an amazing reboot.

      No, I think I'll go ahead and buy what appears to be a perfectly enjoyable game regardless of the IP it's based on. But you're right, making expensive AAA titles for small niche markets is really profitable, and more developers should do this. I can't imagine why they don't.

      No. I will purchase. Hopefully it sells enough so that American revolt dlc is produced. Yay to a seemingly good update of a classic.

      The problem is this is actually shaping up to be a good/interesting game. What do you do when the games only crime is that someone forced them to put another IPs name on the box?

        What do you do? You buy it! I did for PC...of cdkeyshere and unlocked it on origin...played through the first little bit and thought it was fantastic...loving it. Highly recommend it.

    w00t. I just happen to be going to New Zealand this weekend. wink wink

    I'm really happy wih this review. I pre-ordered my copy of Syndicate from overseas after getting and playing the co-op demo. Way better than any of the COD multiplayer in my opinion because you really have to think, co-ordinate and work as a team or basically you are viciously and brutally screwed. The AI opponents are smart and unrelenting, and too powerful to take on alone gung ho style. I read an article online that suggested you play it like an MMO (with a designated tank, healer and so on) which is the key to success. Chip ripping was a big thing but I was lucky enough to play with a democratic and fair group of random people so everyone got their turn.

    Looks forward to checking this out once my Origin key comes in from g2play. The PC really does make a laughing stock of the RC issue.

    It has my interest because the writer is Richard K Morgan. The most badass sf writer in the 'verse.

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