Hypothetically, I didn’t mind the reinvention of Syndicate as a first-person shooter. Provided that it recaptured that dystopian, corporate-controlled future Earth, then this new version of the franchise could find a place alongside its real-time tactical peers. Unfortunately that future was not to be, and in the bleak dystopia in which we now find ourselves Starbreeze’s new Syndicate is a rather generic shooter that’s spent too much time in front of the mirror working on its looks, and not enough on a worthwhile story that could’ve pulled me back into the Syndicate universe.
Twisting in the Wind
The first hour or so of Syndicate gave me hope, thanks to its brutal and unapologetic violence that fit right in with the mood of the established universe. Playing as new EuroCorp Syndicate recruit Miles Kilo, I was more than willing to embrace my character as a cold-blooded, uncaring cyborg driven by nothing else but an implanted urge to make EuroCorp the dominant force in the world — a part that’s fully embraced by Miles’ partner, Merit (voiced by show-stealer Michael Wincott).
But as Syndicate’s linear narrative progressed, I could feel the throttle of evil being pulled back inch by inch, giving way to the cliche, feel-good “twist” I saw coming a mile away, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. It’s quite a disappointment that Syndicate so casually abandons all effort to do something interesting with its story — especially when the original stuck unrepentantly to its corporate guns.
At least Starbreeze injects life into Syndicate’s single-player campaign through its weapon arsenal. Most notably the Gauss Gun, with its “smart bullets” that twist and turn through the air to shoot enemies hiding behind cover. The minigun, laser rifle, flame thrower, and rocket launcher add some liveliness, but their appearance is all too brief. The rest of the guns are all fun, but a fairly standard-issue variety of handguns, sniper rifles, and assault rifles.
Beyond the weapons, I really liked the implementation of the Breach Apps, three powers that allowed me to hack into and control enemy soldiers implanted with bio-chips. While it would’ve been nice to have more than the three standard powers, calling upon them time and time again was one of my favorite things about the campaign. Detonating a grenade in a soldier’s hands (Suicide), causing a weapon to blow up (Backfire), and forcing a soldier to fight alongside me before turning the gun on themselves (Persuade) were all a lot of fun to play with. There’s even a bullet-time/see-through-walls ability known as DART that works in tandem with the Breach Apps. Together these abilities gave a sense of being a badass, even if the story was unconvincing in that regard.
Breaching can also be used on the environment throughout the campaign to hack elevators, turrets, or to move walls away from enemy soldiers, reducing their cover options. A few of the tougher enemies even have shields that need to be breached (accomplished by holding down the E key) before I could inflict damage, creating some challenging situations.
While the story gave me zero choices in how everything turns out, I appreciated the upgrade options to “build” my own soldier. Syndicate’s upgrade tree feels like a good bite-sized portion of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s augmentations, and spending talent points to reload faster, increase the duration of DART, or reduce the kickback from firing weapons are just a few general examples.
You’re Not the Boss of Me
Another thing Syndicate shares with Deus Ex is its less-than-inventive approach when it comes time for boss battles. Each has with a glaringly obvious means of defeating the enemy. He’s using a cloak? How about I toss around a few EMP grenades to reveal him. Oh, this guy is moving around too fast? Looks like I’ll use DART to slow him down to get in my shots. Even when it came down to the final boss, it was just a matter of running in a circle around the enemy and pecking away from a distance. They’re not the worst boss battles ever, but they each felt cheap, generic, and unsatisfying.
As a cross-platform game Syndicate doesn’t exactly push the limits of PC hardware, but man does Starbreeze love that bloom lightning. The whole design theme of some levels made it feel like I was on the bridge of J.J. Abrams’ Enterprise. Fortunately that didn’t have an impact on performance, and Syndicate ran at a smooth and steady 60fps on my moderately powered PC even when hordes of mindless enemies where on the screen.
But the single-player campaign is only one aspect of Syndicate — the four-player co-op portion (with its separate campaign) could still make it stand out. I’ll chime in on that, and slap on my final score, later today. Read the second page of the review for my opinion of the game’s co-op.