Syndicate might not seem like the ideal franchise to reboot, but developer Starbreeze Studios certainly gives it a good effort. The original game was released in 1993 and focused on strategy gameplay involving different agents, corporations, and nefarious tactics that could be employed through an isometric viewpoint. A follow-up, Syndicate Wars, was little more of the same. Both are primarily considered PC titles, but a few console variations popped up as well, most notably the original Syndicate being released on the Super Nintendo.
This 2012 reboot is entirely different. Eschewing the strategy game mechanics of the original, Starbreeze has opted for the familiar stomping grounds of a first-person shooter. Starbreeze is no slouch in that department, offering up unique and interesting titles in the genre with games like Chronicles of Riddick on the original Xbox and The Darkness on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
I'm a pretty big fan of Starbreeze's efforts in both games. Riddick was noteworthy for its mix of traditional FPS gunplay and heavy stealth mechanics that allowed room for improvisation. It was a pretty unique console game at the time and remains so today. The Darkness, on the other hand, stood out because of how well it handled the quiet moments more so than the actual shooting. Some of the game sequences that are burned into my memory involve no real action, and that's saying something when it comes to video games.
Syndicate doesn't stand out to me quite as much. It's certainly a fun shooter, but it really lacks what I'd call the Starbreeze touch in comparison to their previous releases. There are definitely elements that stand out as great, like the online co-op mechanic, but the single-player campaign feels a little flat and uninspired.
The story revolves around an agent working for a global corporation called EuroCorp. In the near distant future, corporations like EuroCorp have essentially replaced governments. People have become so hardwired to tech that they're chipped with a device that allows them to interact to a certain degree with most electronics. There's a subset of human society that isn't chipped, and because of that, they're off the grid and cannot interact with the majority of the world.
As an agent for EuroCorp, you're involved in all sorts of nasty business. Most corporations engage in espionage and outright murder to keep themselves ahead of the game and their secrets safe. They employ multiple agents like your character to do so, and you'll interact with them at various points in the story. You'll also encounter a number of agents like yourself who work for other corporations, and these encounters are usually represented by the occasional boss fight.
As the game begins, you are embroiled in treason at the hands of a lead scientist for EuroCorp, who is apparently selling secrets to another company, Cayman Global. This marks the scientist as someone to watch, and while you're assigned to monitor the scientist, you are swept up in a much larger conflict. The way things go to hell is the most interesting aspect of Syndicate's 20-chapter story arc, and to its credit, the ending leaves you wanting more. It's a shame that it takes the full six hours to become interesting, and then rolls the credits just as that occurs.
The majority of the gameplay is similar to other first-person shooters. You'll have a variety of weapons with which to gun down foes, and the weapons are mostly variations on current real-world weaponry. There are a number of assault rifles, pistols, shotguns, etc., tossed into the mix, with some occasional sci-fi weaponry, like a laser rifle. Most weapons have an alternate fire function, like an assault rifle that allows for full auto or single-shot functions, or perhaps a grenade launcher add-on. Nothing in the base weaponry is really amazing, but the gun models are excellent in design, and everything sounds exquisite and distinct.
The more unique element of Syndicate is the DART system, which is the chip with which your agent is outfitted. Enabling DART allows your agent to see a transparent overlay that helps pinpoint nearby enemies by highlighting them, often allowing you to see their placement behind cover. In single-player, it also slows down time, but that effect is dropped in online co-op. Using DART also temporarily enhances your agent, making him tougher to kill, boosting his health regeneration, and adding damage to your weapons. A lot of this can also be enhanced through an upgrade system in the campaign, where you gain points at extreme intervals to drop into specific upgrades.
The single-player campaign handles these upgrades poorly, especially in comparison to the online co-op system. The earned points are almost entirely based on story encounters, so they are doled out at very specific instances. The upgrade system would benefit from a more traditional experience system, which is what co-op uses. As it stands, you'll never be able to fully upgrade or explore the upgrade system in the single-player campaign, and that is a bit of a letdown. I suppose it promotes multiple playthroughs, but the enhancements aren't exciting enough to prompt me to play through the game multiple times to see what they do.
Another standout mechanic in Syndicate is the Breach system, which is probably the best aspect of the core gameplay. Breach allows you to force your opponent's actions a bit by holding down the left button on the controller while you have an enemy in sight. In single-player, there are three Breach options: Backfire, Persuasion and Suicide.
Backfire allows you to overload an enemy weapon and will typically affect multiple enemies within range at once. It's certainly the most useful because it knocks down enemies and causes a fair amount of damage. It's also useful because enemies in Syndicate are what I'd call "bullet sponges," a term that gets tossed about in shooters based on how many hits it takes to bring a basic enemy to the ground. In Syndicate, you'll find that it takes a lot of ammo, which feels like a cheap way of making the game harder than it otherwise would be, and it masks some deficiency in level design and enemy AI. Persuasion is pretty self-explanatory. It turns an enemy to your side for a limited time. If that enemy assists you in clearing out an area of other enemies, he or she will then take his or her own life. Similarly, Suicide forces an enemy to take his or her own life. It has the benefit of being explosive, so if other enemies are nearby, they'll often fall as well.
All in all, the single-player is fairly disappointing. It's not without merit; the Breach system is certainly a good idea, but it doesn't feel like it's been fully explored. Again, this is more evident after spending time with the superior online co-op. Seriously, if there's any reason to give Syndicate a chance, the co-op is definitely it.
Online co-op allows you to team up with three other players to take on nine different stages. These stages aren't integral to the story and don't tie back into the campaign in any way, aside from featuring companies like Cayman Global, EuroCorp, etc. The missions play out with one core objective to meet, and it generally involves killing an enemy agent, defending a certain location, or acquiring Intel at a location.
In the end, they are all about survival, as you'll face down wave after wave of progressively harder enemies to complete your goal. Within each mission are subgoals that change at different points. The only downside to the co-op is that the mission goals and placement of enemies never really change. Once you've run through each mission a time or two, it runs out of surprises. Ratcheting up the difficulty from Normal to Hard alters enemy placement and type a bit, but that's about it.
Co-op really shines in its agent upgrade system, which is far better than similar components in the single-player campaign. For every mission you complete and every boss character you kill, you gain tokens that can be spent on numerous things. First, there's a group of upgrades to unlock that'll add damage, health, and other things to your agent. There are 30 upgrades in all, but you can acquire the full set because the game also caps your level at 30. You can also pour a number of earned tokens into upgrades for the dozens of weapons found in co-op, which add some useful effects and add-ons to the weapon list.
Finally, you can also research more Breach skills than what you'll find in the single-player campaign. Besides your Backfire option, which is the sole carryover from single-player, you can do other things like upload malignant viruses, temporarily boost damage of your squadmates, and about 10 more skills that make you wonder why some of this wasn't included in the single-player campaign.
Co-op is where it's at with Syndicate, and if you're thinking about picking up the game, I'd definitely urge you to make that decision based on whether you'll play the game online or not. The campaign is worth a rental, but online co-op is worth a purchase. It's not the best shooter I've encountered in recent months, but the co-op certainly makes it better than the single-player portion would have you believe. As it stands, Syndicate is a pretty fun experience, but it lacks the innovation and heart that I've come to expect from Starbreeze as a studio. Here's hoping they can find a project that better fits their style next time.
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