One of the reasons Hotline Miami is revered by action game fans is because of the precision needed to make the fast action flow well. One shot is all it takes to down most enemies, and most of your strategy is about getting the drop on someone before they do. It may take quite a number of tries to get a level right, and you are allowed some leeway in missing attacks, but when it all goes right, it can look like a well-choreographed movie shot from a top-down perspective. The developers at Go Dark Studios have decided to try their hand at replicating that feeling with Rogue Contracts: Syndicate.
The game is set in the far future, and the antagonist is a well-organized crime outfit known as the Syndicate. The organization is powerful, and its technical research will only solidify its power. As a mercenary group, you learn about the Syndicate's upcoming discoveries and set out on a number of guerrilla stealth missions to take them down.
The earlier comparison to Hotline Miami is pretty apt, as the game takes several cues from that title. Your job is to move around the level, eliminating all of the enemies in the scene before moving on to the exit point. One hit delivered by either side kills, so there's an emphasis on being quick on the draw and hoping your attack hits first. Projectile weapons are limited, so you might end up saving them for more important skirmishes and relying on your melee attacks instead. Any weapons gained in one level don't carry over to the next one, so you'll always start a stage with your default set of a sword and a few shuriken – and your fists.
There are some big tweaks to the formula to make this stand out. Enemies are color-coded to give you a better idea of what they can do to hurt you. Most are armed with shotguns, a few foes explode when killed, and others immediately twirl around with a sword if they detect you.
A big change is in the emphasis on stealth. You can lock your viewpoint on an enemy, so you're always facing them. Get close enough, and you'll get a chance to choke them instead of punching them to death. While there's no radius in terms of their ability to hear you, you can see their line of sight and tell whether you'll get spotted if you move away from cover.
The idea of giving this action game a stealth twist is novel, but the setup and enemy placement usually result in you being spotted or immediately shot. For the most part, the best strategy is to bait people. Coming out of cover long enough to be seen, retreat, and unleash a sword kill once they turn the corner. Another possibility is to run at someone with a punch before choking them. It certainly isn't the gung ho attitude of other action games, but the hit-and-run tactics make it feel different because the use of traditional stealth is so limited.
A few things will stand out negatively for some players. Your weapon selection is rather sparse, as you don't pick up anything besides shotguns and assault rifles throughout the game. You also can't use your environment to your advantage, so you can't kick in a door to kill someone or use enemy fire against them. Controller support also isn't present; it's a strange omission considering how many of its contemporaries have successfully included it. The stages look the same, so the whole game can feel stagnant even if you are making progress. It doesn't help that bodies disappear a few seconds after they die, so you lose the satisfaction of seeing who you dispatched, and enemies don't seem to care that one of their own has gone missing.
The biggest issue is difficulty. At its normal level of difficulty, Rogue Contracts is hard. It wastes no opportunity to kill you when you set foot in a stage, and there's rarely a time when you're presented with an easy kill. The first stage alone will have you dying multiple times before you finally learn the recommended gameplay rhythm, and it certainly doesn't get any better from there. Those with patience will be fine, especially since the feeling of beating a stage is rewarding, but anyone who's expecting a more gradual learning curve will be turned off immediately.
If you can somehow beat the game, there are a few other things to keep you busy. A level select menu opens up, so you can replay the same stages in any order. The idea is to see if you can beat it faster and with a higher score than before, but you'll have to keep track of the progress yourself since there are no online leaderboards. The developers also recently added a survival mode, which puts you in a steady stream of levels with enemies mixed in from the entire game. Like the level select stages, there are no online leaderboards, but you can't even see your progress, since you don't get a scoreboard or results screen once you fail.
From a presentation standpoint, the title is adequate. The clean environments may not differ much as you progress, but they work fine with the solid color schemes of the characters. The animations are fairly stiff, however, with walking animations looking quite awkward and the blood spray from fallen enemies lacking any vibrancy. The music fares much better, as the future vibes sound great, whether you're undetected or being pursued by enemy forces. The sound effects ring slightly hollow, as the audio sports more compression than expected.
If you have the patience for it, Rogue Contracts: Syndicate is a rewarding game. The limited weapon set and increased level of difficulty can even make the first level a challenge, and subsequent stages only get worse. It means that conquering them is much more satisfying, and the relatively small number of levels is welcome because of this. The lack of controller support can be a deterrent, and the presentation feels rather cheap, but ultimately, Rogue Contracts is still a good game if you give it time.
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