Review: Syndicate

Syndicate

In the future, the more fortunate and daring of us will have a specialized chip implanted deep in our brains. In addition to heightened reflexes and intelligence, these chips will provide us with a constant stream of real-time data on every single object in our environment, whether visible or hidden.

They’re going to come in super handy when we’ve misplaced our car keys or the TV remote.

Or, alternately, they’re going to give us the critical edge in a never-ending war between international supercorporations over power and the ownership of (sometimes literally) bleeding-edge technology. That’s the story hook in Syndicate, the 1993 tactical franchise that the action-happy team at Starbreeze Studios have updated and converted into a modern FPS.

And when we say modern, we mean futuristic, as in Los Angeles, circa 2069. The world of Syndicate is one part Blade Runner, one part 12 Monkeys, one part neon-and-grunge cocktail.

The single-player story straps you into the leather trenchcoat of one Miles Kilo, a silent and all-too-willing agent of Eurocorp, one of the heavies in this world’s global economic throwdown. Kilo’s brain is packing the very latest in neurotech, a little chip called DART-6. That chip confers all sorts of bonuses, beginning with the ability to breach and control tech in the environment, from door locks and elevators to databases and more. Better still, for limited periods of time, Kilo can activate the DART overlay, a feature that plays out like a combination of detective mode in Batman: Arkham Asylum and the bullet-time effects found in so many shooters. While it’s active, the screen grays out and enemy positions are highlighted in orange (even when they’re camped behind cover). The damage Kilo takes is reduced and the damage he deals increased.

Breaching isn’t limited to overriding and exploding soulless tech in Syndicate. Superpowered upgrades to the chip give you the handy ability to force enemy soldiers to panic and turn their guns messily on themselves, also taking out any nearby enemies as well. The shrieks and resultant matter-splatter ought to give some momentary pause, if only for the realization that this is probably exactly how the cats in the 1980s flick Scanners felt. The trick is that to activate it, you have to hold the shoulder button while the breach meter fills. Stay in one place to appreciate your gruesome handiwork too long, however, and you’ll end up dead yourself. Killing enemies in rapid succession refills the meters that unleash these nasty little bits of mental tech, allowing you to do things like cause their weapons to backfire and force them to turn on their own forces. No wonder all the corporate suits are desperate to control the DART chip technology.

Using your breach powers in quick succession adds a clever strategic element to what would otherwise be another game packed with run-and-gun throwdowns. It’s also often the only way to even the odds against superior enemy forces, a situation you’ll face frequently as you wend your way through the nightclubs, warehouses, train stations and labs of Syndicate’s neon-tinged environs. Your enemies aren’t the dumb-as-dirt type soldiers who’ll camp in one place, waiting for you to draw a bead on their empty craniums: They aggressively rush, slide and attack your position from multiple angles, as if hoping to overrun you by sheer and suicidal strength of numbers. If you’re not constantly moving, mixing up your melee, breach and bullet attacks at mach 10, you’re probably well on your way to becoming high-tech Swiss cheese. The adrenaline rush of trying to stay alive in the larger set pieces represent Syndicate’s best moments.

The future does have its downsides. Syndicate rocks that tiresome sequence of levels where all those awesome powers you’ve been working to augment for the last five levels are suddenly rendered useless—seriously, is that ever fun? At least it makes sense narratively within the game’s haves versus have-nots universe, and given that technology is as unreliable in 2049 as it is in 2012. You end up facing a set of enemies who don’t have cutting-edge chips jammed in their heads for you to override. (They do have invisibility suits, however, leading me to wax all Jack Nicholson: Where do they get those wonderful toys?)

The lack of character development in the single-player mode is a huge missed opportunity. It’s clear that the DART chips are as risky as they are cool. Adopters risk brain cancer, and being breach-pushed into messily obliterating your own skull is a little beyond the limits of the standard OSHA regulations handbook. Yet we’re only given the most limited sense of what drives and frightens these agents until it’s way, way too late for us to care. There ought to be some shock accompanying the plot’s obvious cross and double-cross reveals and there just isn’t. Halo and Half-Life showed us that it’s possible for players to feel for a protagonist who never speaks. Silent Milo never remotely rises to that level.

Syndicate’s real accomplishment comes in its co-op mode, where you and up to three friends take on specific missions (swiping hard drives, taking out enemy targets, etc.) in environments that pay homage to the original tactical RPG. Trying to play with anything less than three players is more suicidal than breaching your own DART chip, as the numbers and aggressiveness of the enemies quickly overwhelms an undermanned squad, and several of the objectives require a full squad to gracefully complete. You won’t be able to use powerful breach abilities like suicide and persuade in this setting, but those puzzle elements are replaced by things like a virus power-up that slowly saps the enemies’ health. (Come to think of it, that would have solved some of those rear-guard battles in the single-player mode, too. Damn. )

Syndicate isn’t likely to succeed on the strength of its single-player story or nostalgic appeal for a forgotten franchise. The co-op mode and clever strategies opened up by the breach effects are what make it a worthwhile romp. The future never felt so dangerous.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Cool futuristic universe to explore
+ Puzzling together breach abilities is way more fun than going guns-a-blazing.
+ Four-player co-op is an absolute blast

Cons:
– Soulless single-player story squanders an opportunity for greatness

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360; also available for PC and PS3
Publisher: EA
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Release Date: 2/21/2012
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4 (co-op)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

[nggallery id=2418]

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.