Despite a deluge of screenshots and trailers, I must admit that I haven’t known what to expect with EA and Starbreeze Studios’ upcoming Syndicate, a game that shares the name and universe of a classic PC strategy action game from the 90’s, but little else.
Set in a neo-dystopian future where powerful conglomerates control and govern the world, industrial espionage is the order of the day, except in addition to stolen trade secrets and underhanded dealings these corporations make use of technologically enhanced agents to infiltrate their competing multinationals to carry out missions that could very well involve assassinating the CEO or president of a company.
Business is war, indeed.
While we haven’t yet had a chance to go hands-on with Syndicate’s singleplayer campaign, thanks to the recently released co-operative multiplayer demo we’ve stolen a taste of what we can expect from this mode of the game once it’s released… and we certainly enjoyed the flavour!
Playing as a member of a four-strong crack squad of agents, the co-operative multiplayer mode in Syndicate tasks players with completing set objectives across nine different locations and missions, each of which is inspired by memorable scenarios from 1993’s ‘Syndicate.’ The location on offer in the demo, Western Europe, has players take down a powerful colonel, but not before working your way through dozens of soldiers, a handful of sergeants and a couple well-armoured foes, all while working as a tight-knit team to survive.
Fresh out of the gate, you’ll have limited options as far as customisation and equipment load-out goes, but as you play you’ll earn points that go towards improving your skills as well as researching new skills to increase the effectiveness of your weapons and abilities. How do you earn these points? By destroying enemies, helping team-mates and completing objectives, naturally.
Movement in Syndicate is weighty and (somehow simultaneously) fluid, with the option to run and slide out of harm’s way, vault over waist-high walls and intuitively lean over and around cover simply by moving up against it, all wonderfully portrayed in first-person. Aiming down the sights of the game’s assault rifles, SMGs, sniper rifles, pistols and shotguns is snappy and squeezing off rounds of gunfire is very satisfying indeed – all of the appropriate gameplay ‘feel’ boxes are checked and scraped as sound, visuals and feedback combine to make ripping into enemies all the more rewarding.
Surprisingly, all of the weapons behave and feel quite differently to one another and you’ll soon learn the tricks of each to extract maximum effectiveness from them. Up-close-and-personal melee combat is also an option and it’s not impossible to surprise a soldier by running forward, sliding into him and snapping his neck in one smooth action. Surprise!
You are but one of four squad members, however, and while it may be tempting to perform run-and-gun heroics on your lonesome, you’re going to get cut down very quickly by enemy gunfire using this method. In Syndicate’s co-op mode, teamwork is vital to success and if you stray too far from your squad your mission is going to be compromised. This advice is made all the more salient with the knowledge that players are able to heal one another with the press (and hold) of the left bumper, but only at close range (simply aim and heal), so it’s important to stay with your squad.
In addition, when it comes time to ‘Reboot’ a fellow squad member (because s/he ran off guns blazing and was shot down, but not out), it’s a bit of a chore to make your way to their position because half a dozen enemies stand between you and your flailing ally. Stick together and the process of ‘Rebooting’ is made much easier.
An important inclusion in Syndicate is the option to make use of abilities such as ‘Shielding’ and ‘Squad Heal’ (to protect yourself and heal everyone in your group, respectively), ‘Backfire’ (to cause your enemies’ weapons to malfunction) and ‘Damage Link’ (to temporarily increase the effectiveness of your squad’s weapons). Choosing from this selection (and more in the full game) allows you to effectively change your class on-the-fly, going from bruiser and tank to healer and support roles as you see fit.
This is exciting because it means that you don’t necessary have to ‘choose’ a discrete class at the beginning of a match, and other than your weapon of choice (which can be swapped out during a mission), you’re not confined to one job at a time.
This is where those unlocked points come in. You can ‘purchase’ and upgrade abilities in the menus and set which skills and improvements you wish to research and unlock before diving back into a mission. The points accrued during a game will then go towards that research and after two games of earning points, for example, you’ll gain access to more stable guns, more explosive grenades, longer periods of ability use, shorter cool-down times for those abilities and much, much more. The range of upgrades and customisation options in Syndicate is vast so you’ll need to earn lots of points to work your way down the technology trees.
In order to accomplish this goal, you can play each co-op mission as many times as you like in order to perfect your approach to each level’s challenges, which is very reminiscent of other co-operative focussed games such as Left 4 Dead. While not quite as punishing as Valve’s zombie-themed shooter, fans of that game will surely appreciate Syndicate’s methods of encouraging co-ordinated team play.
Despite the relatively simple levels and unremarkable enemy routines, a single mission of co-op Syndicate can become deliciously chaotic as players run, slide and leap about the screen, dishing out hundreds of rounds of bullets, lobbing frag grenades and using their abilities in unison. Skilled and levelled-up players, especially, provide enormous visual flair. You’ll need to take a deep breath before wading into the next firefight because the action goes from ‘relaxed’ to ‘white knuckle’ in split-seconds!
As you drink in the battle unfolding before you, it’s easy to overlook Syndicate’s smart user interface as well as the slickly designed menu systems which both enforce your position as a technologically enhanced soldier whose only contact with its employers is through futuristic yet familiar digital briefings. The cyber punk visual aesthetic is also excellently realised and if someone told me that Syndicate took place in the same universe as the classic film Blade Runner, I wouldn’t even blink.
Even though the demo for Syndicate’s co-operative missions is but a slice of the full multiplayer offering (which in itself forms roughly half of the Syndicate experience), members of El33tonline can’t wait to dive into the rest of the missions and upgrades when the game launches in North America on February 21st and in Europe and other regions on February 24th.