If you think you know Syndicate because you played the classic PC strategy games back in the day, then you’re going to need to throw out that knowledge… save for the story.
Set against the backdrop of a dire neo-dystopian future, Syndicate takes place in a world where government rule has given way to ultimate global control by multinational corporations, or syndicates. Boardroom discussions have been supplanted by military posturing, industrial espionage involves the violent removal of data (and leaders) by competing companies, and human chip implants are real, dividing the world’s population of billions into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’
Welcome to the new world of Syndicate.
This world takes a bit of getting used to. The neon light of the slums casts an ill glow on the filth of the place while the fluorescence of opulent, sparsely decorated towers above can be harsh to the eye. When you’re Miles Kilo, a specially trained Eurocorp agent with the latest DART-6 chip in your brain, you tend to see the world differently, too. Descriptive words like ‘lamp’ and ‘dumpster’ hover above objects, heads-up display indicators appear above enemies and you’re always keenly aware of your current stash of munitions and readiness of abilities with these selfsame floating icons.
Developer Starbreeze’s signature first-person ‘heft’ is in full force in Syndicate, too, with over-exaggerated bobs and sways as you walk, run, slide and shoot your way through the world. The game can also be quite dense to begin with as it’s slow to introduce key new abilities, but very quick to throw you into the deep end with more than enough bad guys to take down, only with very little understanding of your initially available arsenal of pistols, rifles, grenades and, most importantly, DART-6 abilities.
Two of your (arguably) most important DART-6 abilities include the option to override, or ‘Breach,’ different technologies in the world, to hack or disable them (like computers or enemy protection), as well as the chance to survey the battlefield with a vision overlay that not only highlights your enemies, but increases your reaction time, effectively giving you a speed advantage. While Breach is only usable at set times and Dart Overlay is a timed ability, both are very handy, especially when used in concert with your other DART-6 technologies…
Syndicate will eventually open up the chance to use Suicide (convince an enemy to commit suicide), Backfire (cause an enemy’s weapon to misfire and knock him back) and Persuade (persuade an enemy to fight for you for a time). Valuable on their own, when used effectively they can turn the tide of any fight. In fact, I would say Syndicate has been designed around the use of these abilities as there were some firefights I don’t think I would have got through without them.
High ranking (and naturally, more difficult to defeat) enemies house special chips in their brains that you’re able to rip straight out (making use of scenes not for the squeamish), which allow you to make chip upgrades of your own – perfect for improving the efficiency and usefulness of your DART-6 abilities and great for making you more resilient in battle. I found the choices to be pretty straightforward and not very varied, but perhaps other players will find more choice than I did.
After about three hours or so, I had become supremely confident in my abilities and weapon use in Syndicate and battle flow was extremely satisfying. Running into a room of six enemies and being able to take all of them down within seconds, with ease, is an incredible allowance in a videogame, using a melee execution, a couple rounds of fire, a Suicide ability and a grenade throw to mop up two stragglers.
In that scenario, I would still have been able to take care of at least another six soldiers in a few more seconds using my remaining abilities – Syndicate gives players a massive amount of control, with a great feeling of first-person movement as you slide into cover and naturally peek out from behind walls just by looking.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the weapons of Syndicate, because there are points of the game where these dealers of destruction are the stars of the show – everything from a mighty chaingun that rips enemies to shreds (for a fantastic palate-cleansing gameplay section) and a lock-on rocket launcher, to a flame-spewing weapon and a gore-creating lasergun are all awesome to use, while the ‘standard’ weapon set (all with alternate fire options) is excellently handled, too, and all have a weight and power that’s missing from similar first-person shooters. Starbreeze Studios knows guns.
Syndicate’s singleplayer campaign has an intriguing story, and even takes a great turn at one point, but more often than not serves as context to get you from an exotic location to a lowly slum to a lavish apartment complex and beyond – all of which is suitably futuristic and very well realised.
The developers have created a believable world and while there may be times that the light in this place is oversaturated to the point of blindness and the animation and movement of certain objects in the world is jarringly jittery, the action and second-to-second combat decisions will quickly take your mind off of it.
Maybe that’s just how people move in the future?
The singleplayer of Syndicate is but one half of the package. The second half is the excellent (and constantly surprisingly deep) four-player multiplayer co-operative component.
Playing as one of four agents (with the other three roles taken up by multiplayer buddies or online strangers) you’ll work your way through nine missions that will you task you with assassinating high-ranking military officials from opposing syndicates, or stealing important data or samples from these selfsame syndicates for the betterment of your own organisation, so… the objectives of these missions don’t differ too much. It’s what happens during each mission that matters!
What’s exciting about Syndicate’s co-op mode is that you’re pretty much free to create your own class from the available combat and ability options, which means you’re not restricted by choosing a class and sticking with it. Mixing and matching your weapons is just the start, but by choosing from a wide, wide range of DART abilities, too, you can set yourself a very specific (or broad) role in your team.
Abilities like Squad Heal (heal your squad…) Shielding (shield your squad…), Damage Link (increase your squad’s damage for a time), and Focus Target (highlight a target on-screen for your squad) are all useful to the team and place you in a supportive role. Add a sniper rifle to the mix and you’re good to go. There are many more for you to try out and test, too, which would place you in more of an offence class.
More depth is added to Syndicate’s co-op when you learn that you earn points during every mission, and that these point go towards researching upgrades for your abilities (or Applications) to make yourself a more effective fighting (and supporting) machine. It may take several missions to get enough points to research a single upgrade (like a more powerful shotgun shell, more stable rifle or more useful Damage Link), but if the upgrade you’re researching is for a weapon or Application that you’re focussing on, the results are worth it.
Add to that the chance to improve your overall abilities with chip upgrades (which are earned as you level up in experience), the co-operative portion of Syndicate is incredibly involved and will most likely take many, many hours of your time to fully upgrade your chosen weapons and Applications, as well as get all of the chip enhancements.
What’s key to remember about the co-op of Syndicate is that it is, more than anything, a team-based game. If you don’t work with your team-mates, you’re going to get mowed down by the enemies. Similarly, if you stray too far from your allies, it going to become very difficult for them to reach you and ‘Reboot’ you back to life in the middle of a hectic firefight – the best, most enjoyable co-op games I’ve played in were with players that knew this and constantly stuck together and moved as a unit through the level. Playing in this way elevates Syndicate co-op to another level of entertainment.
Syndicate surprised me with its depth of play, satisfying gunplay and intriguing story, especially after feeling overwhelmed and wide-eyed during the first two ours of the singleplayer campaign. Once I became comfortable with the weapons and DART-6 abilities, my confidence grew and I was soon ripping people and chips in equal measure, despite a few frustrating difficulty spikes and unfortunate rounds of gameplay repetition. I would have liked a few more story beats and perhaps a few more abilities to play with, but what’s here will keep me hungry for a sequel.
The multiplayer portion of Syndicate was even more surprising, especially with the deep upgrade options and super fun four-player co-op battles against dozens of enemies intent on doing us humans grievous harm. The same repetition issues in the singleplayer campaign show up in co-op, but the nine levels are made enjoyable by the very nature of their multiplayer implementation. More missions would have been nice, but I would gladly pay for more as downloadable content.
Syndicate is an excellent, well-rounded sci-fi first-person shooter – wade through the first two hours and get hooked on as many more as you like after that.