Remaking Bullfrog’s seminal 1993 real-time tactical shooter, Syndicate, was always going to be fraught with danger. Opting for a first person shooter for their re-imagining of the cyberpunk masterpiece, EA’s primary directive should have been delivering a game which stayed true to the bleak humour of the original, whilst offering similarly innovative gameplay. However, the end results from developers Starbreeze Studios don’t stimulate the neural receptors in quite the same way this time around.
The story focuses on Miles Kilo, wunderkind agent for shady corporate moguls, Eurocorp. Set in dystopian 2069, the world is a place where governments are null and void, greed reigning supreme instead. Deals between the various syndicates are settled less in the boardroom and more often with the business end of an assault rifle. The general population is divided due to the dominance of Eurocorp’s DART chip – a neural implant which renders most electronic devices useless, instead piping vast amounts of data straight into the noggins of the chipped populace. Meanwhile, those unable to afford the chip are viewed as underclasses forced into lives of poverty in filthy inner-city slums.
This might all sound like fairly standard cyberpunk fare and, well, it is. The plot will inevitably attract comparison to 2011’s biotech magnum opus, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, although Syndicate is a much less realised and more close-ended affair. While Deus Ex immersed the player in a living, breathing world, the story here is fairly bland and a dreadful sense of pacing wrings any enjoyment of the tale from the player. Just about every tired cliché of the genre is tossed into the blender, to the point of unintentional hilarity. From the evil father-figure CEO to the psychotic team-mate, all the old tropes are present. Nihilistic phrases even pop up during loading screens: “evaluate, adapt, destroy”. William Gibson this ain’t.
While the story offers nothing new, Starbreeze have a few tricks up their trench coat sleeves in terms of gameplay. The shooting mechanics are accomplished, with the guns feeling nice and weighty, the original’s infamous Gauss Gun making a welcome return. Potentially more interesting, however, is ‘breach mode’ – a form of violent telekinesis enabled by Kilo’s enhanced prototype ‘DART 6’ chip. This allows the player to not only override various weapons and electronics, but also quite literally get in the heads of enemies, psychically forcing them to either commit suicide or join the player in battle. Furthermore, certain enemies can be ‘chip-ripped’, allowing the player to relieve them of their DART, transferring some of their abilities to Kilo in a satisfyingly gruesome manner.
The chip concept is sound and could have elevated Syndicate beyond the level of just-another-shooter, but sadly it doesn’t quite work. In battle, the breach powers feel too similar and a constant hail of baddies’ bullets forces the player into perpetually using the DART overlay - a hybrid between Arkham Asylum/City’s detective mode and Matrix style bullet-time.
This grates against the combo system – killing enemies in quick succession generates ‘rampage energy’, racking up points and boosting abilities. Kilo could easily have become swirling death in his leather duster, fast paced action heightening tension. Instead, the player finds themselves forever in slow-mo mode, puzzling out their next move.
Furthermore, an emphasis on perfecting stats feels redundant without an online leaderboard, the player instead encouraged to beat their previous personal scores. Rather than feeling like a nod to old-school arcade gaming, this just seems like a lazy omission of a simple feature, important to a number of gamers. Furthermore, the game offers the illusion of free choice at various key junctures, hinting at alternate endings. However, no matter what path Kilo takes, the end results are always the same. For instance, one key scene allows him to save or slaughter an NPC. Yet if he chooses the former action, his ‘programming’ kicks in and forces the other choice regardless. This feels like cheap trickery at best and, at worst, disrespect for the player.
Visually, Syndicate has some plus points, but is once again its own worst enemy. What at first feels like a highly detailed game world, with a stylised sheen and fantastic looking weaponry, is marred at every cut and turn by massive amounts of light bloom. Lurking around practically every corner is a frankly ludicrous level of over-exposure, blinding Kilo when he should be lining up his next shot. Furthermore, an otherwise streamlined and informative HUD inexplicably places Ikea style name tags above almost every visible object. These labels have no use other than to look ‘cyberpunky’ and emphasise how the Dastardly Man has his corporate claws in Kilo’s brain. They are also too small to be read until the player gets up close to the object, at which point they disappear and in practice serve no real purpose except disturbing gameplay. Combined with the intrusive bloom effects, it is an understatement to call the visuals frustrating.
It isn’t that Syndicate is an altogether bad game, per se. The voice acting from Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson and Michael Wincott is of the highest calibre, the latter being the cream of the crop as Kilo’s slaughter-happy gruff-voiced mentor, Merit. There are also occasional moments which tentatively approach bona fide bombastic brilliance, including train-top battles and nightclub shootouts. However, these moments are few and far between, and it isn’t long before the numerous flaws crop up and detach the player from the game world.
Thankfully, in the face of the mediocre solo campaign, the co-operative multiplayer is a shining beacon and, if anything, is truer to Bullfrog’s original vision. With the half-assed storyline removed, the player and up to three corporate cohorts are free to enjoy the intense action promised in single player. Gone are the clunky set-pieces and an enhanced levelling system makes the character feel like a blank slate to mould, as opposed to an empty husk, a la one player.
The multiplayer maps offer some added diversity, taking the fight beyond New York and LA, right around the globe. Levels based in Mozambique, the UK and Afghanistan bring some welcome colour to the game, and periodical safe-houses a la Left 4 Dead are stocked full of supplies, offering breathers amidst the fairly challenging missions. There are plenty of character upgrades available and tactical cooperation is a must, with customisable weapon loadouts to ensure a balanced team, as players strive for world domination.
When all is said and done, the 2012 reboot of Syndicate is no more or less than a middle of the road FPS. Sure, the multiplayer offers replay value, but for a game in which the focus is solo play, this just isn’t good enough. The real tragedy is that there are some brilliant ideas underlying the game, but the whole thing is permeated with the reek of wasted potential. Shamefully, the developers come out of the whole affair looking as apathetic as the corporations they portray.
Dare you join the Syndicate?