Syndicate Review (PC)

When 2K announced the new XCOM fans were up in arms. How dare they turn a classic PC strategy game into an FPS? However, just as the last trailer for that game made it look more like classic X-Com 2K pulled the surprise punch of Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Fans were very happy. So what’s EA’s excuse then? Here we are, with a Syndicate FPS, but no remake of the original in sight? Sigh.

To be fair, Starbreeze’s Syndicate is at least a follow-up to the original Bullfrog games. A wise man once said, “there is no world anymore, there are only corporations”. Dr Evil’s Number 2 may as well have been talking about this future. Set in 2069, it’s several years after the events of the last games and the technology has become more advanced. Brain chips remove the need for all personal devices, but while half the population have them the ones without aren’t even considered human. With this total connectivity countries became obsolete and global mega-corporations vie for control of the population’s attention.

Chewy on the outside, crunchy within

It’s a pretty bleak, terrifying possibility but undoubtedly compelling setting for a game. This time around instead of being the strategic head of a company the game’s all told from the perspective of the silent Agent Kilo. You undertake “aggressive negotiations” on other corporations on behalf of Eurocorp, your personal syndicate (and the same one as in the other games). Despite the obvious similarities to Deus Ex: Human Revolution (and EA ill-advisedly starting the Launch Trailer with the line “I never asked for this”) it’s really inspired by both the original games and Blade Runner.

It’s also pretty much a straight linear FPS with no RPG trappings at all. Yes, there are upgrades, but you only get those by extracting Brain Chips messily from certain enemies rather than earning them. There are no rewards for killing enemies in fun ways, and while there’s plenty of collectables they’re entirely to get extra information about the world rather than nab some bonus XP. This is definitely a missed opportunity, but more on that in a minute.

FPSs these days need something special to stand out from the crowd. The big stand-out for Syndicate are the DART skills. The DART chip embedded in your head allows you to hack the environment to either create paths or attack opponents, or to hack enemies (on the 360 by holding LB) with a variety of skills. ‘Suicide’ kills one enemy and anyone around them, ‘Backfire’ temporarily disables several enemies, and ‘Persuade’ will turn them to your side. Furthermore if someone’s wearing special armour you can disable it. Finally the DART Overlay can be activated to slow down the world, boost your armour and hacking skills, and see the location of all enemies you’ve already seen once.

These all work excellently, you’ll be pleased to hear, and really do make the combat more interesting than your standard FPS. At first they’re just fun, then hacking and the Overlay both start to become vital as you go up against shielded drones and Agents. Hell, even the tutorials are impossible without careful use of the Overlay, which is a bit mean (and took me several attempts) but at least forces you to sink or swim.

Starbreeze really spared no effort to keep Syndicate interesting all the way through. Rocket assaults, chaingun massacres, high-speed train attacks, hell, even short puzzle sections (remember those?) make an appearance. It’s got the Halo-style two-weapons-only convention but you’re regularly encouraged to change them, for example I love sniper rifles but I barely had one for more than half an hour – this requires excellent design to pull off naturally and without seeming mean, but Starbreeze manage it.

Syndicate Agents act as bosses in the game, and excellently every one of them has a completely different skill so every boss fight is interesting and unique. One can cloak and requires EMP attacks, another can teleport short distances, etc. It’s rare these days that bosses in FPSs don’t feel silly, but here they’re actually quite cool. They often put your skills to the test, which is exactly what bosses are meant to be about.

This is the least bloomy screenshot I could find

Challenge is certainly something that Syndicate is full of, and no part of it is a cakewalk. Your Agent is tough, but he’s certainly not over-powered or invincible. Enemies are rarely unarmoured (these are paranoid super-companies remember), but then more powerful enemies with armour that need to be hacked come in, and then Chip Jammers arrive who have to be taken out before you can hack the powerful enemies… Syndicate will certainly give you a hearty – but fair, usually – challenge, and that’s something I relish. Even on PC with mouse aiming it’ll be challenging, since quick aiming won’t help you as much here – it’s as much about hacking as shooting.

All sounding pretty good so far, right? The world is interesting and the ideas are great but the trouble with Syndicate is that it never goes far enough with either. It’s fun hacking the environment to electrocute a floor or raise a computer bank as cover, so why does this only come up once every few rooms? The game explains that you’re connected to everything, so why can’t you hack everything? Like a computer to send an electrical shock, or a toaster to suddenly pop up toast and distract an enemy? If that’s too much, why can’t each room have at least a few hackable items to play with? And why only three skills?

Then there’s the world. You get to see pieces of the Syndicate future but you never get to interact with it. Most people won’t acknowledge your existence, no items can be used, and the game is truly painfully linear. It’s the type of game where you’ll pass a dozen identical doors but only one will open. Even Call of Duty hides its linearity better than Syndicate. I want to explore this world, but there is absolutely no reason to. What’s the point of scanning propaganda posters in the Overlay if there is no reward, either in terms of XP or getting extra lore?

Events and groups are touched on, such as The Church of the New Epoch from Syndicate Wars, but basically make no impact on the minimal story. Twists are predictable and don’t really inspire any emotion, and even a full-scale war (or “hostile takeover”) barely makes any appearance. The part I just cannot forgive though involves a choice later in the game about whether a major character lives or dies. I thought this would totally change the final levels of the game and ending – but the choice was a lie, and the game carries on the same. No choice is bad, but pretending to have choice and then snatching it away? That’s disappointing.

Even graphically I don’t know what Starbreeze are playing at. There’s a nice sheen to everything and characters are well-animated, but the entire world is covered in this super-lens-flare that literally blinds you in some areas. It makes just seeing enemies difficult in a world where everything is too bright or too dark, making the DART Overlay that highlights enemies essential. It’s frustrating more than anything.

What saves the game to an extent is the co-op multiplayer. While it’s not fair to write off the single-player a lot of the development time has clearly gone into the online. It’s very team-focused, with upgrades that can buff squad members as much as yourself and the ability to heal them by hacking them from a distance (or “rebooting” them). You’ll face a lot more (and tougher) enemies than you do at any point in the main campaign so you have to work together and rely on your teammates to back you up. It’s possibly not quite as endlessly replayable as Left 4 Dead but it’s certainly a great deal of fun. It’s a shame you can’t play offline though.

Working together to take out a chaingun-wielding Cylon Michelin Man

Game-purchasable fun though? Possibly. If you’re a single-player-only gamer though I’d advise you to wait for a little while for it to go on sale. There’s no replay value whatsoever as the game’s just too excruciatingly linear (and too light on spectacle) to be fun more than once. If you can get some friends to play with you online though it’s a world of fun, but it might not be long-lasting fun. It’s hard to tell whether the multiplayer will have legs right now I admit, but I can tell you this about the single-player campaign: I’ve finished playing it, took me about 5-7 hours, and I’m already forgetting it.

I loved both of Starbreeze’s last games, but while I expected to love Syndicate it just left me cold. There’s fun to be had, especially in the co-op which plenty of people will get their teeth into and love, so that makes the game worth it at least. Nevertheless, while Syndicate’s a good solid FPS, it wastes its world, its unique ideas and its potential. And that’s just a damn shame. Bloody corporations.

Top Game Moment: Encountering your first Agent, killing him, then brutally worming your way inside his head to extract the juicy chip from his brain. Lovely.

Platform Played: Xbox 360

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