It’s probably not a widely known fact that long before Syndicate was released in 1993, it began as a multiplayer game, with rival agents running around and killing each other over a local network. But designer Sean Cooper’s isometric tactical shooter eventually became so ambitious, and so sprawling, that something had to give – and by the time it hit the shelves, the local multiplayer of its earlier build was long gone.
This is an important bit of information because, as I settled down to try out a few multiplayer levels of Starbreeze’s reboot, I was immediately taken back to my youth, when I’d play the original Syndicate with a friend on the Amiga. We’d sit there for hours, taking it in turns to complete the game’s bullet-strewn missions.
“Wouldn’t it be great,” I remember saying to my chum as my quartet of cyborg agents opened fire on a group of enemies, “if we could play this at the same time? We could help each other complete the missions.”
“Or just kill each other,” he pointed out.
And now, almost 20 years later, my boyhood dream has come true. Well, sort of. The news that Starbreeze had reworked Syndicate as yet another first-person shooter was greeted with a mixture of cynicism and outright anger from some quarters, and if publisher EA were in any doubt about the esteem with which the original Syndicate is still held among 30-something gamers, then the reaction of Internet dwellers made one thing clear: some ageing properties have to be treated with care.
Then again, Starbreeze has been responsible for some genuinely great shooters over the past few years – most notably its two Chronicles Of Riddick games (notable for being infinitely superior to the Vin Diesel movie that inspired them) and comic book tie-in The Darkness. And as more footage of Syndicate has come to light over the past 12 months or so, my initial scepticism has gradually given way to a growing sense of intrigue.
The perspective may have changed in Syndicate 2012, but the elements of Bullfrog’s classic are all here: a dystopian sci-fi future of warring corporations. Missions that involve sending cyborg agents into cities and facilities and kidnapping, killing and destroying anything that gets in your way. The 1993 Syndicate was violent and gloriously amoral – and in this respect, the new version looks little different.
But back to the point of this article: Syndicate 2012’s multiplayer mode. Teams of up to four players take control of a cyborg agent, and together, cooperate to complete a series of murderous objectives. Along with three fellow writers, I played two missions: the UK and Afghanistan (like the original, Syndicate’s missions are all selected from a world map – complete them all, control the globe).
All the usual multiplayer trappings are present and correct; you choose a weapon load-out before you set off (offensive, defensive, sniper) and then it’s time to start shooting.
And shortly after the doors opened on our agents’ transporter, and we dashed into our first battle, we noticed something: Syndicate is quite hard. During our assault of some sort of futuristic research facility, we found ourselves repeatedly cut down by enemy fire. Enemies streamed in more quickly than we could murder them.
“Is it just me, or is this quite difficult?” I whispered to the player sitting to my right.
“It really is very difficult,” he said, conspiratorially.
The cycle of death and “Mission Fail” notices continued for several minutes, until finally, the penny dropped: we simply weren’t working together well enough. Each player was running off in a different direction and dying, when what we should have been doing was staying in a tight, close formation and watching each other’s backs.
This might seem obvious in hindsight, but relatively few shooters so brutally punish players for not behaving in a cooperative fashion – take too many hits, and the screen will tint red, leaving you limping around helplessly until a team member runs over and revives you with the LB button. This means that, if players aren’t close to each other at all times, disaster will quickly follow; you’ll all be left stumbling about in a near-death state, and too far away from a healthy player to be saved.
Once we’d learned to stick close to each other, and began moving around as a more coordinated pack, we immediately started to improve. Play areas are divided up into discrete zones of rooms and corridors, and you have to wait until your team mates are in position at a bulkhead or terminal before the game opens the door to the next zone. Once that door opens, all hell breaks loose – enemy grunts pour in, and at certain points, much tougher mid- and end-level boss characters will accompany them.
You get points for kills, with extra points for headshots and loads of points for killing sergeants and commanders. These latter enemies also carry the tastiest weapons, including the prized Gatling guns and flamethrowers that were a highlight of the original. In terms of pace and atmosphere, Syndicate reminds me a little of Brink, except with rather meatier weapons – the shotgun, in particular, is great fun to use.
If there’s one thing to criticise about the multiplayer maps we sampled, they’re rather sparse and grey. They offer the usual selection of ladders, gantries, corridors and loading bays full of crates and drums, but little of the atmosphere and urban sprawl of the original. Maybe having civilians running around amid the screaming fire fights would have been a technical problem for Starbreeze, but it’s a pity that the maps we were shown were so claustrophobic and quiet.
On a more positive note, the gameplay itself is thoroughly enjoyable. Kills are satisfying, and the feeling of elation among our little platoon when we all worked together to complete a mission was palpable.
At one point, while we were being sprayed with Gatling gun fire from a mid-level boss, I managed to hop up on a vantage point while my fellow cyborgs distracted him. I got close enough to hack into his armour (a process that can be applied to sentry cannons, too, if you’re stealthy enough), disable it, shoot him to death, pick up his gun, and kill lots of grunts in a hail of bullets and psychotic laughter.
The multiplayer Syndicate may only display light shades of the original’s influence (something we’re hoping will be in greater evidence in the more heavily scripted single player mode), but there’s one thing we can say for sure: it’s great fun, and we’re looking forward to experiencing more of it.
Syndicate will be released on the 24th February for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.