When it was announced that Syndicate was to return, fans of the Bullfrog classic were understandably ecstatic. What they weren’t so happy about, however, was the revelation that it was going to be an FPS. Cue plenty of complaints and Internet hate. Now the dust has settled, and the game is here, the question is, can the reboot of the series win over old fans and attract new ones?
Set in near future, Syndicate, like its RTS predecessor, tells the story of a future where overpopulation is a problem and large corporations now control the world. These huge businesses battle for control of countries, and corporate espionage, and all out war, is commonplace.
Much of the population is implanted with special chips, which link up to the global database, and can access all sorts of information. These chips are controlled by the various companies, each of which will do anything to increase its bottom line.
Enter the agent, elite corporate trouble-shooters equipped with the latest implanted technology and fearsome weapons. These agents are sent out to infiltrate and attack rival firms, often stealing data or assassinating key personnel, regardless of collateral damage.
You’re Miles Kilo, one of EuroCorp’s latest agents, and you’re fitted with the Dart 6, an experimental new chip that grants you various abilities, each of which can mean the difference between life, death and another hard earned dollar for the company.
Skills to pay the bills
Like the original Syndicate, this reboot makes much use of typical sci-fi stylings, and riffs on staples such as Blade Runner with gusto. The crumbling under cities are packed with the desperate, whilst the higher levels are packed with opulent apartments and corporate HQs.
It’s into this world that you’re thrown, and after a brief introductory level, the game starts proper, and you’re sent to do EuroCorp’s bidding. You begin the game with your basic ability, the Dart 6 overlay, and learn other skills as you progress using the basic level up system.
This initial Dart 6 power douses the screen with a digital filter that enhances targeting and environmental awareness, and slows down the action, giving you an advantage, as well as a damage boost.
It’s a simple and not entirely original power, but one that’s used well here, and is without a doubt your main staple skill, and one that’ll see you through many tight situations.
Eventually you’ll acquire the game’s other powers, which include the ability to cause your enemies’ weapons to backfire, sending them flying backwards, the ability to make people commit suicide, and a persuade skill that forces foes to fight on your side, before killing themselves.
These three powers form your Dart 6 abilities, along with the ‘breaching’ (hacking) element, which is, like the Dart 6 Overlay, another essential ability. This lets you hack doors, activate machinery, disable thrown grenades, bypass enemy shields, take over turrets and more, all with the press of a single button. All abilities, aside from hacking, are only usable for a short time before your energy runs out. The Dart 6 overlay recharges on its own, but the others require a build up of adrenaline in order to recharge. This is collected by achieving killing sprees or nailing headshots and the like.
These extra abilities are what sets Syndicate apart from most other FPS titles, and although they could have ended up being little more than gimmicks, each and every one is implemented very well into the game. It’s up to you how you approach a fight, of course, but the ability system is geared towards making each encounter different, and presents you with more options than most competing shooters.
For example, in a single firefight you could use backfire to knock a couple of foes to the ground then engage your overlay to slow things down and take them out with ease, before turning one foe to your side and forcing another to commit suicide, all in the space of a few seconds. It’s that accessible, and fun with it. You’ll also find that you really do need the powers to progress, and if you play on harder difficulties, each and every skill will be a godsend at one point or another, so much so that, when you have these abilities removed, be it via an EMP grenade or other means, you feel naked without them.
This reliance on skills is fortunate, as the main shooter elements aren’t really all that special. Yes, some weapons are interesting, especially the gauss gun that fires homing bullets that can track around corners, but the core action is fairly average. The aiming feels very loose, and thanks to the heavy soft-shading and lighting, and the colour palette used in the environments, it’s often difficult to even see enemies without using your overlay. Not a good design decision.
Syndicate does feature a cover system to complement the combat, but unfortunately, it’s not very good. It seems that there’s no cover other than solid walls that can stop a bullet, and the ability to shoot over smaller cover-items is of little use due to the unreliable protection it offers.
You can push upwards to fire over cover, minimising your danger a little, but there’s no option to peek from, side to side, meaning the old pop-in, pop-out method has to be employed. Enemies will use cover constantly though, with much more success than you. In fact, one of Syndicate’s best points has to be the enemy AI.
Although some foes do occasionally run at you screaming, or stand out in the open begging to be killed, I found many situations where foes had genuinely crept around behind me, with game ending results. And, in fights with multiple hostiles, it can get quite hectic as some assailants move around to flank you, whilst others lob grenades to flush you out.
This level of challenge, especially on hard, really makes you utilise all of your abilities, and enhances the game greatly, making each fight a bit of a tactical bun fight, as you’re forced to mix up your powers and move from cover to cover. This is especially apparent when you’re attacked by enemies sporting special bullet-proof shield systems that have to be hacked, or having to survive against heavy weapon-toting human tanks. Sadly, though, the boss fights do not provide the same level of challenge or enjoyment.
These fights, instead of interesting cyber-agent battles, are often simply tedious. In most encounters your skills are useless, and only your overlay helps to even the odds, and all bosses have predictable attack patterns, but take masses of punishment.
Instead of requiring skilful combat and a clever use of abilities, they almost always boil down you circle strafing your foe with your overlay active, and then ducking behind cover to recharge. Given the setting and the various special boss abilities you could go up against, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity.
Two’s company, four’s a gang
Despite the faults, the single-player campaign is a fairly decent romp through a sci-fi world, but is also a very linear, corridor-heavy one that relies on usual tropes such as endless locked doors or collapsed corridors to sheep-heard you along. The co-op, on the other hand is much better in this regard, and the nine missions you can take on, with up to three friends, really make the most of the online component, and tries to reproduce the style and action seen in the original title. If you’re up for a challenge, you can take these on alone, but they’re really designed with multiple agents in mind.
Powers are paired down somewhat here, missing the powerful suicide and persuade functions, but in their place are more co-op focused abilities that benefit your squad, further enforcing the team-based nature.
The missions themselves are standalone, and each is structured well, with plenty of scope for replayability, and the other online functions, such as the ability to create your own syndicate, complete with custom name and logo, stock reports (leader boards), and customisable load outs all enhance the online components.
This is a good thing as, whilst the main campaign is certainly enjoyable, it’s just not all that memorable. Each location you find yourself in looks more or less like the next, and there are no stand out moments to speak of that make you go, wow! The story itself is okay, but a little pedestrian, and it’s also short, with a very abrubt finale.
Day of, what?
Comparisons to Deus Ex are inevitable, and to some degree valid, but it’s important to note that Syndicate is a very different game, and is much more action-oriented than it’s augmented counterpart, which is a slower-paced, stealth-centric FPS/RPG hybrid. Syndicate has little in the way of stealth, minimal RPG elements, other than basic stat buffs, and is a very linear shooter.
The use of the Dart 6 powers, and solid enough, if underwhelming, combat, along with a visually impressive world ensure that the game plays well enough, it just never goes that extra distance to really make you love it. And, in a genre saturated with AAA classics, it just isn’t enough, even with a well-loved license behind it.
The co-op mode gives it a much needed boost, and this alone is worth a shot, but in the end, Syndicate is a solid enough FPS that does just enough to make the grade, when it was capable of so much more.