Written : Tuesday, February 21, 2012
By: Dan Webb
Imagine a world, dozens of decades in the future, where the world’s biggest corporations spend most of their profits on corporate espionage to protect the company’s own interests and sabotage others. A hostile and volatile world where brutality, deception and infiltration are as much a part of company life as sales meetings and gathering around the water cooler to talk about who got evicted on this week’s X-Factor are.
Not so much a world where Ronald McDonald slaps on a bulletproof vest and marches into Burger King’s headquarters to play pistols at dawn with the King himself (not Elvis). Either way, Ronald would have the Hamburglar as his unwitting side-kick in this perceived world of mine, so it’s an unfair fight anyway… The King’s going to end up in a McDonald’s burger if he isn’t careful. I was talking more about a world where, say Microsoft and Apple for instance, employ high-tech agents and plant moles at rival companies to make sure their tech isn’t being sold and to make sure they’re one step ahead of the competition. That is essentially the plot of Starbreeze Studios' re-imagining of the classic Syndicate franchise, and it’s a title that Starbreeze uses to prove it's not just a one trick pony and is in fact one of the stellar games developers in the world.
Taking place during 2069 in corporate America, at a time where half the world’s population is chipped with advanced technology that can be “breached” by those in the know, Syndicate throws you in the shoes of a EuroCorp elite agent, Kilo, who’s tasked with the unenviable job of protecting the company’s best interests by whatever means possible. It’s a plot full of twists and turns, corporate espionage and conspiracy theories galore, but it’s all rather predictable from the off. The voice actors – particularly Brian Cox (the Bourne trilogy, Manhunter) who puts in a solid performance as EuroCorp CEO, Jack Denham – all play their parts well, but the fact we still have a silent protagonist in the 21st century is a tad disappointing. The reality is that the story takes more of a backseat to the gameplay and the world you are thrust into, which considering the kind of gameplay on offer, is something that we’re more than comfortable with.
Starbreeze’s imagining of a late 21st century corporate America is a sight to behold too, taking overt cues from the likes of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, and games like Mass Effect and Deus Ex in terms of its visuals and setting. It’s a high-tech wonderland with more neon than a high-end strip club and more technological advancements than an episode of The Gadget Show. Heck, even the game’s few tutorials are set in a futuristic cyberspace. It’s all rather immersive.
What sets Syndicate apart from its competitors and makes it not just another run-of-the-mill shooter is the whole DART technology angle. Installed in every elite agent is what’s known as a DART 6 chip; a brain interface that allows the agent to manipulate – “breach” – other people’s chips and so forth. This brings into play one of the title’s unique selling points: being able to breach other NPCs. In the single-player, players have access to three main breach features: suicide, which allows you to turn someone into a ticking time bomb; persuade, which gets them to fight on your team for a short period; and backfire, which whisks them off their feet. They’re great tools of the trade to take into battle with you and no matter how frequently you use them, they never seem to get old.
"Corporate takeovers. You use a fountain pen, I use a gun."
The other advantage of the DART 6 chip is the DART Overlay, which when activated allows the agent to track previously sighted enemies through cover and slow down time so the agent can get an edge over the opposition. It’s a slow-mo mode of sorts that other games have used in the past, but the Tron-style grid presentation of it and the ability to actually shoot tracked foes through walls – if you have a penetrative rifle equipped – makes it seem way cooler. Combined with the breach functions of the DART 6 chip, it’s a unique side of the game that’s more addictive than any wild hallucinogen.
The technology aspect seeps into the game’s arsenal too, with weapons like the Swarm Launcher, a multiple projectile rocket launcher; the Gauss Gun, with its lock-on function; and the laser-powered Coil Rifle being utterly devastating, and likely to become instant favourites. The brutality of the war being portrayed is presented in the gory dismemberment in the game’s combat too. Snipe someone’s head clean off with a high-powered velocity rifle and it'll literally pop into a cloud of crimson red. The combat on the whole is a joy to behold, with it controlling and feeling very similar to Crysis 2, especially in how Kilo handles.
It’s not a game without its problems though, and although Syndicate rarely holds your hand, sometimes it doesn’t even explain the basics to you. It took us hours of gameplay before we realised how to “breach spike” and even something as simple as throwing a grenade wasn’t pointed out from the off. The “boss” fights suffer some of the same flaws that Deus Ex’s did too, seeming rather forced and clumsy, frustrating affairs. That said, there are a couple of more interesting instances that make full use of the breach system in the best way possible, but these are in the minority.
Syndicate isn’t a one-trick pony though, oh no. In fact, it’ll be the game’s co-operative missions that'll help breed the title’s longevity. While there are only nine that you can probably breeze through in three hours or so, depending on the size of your squad, there’s a surprising depth to the mode. There’s a much more expansive chip upgrade system for one, and the fact that you can upgrade the weapons and the applications - something that you could spend hours doing - it means there’s always something to be working towards.
"The raspberry jam cannon: messy."
The fact that there’s a competitive vibe amongst one another in the co-op action does help considerably and it’s always a joy to jostle for a chip extraction and win that internal struggle for points. Being able to create Syndicates is a neat feature too, but the fact that the different difficulties offer players a different experience to one another gives the game a new set of legs there too. The fact that there’s a long-term goal – to upgrade your character to be tough enough to withstand the relentlessness of the expert difficulty – will keep players coming back. Yes, there may only be nine maps, but the impressive AI and relentlessness of the higher difficulties gives the game much needed replayability.
The fact that the co-op feels like a different game to the single-player is a breath of fresh air too. While in the single-player you’re stuck with only three, non-changeable breach applications, in the co-op you have twelve that you can unlock, upgrade and interchange. While some of them promote attacking play, others encourage players to play defensively, meaning everyone on your team can have a part to play. If you don’t play as a team, expect Syndicate to take your ass outside and hand it to you repeatedly, especially on the higher difficulties.
Unfortunately, one of our biggest gripes with Syndicate is its stability. It’s a game that’s prone to a crash or two, especially whilst playing co-op online. If it’s not you crashing, it’s someone else in your party crashing and if it happens to be the host, you can kiss your level progress goodbye. While the odd crash isn’t a gamebreaker, it can certainly taint what is an otherwise excellent co-operative experience.
"That's what happens when you eat too many Jaffa Cakes."
In terms of achievements, Syndicate is no easy 1,000Gs. In fact, it’s a fairly arduous one. For one, it’s no 5-minute job to unlock the 100% completion achievement in the game’s co-op, and it’s not going to be an easy ride to unlock the expert co-op achievement either – you need a similarly dedicated crew alongside you for that to happen. That’s not a bad thing though because as that’s what achievements are meant to do: amongst other things, to encourage replayability. Breaching 873 grenades on the other hand though – despite the humorous reference in the achievement name – is going to be a dull and repetitive slog. Otherwise, there’s a good spread of achievements across both aspects of the title, decent enough balance and even some interesting boss fight achievements. There’s just not enough that makes you go, “wow, that’s so cool!” It’s all very run-of-the-mill stuff... Rather ironic, really.
As a complete package though, Syndicate delivers a memorable experience that will stay with you long after you’ve put down the pad. Starbreeze has not only created an incredibly immersive game-world and combined it with a set of shooter mechanics that really empower you as a gamer, but they’ve created two legs of a game that feel polar opposites apart – in a good way. The story might not be as gripping as we’d quite have liked but the journey is an enjoyable jaunt into the unknown. The co-op remains Syndicate’s shining light though, which is as deep as a rabbit’s warren and as addictive as tobacco. Once you’ve breached your fair share of generals and taken down an agent squad with some like-minded chums, you’ll feel the sudden urge to step in and try again on a harder difficulty.
Solid voice-acting with a great future-techno style original score. The dubstep inspired trailer isn’t really reflective of what’s on offer, although when they do use it – like in a certain boss fight – it does amp up the intensity.
Syndicate's visuals are pretty impressive all round. There's great vision from Starbreeze in terms of the game world, and a wonderful immersive world to lose yourself in it is too. It’s also gruesome, and we all love a bit of gore.
From a control standpoint, although the game suffers from a few signposting issues, it boasts really fluid and responsive controls.
An enjoyable six or so hour single-player campaign, that although is rather predictable in terms of story, is actually a joy to play. Throw in the co-op on top of that which gives the game its legs while promoting replayability and teamwork, and what you’re faced with is one hell of an addictive and deep mode to round off the package. It’s just a shame that the stability online holds it back. Expect a crash or two to hamper the experience.
Decent enough balance, a good enough spread and even a few interesting ones, but they’re very run-of-the-mill.
Syndicate isn’t just your run-of-the-mill shooter – which is hardly surprising since Starbreeze is behind it – instead what you have is an empowering shooter set in a far from idyllic futuristic world that puts the power of technology at your fingertips. Once you’ve finished with the relatively short single-player campaign, prepare to lose a lot of time in the game’s addictive and surprisingly deep co-op. Starbreeze’s Syndicate isn’t the RTS you may all remember, but it’s certainly an FPS you won’t forget any time soon.