Reboots come a dime a dozen nowadays, but not so many have drastic changes to core formula. Mortal Kombat was still about fatalities and Deus Ex: Human Revolution remained faithful the vast scope found in its earlier titles, but Syndicate takes a different route. Staying dormant in the video game pantheon for almost two decades, developer Starbreeze has given the franchise new life with this first-person shooter. It may seem like an odd mash up, but Syndicate is a passable game in its own right, even though some ideas don’t pan out as well as they could.
Yet another game takes place in the not-too-distant future and brings the dark corporate overlords into power. People in this new day have chips inserted in them, which basically function as a way to be on the grid. Some of the population remain unchipped, but that just means they don’t contribute to society in any meaningful way.
However, the folks that are chipped are more intelligent than ever. Your character, Miles Kilo, is one of those lucky enough to have such powerful hardware in his noggin. Kilo works for a Syndicate known as Eurocorp, one of the heavy hitting corporations in the world, and is a super-powered henchman that does the bidding of his superiors.
If nothing else, this fiction is pretty interesting. Having these corporations in this semi-anarchist world and possessing such advanced technology lends itself well to having a world worth inhabiting. It’s relatable enough to become familiar (it’s not too far in the future) but not too similar for it become like our boring, normal lives.
Sadly, the game’s actual narrative doesn’t quite hold up, even with the support of the cool backdrop. Unplanned events cause the story to go into some appreciated twisty turns, but sometimes the game doesn’t explain why. Your character is a mute, which doesn’t help, and some occurrences happen without any thoughtful explanation besides “because this is just how it happened, okay?” It required too many leaps in logic, assumptions, and much suspension of disbelief and the story suffered significantly for it. The last twenty seconds are pretty awesome (thanks Skrillex) and I thought some story related bits were good (albeit fumbled around clumsily, killing most of the potential impact), but it was rather unsatisfying on the whole.
Chip upgrades aren’t only a vehicle for a potentially neat story, they are a big part of the gameplay. Miles’ chip grants access to a few powers and abilities that can be used against the opposition. Suicide makes an enemy kill himself in a dramatic fashion, Backfire makes their gun explode (thus, exposing them to more damage), and Persuasion brainwashes an enemy to fight on your side (only to turn the gun on himself when the fight concludes). A slo-mo effect, named the DART overlay, is also a passive power that can be switched on after a short refill time.
If you were hopeful that there would be more powers, we would seem to be in the same boat. All of these abilities are put in your disposal easily within the first hour, lending itself to monotony. Whereas games like The Darkness II slowly reveal new powers to keep combat fresh, Syndicate runs itself dry early in the game. Boring isn’t the right term, but using the same powers ad nauseum can make every fight feel strikingly similar. It could have kept its coat more appealing if it only added more powers in the mix and paced them far enough apart to have that joy associated with discovering the next new thing.
The same can be said about the upgrade system. Any game with an upgrade system has my attention, but ones that have paths as limited as Syndicate‘s quickly dampers any potential excitement. At first glance, you see a whole tree of delicious upgrades, but by the end of the game, you’ll only have enough power for a little more than a half dozen. I can’t figure out why I was being teased with such a high amount of upgrades, only to have access to a few. Given the game’s naturally high difficulty, health upgrades were (sadly) always plausible ways to spend points, given that I wanted to stay alive.
To my disappointment, the bosses in this game put killing you at the top of their to-do list. First-person shooters have a few rules and the golden one at the top in bold and in sparkly glitter says: “No boss fights!” Syndicate heartily ignores this plea and shoves boss fights in almost every level. One of them is good, as it relies on your visual prowess to pick out an invisible threat, but the rest fall completely on their face and stand out as questionable decisions.
Some stack the odds against you by having multiple foes in one arena and others are just plain monotonous. Circle strafing and emptying clip after clip after clip into a human is just boring and too unrealistic. All of the enemies take a few too many bullets to down, but the boss encounters easily take the cake with extended heath bars that cause the fights to drag on for too long. Slogging through a boring fight isn’t the best way to go about in a first-person shooter, but when the difficulty gets cranked up, it reeks of bad game design.
Difficulty does tend to hit the fan while facing ground troops though. The default setting can feel a bit too difficult, causing the game to become frustrating. Syndicate encourages quick action, but your character’s fragility sets this encouragement back a few steps. You’ll want to sprint in like a crazed chip-infused maniac, but you’ll quickly discover that a few guys you left behind during your rampage will quickly put an end to your life. Stopping and playing more strategically can bog down the momentum, due to a faulty cover system. It doesn’t cling you too well to the walls, leaving bits of you exposed for the opposition to aim at. A few weapons try to do the Killzone thing of giving you that brief overpowered-ness, but even these can be annoying due to quick deaths.
Fighting ground troops can hit a sort of stride though. If the right amount of enemies have been dropped in and if you can get over the game’s odd sensitivity while zoomed in, there is a nice rhythm that can be hit. Casting Persuasion on one guy in your DART overlay while firing the laser rifle on another can yield thrills that the game initially promised. Not every battle has this and it does lose steam throughout the game, but it happens frequently enough to leave somewhat of a good impression in the game’s combat scenarios.
Although single-player has its flaws, the cooperative mode seems to have a lot more depth and is more enjoyable for it. Up to four players can hop in online and choose a mission to complete. Shooting remains the same, but it has a few more weapons and customization options to make it excel past the single-player portion. Choosing loadouts and upgrading your arsenal is a good joy (even with time-costing research) and doesn’t seem to have the frustrating limitations that I found in the other mode. Having other people around to revive you (which is a cinch, only requiring line of sight) warrants acting like a lunatic, something I felt the campaign tried to achieve. A lot of this mode has been seen before, but it is done well here and can give the game some much-needed legs.
Playing Syndicate didn’t always have me in the happiest of moods, but looking at it sure helped alleviate the occasional pain. Some large structures may lack detail, but the overall look of the game is rather impressive. Bloom effects are overblown and the clean Mirror’s Edge-like aesthetic gives the game a neat futuristic feel, all while looking technically impressive. Animations are smooth, the framerate doesn’t dip, and everything sounds good ranging from voice acting to sound effects, leaving my ears and eyes pleased.
The UI and HUD shouldn’t be left out of this discussion, as they impress in their own right. The UI feels like it is something within the player’s head chip implants because of the way it bobs and shifts accordingly. It’s a small touch, especially with ammo counter being on the gun, but it is a clean, future-y way to convey all of the information needed for gameplay.
In the final paragraph of most of my reviews, I come to a conclusion of whether I recommend a game to you, the reader, or not. Honestly, I never really came to a definitive conclusion with Syndicate. Even though it has its issues, it isn’t a bad game by any stretch, but not much stuck out to me and made me think that this is a must-play. If you decide to pick it up and give a whirl, I wouldn’t scoff at your decision and if your apathy takes over, I wouldn’t place the blame on you either.
+Vibrant UI and HUD elements that both match the slick graphical style
+Co-op is fun
-Story is all over the place
-Limited amount of powers and upgrades
-Frustrating boss fights and shooting
Final Score: 7/10