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Syndicate began life is an isometric real-time tactical game by Bullfrog Productions in 1993. It was your job to gain world domination with your established syndicate (corporation) by controlling a four man squad of cyborg super soldiers. You assassinated targets, managed research and development, recruited citizens, and killed anything that got in your way. Since you began with limited resources and money you were required to tax the civilian population but over taxation would lead to rebellion. With this source of income you could research cyborg upgrades and gain new weaponry. Your beginning weapons were pistols but with enough planning and research you could find yourself with a devastating assortment of weaponry. Along with your weapons you also had an ability to brainwash targets into obedience.
Now any knowledge of Syndicate 2012’s predecessor is not required, and if you are a fan of the original you may be pretty upset with what EA has decided to do with this franchise. They have left the real-time strategy roots behind in exchange for a sci-fi first person shooter. I can understand why EA would do this because, let’s be honest, first person shooters sell better then real time strategy games. I don’t understand the need to keep the Syndicate name though since the two games are vastly different in almost every fundamental aspect. This is another example of a game being released with the same name as its classic predecessor while retaining nothing of the original. This is a practice I have come to dislike.
Syndicate is set in an over populated 2069, where your typical government has been jettisoned and large corporations have taken over. These large corporations or syndicates give citizens access to the digital world by way of a chip implant, necessitating the abandonment of any and all digital devices. Once implanted the syndicate can control and influence any decision making. Syndicate starts with your character, Miles Kilo, learning that he is a new and unused weapon at the disposal of the syndicate known as Euro Corp. Through a first person cut scene the CEO of Euro Corp decides that Miles is ready for his first real assignment to the chagrin of Miles designer. This all comes through a well-acted and scripted first person cut scene.
Miles has all the typical weaponry at his disposal that you would come to expect from any first person shooter. There are pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, and sniper rifles all of which have secondary firing modes. One I found very useful was the secondary firing mode for the sniper rifles. Just to the right of the primary scope is an iron sight that allows for quick and accurate short range shooting. This was a little disorientating at first because you basically have two sights on screen but it became easy to use and very practical with practice. Miles also has an assortment of grenades but unfortunately the game never taught me how to equip them. So, I went through the entirety of my play through with out using them. There are also a handful of moments where the game gives you a super weapon and throws a large number of enemies at you. I loved these moments because the game let me feel like I was a real badass cyber enhanced solider and not just some random dude from shooter X or Y or Z.
Along with his primary weaponry Miles also has the ability to access a Dart overlay thanks to his Dart 6 chip implant. This overlay slows time and highlights enemies even when behind walls or other cover. It also gives Miles damage and defense bonuses. Miles Dart 6 chips also gives him the ability to breach (wirelessly hack) many objects in his environment. He can breach doors, elevators, computers, thrown enemy grenades, enemy turrets, and some enemies must be breached before they can take damage. Miles also has three applications which are powerful attacks that can be used against enemies. These applications include suicide, which causes the enemy to detonate a grenade that takes out nearby enemies. Backfire causes an enemy’s gun to explode which knocks him to the ground and makes him vulnerable to attack. The third and most useful application is Persuade. This causes the target to switch sides and attack his former allies. The enemy will continue to attack until there are no more enemies left where he then turns his gun on himself. I found this particularly useful against large number of enemies or against mini-bosses.
The enemy types are not very diverse but it never really bothered me. While not diverse, they were some of the smartest enemies I have had to deal with in any game recently. Enemies would take up positions at a distance and provide cover fire while others rushed my location. Some enemies would go prone behind cover and just creep out to one side to fire their weapons while others would roll out from cover and send large amounts of lead my way. My tactics would have to change and evolve from situation to situation depending on how the AI was behaving. This was especially the case with mini-bosses and boss fights.
The boss fights while not necessarily too difficult just felt out of place in this world. It wasn’t the fact there are bosses to fight but the abilities these bosses had didn’t appear to fit within the game's own fiction. The only ability you have is the ability to hack other chips which is rather mundane compared to these bosses insane abilities. Once you have taken down these bosses you can violently rip their microchip from their skulls which gives you the ability to upgrade. These upgrades don’t really add much depth to the gameplay overall. They just provide stat bonuses such as increased armor, health, more available ammunition, weapon damage increases, and so on. This is not necessarily a bad thing I just felt an opportunity was missed. They could have added extra abilities or breaches which would have made the gameplay a little more tactical.
Graphically the game falls somewhere in the middle. There is nothing here that is going to impress anyone but it does have a good aesthetic and level design even though there is a lot of light saturation to the point that it hurt my eyes on a few occasions. The sound design is also just mediocre but I did really enjoy the soundtrack. It swells in when things get intense and dies down along with the action and the electronic and dub-step just felt at home in a cyber-punk future.
As much as I enjoyed Syndicate it’s not without its flaws. While the gun-play and the breaches work well together and are fun overall; the time between these points just feels like filler. It is almost as if the designers wanted to add platforming sections to break up the shooting. Some of these sections were very frustrating because you have no idea where to go. On multiple occasions I continually walked by a hidden door which accessed the next area. Frustration like this could have easily been avoided if key objects were highlighted in your Dart Overlay. Everything was also broken up with unnecessary progress reports that didn’t only come at the end of a mission but halfway through as well. I’m sure they did this as a way to try and hide loading but all it does is remind you that you are playing a game every thirty minutes or so.
My biggest problem with the campaign was how it ended. I’m not going to spoil anything but the game maintains a first person camera throughout, even during the cut-scenes. However, when you beat the final boss the camera splits to third person and it completely ruined the immersion. Throughout the entirety of the game “I” was Miles Kilo but not at the end. And I can’t figure out why the developers chose to do this. The only thing I can think of is just to give Miles a face, which he didn’t need, his face was my own until this jarring moment at the end.
Syndicate’s campaign clocks in around a respectable ten hours and while it wasn’t perfect I did enjoy my time in Starbreeze’s dystopian future. The gun-play was above average and the breaching abilities added depth and strategy to each encounter. All of the story plot points can be seen from a mile away, but none the less the game kept my attention and rewarded my time invested.
Syndicate’s cooperative multi-player is completely divorced from the single player. It does maintain a similar style of gameplay but it's story, or lack thereof, is unrelated. You are part of a four man squad (similar to the original game) who has to achieve branching objectives through nine varied maps. The co-op level of progression is greatly increased compared to the single player. Where you had only 3 applications in single player, here you have 12, only three of which can be equipped before any match. The guns can also be upgraded, however; they start off nerfed compared to the single player. This may take many hours of gameplay just to get them to the level of performance the single player taught you to expect from the beginning.
Each mission has a similar progression: make your way through a horde of enemies, regroup at a door, more enemies, and another door. This sounds redundant but it broke up the intensity in a way that didn’t cause you to become overwhelmed. It felt very similar to Left for Dead, but there was an objective and not just survival. The gameplay was also much faster and more hectic that the single player. There are many more enemies and more variations in the types of enemies you have to deal with. This meant it felt much more hectic but never overwhelming, especially with a four man squad, but the game doesn’t scale with the number of players. The the difficulty spikes if you are missing a team mate and is almost unbeatable with only two people.
I was worried that the co-op was going to feel tacked on but it was a fully fleshed out and in some ways superior experience when compared to the single player. There was more depth in the upgrades and more agency in the gameplay. It was one of the most rewarding co-op experiences I have had in a long time.
With the way Syndicate was marketed the only preconception that I had was EA was trying to push out a dud in hopes to recoup some of its money, but I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Starbreeze has succeeded in adding a unique, memorable, and just fun experience to a crowded and stifled FPS market.