The Matrix. Terminator. Future stories that focus on advancements in technology usually center on machines taking over. But, what if instead of racing to create the better machine, we created better people. Augmented people. How about we sidestep the singularity and focus on upgraded humans. If that sounds familiar, then you’re probably thinking of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, one of 2011’s best action games. Then again, it’s also the story found in Syndicate, the new first-person shooter from Starbreeze and EA. Don’t expect this story to have the same cohesion and motivated characters found in Deus Ex. Some games are meant to be played cooperatively or not at all. Syndicate is one of those games.
Syndicate is filled with cool upgrades, fast and furious sci-fi shootouts, exquisite “Neo Tokyo” environments and sadly one of the most choppy and humdrum stories in gaming. Tack on obtrusive puzzles and platforming to this muddled single-player adventure and you will find one game that could have been great to play, but is unnecessarily annoying and painful at times. Forgo the single-player campaign and you’ll get to enjoy everything that’s great about Syndicate: corporate sabotage, the ability to hack into your enemy’s brain, tons of great weapons and deadly enemies that teleport.
When you first power on Syndicate, you will be greeted by a monologue that brings you up to speed on the state of the world. Starting in 2017, a major corporate merger happened, forming Eurocorp. It’s the most powerful corporation in history. Eurocorp sounds like a futuristic tale of the start of a new technology driven Roman Empire. But, don’t expect this concept to be explored or developed. The tale of Eurocorp and corporate espionage falls flat. All of the story elements just serve to get in the way of the action.
Players then learn that humans have been digitally enhanced. They can now hack into computers and even other people’s minds just by thinking about it. This makes for some awesome gameplay. Gamers can make enemies commit suicide or turn them against their own team. It’s what the game Mindjack wanted to be. Players can also use a backfire program, which lets you momentarily disarm an opponent. Enemies fall to the ground as if they were hit and weakened by a concussion grenade; this allows you to quickly kill them.
Gamers have a vast supply of weapons to pick up from fallen enemies. The action quickly builds up in intensity when you are making one enemy commit suicide, while sniping another or using a laser targeting system. Players can also activate their DART program, which pulls up a blueprint of the world. The system outlines enemies and key points of interest, while slightly slowing down the action so that you can unleash hell. You really are a one-man army. And, you might as well be a one-man team because you have no real motivations throughout the game. If your partner dies, who cares? No relationships are made between the characters. This is just about getting from one fight to the next, while waiting for the story to crawl by. By the end of the game, the story tries to make up for lost time but by then you’ve already stopped caring.
The game designers did a great job in creating a detailed and fully articulated world for you to blast your way through. It feels like you’re walking through New Tokyo in Akira. Digital images and text scroll across the side of buildings, while hardcore dub and techno beats work in tandem to keep you fully locked into the action.
However, what takes you out of the action and the beautiful sci-fi world are the random platforming puzzles that come up throughout the game. This isn’t Assassin’s Creed, yet it tries to be. You’ll have to do running jumps to get from one platform to the next. They’re not difficult per say, but they stop the momentum of the game. Players will find themselves facing a wave of enemies just before the action comes to a screeching halt. You’ll stop and say, “Wait, where do I go?” Then you’ll remember that there’s probably some system to hack into in order to advance. The problem with these puzzles is that they are never really introduced or integrated seamlessly into the game. In Deus Ex, your upgrades made sense. You could climb down a ladder or use your augments to jump down a ten-story drop without injury. If that didn’t suit your taste, you could always punch through a wall. These puzzles were part of the world. Syndicate just tries to add these into splotchy moments to differentiate itself from a standard FPS.
There is no cover system in Syndicate. Players can only kneel behind objects. They can also perform a Bulletstorm foot slide. It’s another mechanism that is an unnecessary add-on to this game. While you slide, you won’t take any damage. However, by the time you get up, someone will already be shooting you. Enemies in Syndicate never seem to follow any particular structure, which is great. They jump down from above, flank you from any open doors, and there always seems to be one more just when you think that you’ve cleared a room. Once they start to get their own augments and upgraded weapons it really bolsters the action.
There are tons of item grabs to be found in Syndicate. You will have to press and hold down the button for a while to pick up or drop an item. There are also enemies that you can kill in order to steal their chips, another fun dynamic. It would have been nice if something more were done with the hacking. Perhaps a mini-game would have worked? Sometimes sitting through a fifteen-second animation of a hack just seemed like needless showboating of the team’s motion graphics skills. It was like watching a transition scene from ESPN Sports Center or NFL Redzone.
The real excitement in Syndicate comes from the online cooperative gameplay. You team up in a group of four to go on a corporate sabotage mission. These missions take place around the world. Once again, you have your DART system as well as the ability to make an enemy’s system backfire. Gamers can also heal their teammates. Players are given experience points for healing a teammate, completing objectives and also for rebooting your teammate’s system. That’s right, instead of dying or bleeding out, your system goes temporarily offline. That’s the kind of great personality found in cooperative gameplay.
What’s great about the cooperative game is that it strips away all the unnecessary elements of the single player campaign. You don’t have to engage in wannabe platforming puzzles. Useless story bits about humdrum characters and mission details are tossed aside. And, you can just engage in a great first-person shooter combat system.
There’s also a clan system, which allows you to team up with a group of friends and compete for Leaderboard dominance. It’s a refreshing touch. Typically, clans are reserved for deathmatches or bouts of capture the flag.
Syndicate finds its footing in its online multiplayer game. You can savor the weapons, combat and camaraderie of working with teammates. Gamers will care more about their team members in the co-op campaign than those in the single player game. Unfortunately, the solo campaign suffers from painful puzzles, ill-conceived platforming and a trite story. There was a good concept here and some great gameplay; it just wasn’t fully realized.