Look beyond the pixelated visuals and simple tunes of 1993’s original Syndicate and you’ll find a game of callous corporate domination that revels, without a flinch, at the destruction of innocents in the name of progression. The cyberpunk framework provided the optimum setting within which to look at a world where giant syndicated businesses were the new leaders, rendering national boundaries and elected governments meaningless.
Combine that with a level of strategic gameplay that is still absorbing almost 20 years later, and it’s hard to argue against the original Syndicate’s status as a classic. Even if this 2012 reboot hadn’t come along, we’d still be talking about the Syndicate of 1993.
20 years from now, we won’t be talking about Starbreeze’s Syndicate FPS.
Other than the odd story element and the fact that you take on the role of a corporation’s elite ‘Agent’, this Syndicate bears little resemblance to the original. I’m not one of those people who have been crucifying EA for not sticking to the 1993 formula, but whatever the content, I expect it to be decent.
And it is decent, but nothing more than that. It’s not great, excellent, outstanding or whichever of today’s overused and dumbed-down plaudits you prefer to use – it’s decent.
For starters, the exploration of what a future could look like if governed by the iron rule of commercially driven corporations is valid, but very familiar, ground. In 1993, you could get away with a story like this and call it original, and be praised for highlighting issues starting to affect us. In 2012 you can’t, because there’s so much cyberpunk fiction dealing with this issue that it’s incredibly difficult to find a fresh angle from which to approach it.
You play as agent Miles Kilo, sent out to investigate rival corporations but finding that it’s your own company that you should be worried about. Kilo is fitted with a new kind of chip, the Dart-6, which allows him access to abilities unattainable by rival agents and your own allies.
The Dart-6 is incredibly useful when engaged in one of Syndicate’s many gunfights, allowing you to slow down time and see enemies hiding behind cover for a limited time. Slowing down of time is essential more often than not, as enemies will often attack from multiple directions and changing one second into three is your only reasonable chance of survival. That’s still not always enough, one particular section taking eight or nine attempts to get right. In terms of the difficulty, this is no dumb shooter.
You’re forced to stay aggressive rather than stealthy by the fact that the Dart-6 is recharged more quickly by performing headshots and melee kills. The pace goes a long way to imbedding a unique sense of intensity into Syndicate, but it can’t escape the fact that each part has been bolted on to the next with sloppy workmanship.
Gunplay is good, but when combined with the awkward movement it becomes slightly annoying. The Dart-6 chip is a neat idea but its implementation lacks imagination. The visuals are technically nice but artistically derivative and soon become an ignored backdrop.
It’s a shame because there are hints at bigger and better things. Your Dart-6 chip can interact with chips in your enemies, allowing you to initiate Persuade, Suicide or Backfire. Persuade turns them against their allies, once all of them are dead the ‘persuaded’ will turn the gun on himself. Suicide causes them to kill themselves with a grenade that also takes out anyone nearby and Backfire acts like a stun grenade.
These are the only three you have access to throughout the whole game, though, and their recharge times mean their use is infrequent unless you level up in a way that speeds them up.
During the brief moments when you’re not fighting, there are puzzles of sorts to solve. These mainly consist of navigation problems, such as working out where elevators should be to allow you to climb up partially destroyed buildings. With a little tweaking these could have been improved to present a challenge that is more meaningful than simply finding the interaction points. It’s a shame that they’re not both better and more frequent as the dominant memory of Syndicate come the final credits is one of all action and little else.
It’s not all bad, though. The linear levels are, despite the cut-and-paste visuals, nicely laid out and at times surprisingly intricate. Battles in the confines of a small warehouse are often followed immediately by a long range sniper battle or one-on-one boss fight (of varying entertainment), creating a mystery as to what’s around the next round corner that prevents things getting stale.
Plus, the guns are worth your effort. Syndicate features one of the most powerful miniguns (with infinite ammo) I’ve ever seen, a pistol capable of ending an enemy’s life with a single bullet, and the Guass which can lock on to targets and fire around corners. It’s a motley bunch but an effective one.
Then there’s the darker side. Extracting chips by puncturing someone’s eyes or ears with a fancy needle brings a level of isolated gruesomeness that is missing elsewhere, but would have let off a much stronger feeling of mechanical, corporate cruelty if included more often.
Once the single player is over, co-op multiplayer offers an experience that is slightly more rooted in teamwork than unleashing the biggest arsenal possible. Forward planning is required for some of the tougher boss fights and going solo at pretty much any point is a recipe for disaster. Those that see themselves as Lone Wolf heroes should leave the application queue right now, because I don’t want you on my team.
As I said before, I am not one of those people who object out of principal to EA remaking Syndicate as a first-person shooter. I do object to finished products that fail to capture any of the same intrigue, excitement or entertainment of previous entries into a franchise. Syndicate is by no means a bad game, many of its elements work perfectly fine – the problem is that they don’t work that well when combined, resulting in a grinding of the individual cogs rather than a smooth clockwork motion.