It's not like the original Syndicate. We've accepted that. Moved beyond it. This is not Bullfrog's beloved tactical shooting game from 1993. This is something altogether different, and not every game reviewer likes it.
The future changes with each passing moment, ladies and gentlemen, so the future Bullfrog painted in the original Syndicate could easily morph into what Starbreeze Studios and EA have served up this week on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Back in 1993 we looked forward to reacting to the eventual corporate takeover of the world by standing in neat little groups, waiting for our turn to move. When I think of the future these days, I get the urge to run about shooting things.
Maybe that's just me.
Or maybe not. It seems that at least a couple of the black trenchcoat-wearing game reviewers of the incredibly near future (read: now) agree. Let's jack in...erm. Chip out? Just read the damn Frankenreview.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a good game, wasn't it? Its view of a technologically-driven future felt poignant and possible, while also empowering players as they navigated a story full of complex ideologies.
The stylistically similar Syndicate, on the other hand, opens with a QuickTime event. It follows this up with a button-mashing task, then over the next three levels rushes to give you an over simplified set of abilities and a tree-less tech tree before you get bored. It doesn't get much better from there either; if Deus Ex was an essay on transhumanism, Syndicate is an online meme with a tautological caption and a picture of a dead civilian - "Bad man is bad, LOLZ".
The shared history and concept (both are new versions of PC classics, both are about the dangers of corporations and technology without limits) makes Deus Ex a dangerous touchstone for Syndicate, highlighting all the worst excesses Syndicate falls victim to. Despite having similar starting points, the games end up polar opposites, Deus Ex winning acclaim for giving fans what they want, Syndicate earning scowls for reinventing the series for the worse.
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.
From the radiant neon night of the training mission to a massive, sun-drenched flotilla under the azure skies of the Atlantic Ocean, Syndicate's production values are impeccable; Starbreeze really coaxed some beautiful sights out of aging hardware. Some might decry the admittedly excessive use of bloom effects, but we enjoy the busy, occasionally blinding, over-the-top motif. (And you never know, maybe by 2069 every other surface will in fact have a blindingly shiny chrome finish.) The only real problem with these pretty levels is that they often have you running through corridors and enclosed rooms. The flotilla level, for example, lets you glimpse a few vivid vistas worthy of Mirror's Edge, but mostly sends you running through the ship's innards.[associate}
When deciding which enemy to blow up, and which to persuade to fight for you, a shootout reflects a rudimentary chess match where forethought leads to success. These moments highlight Syndicate's innovation, but they don't define the entire experience. Regardless of the ability to breach, every encounter ends in gunfire. To Syndicate's credit, the gunplay is fun and the weapons diverse enough to keep fights interesting, but the subtle influence of high scores and creative breaching mark the more memorable aspects of gameplay.
When the strategic approach breaks down and the guns come out, cover is as effective as a chain-link fence. No matter what stands between the agents and an enemy, bullets seem to find their mark — that's without counting the lock-on bullets that curve around corners from one particular gun. A simplistic cover system lets you peer over barricades to fire on enemies, but because there's no stick mechanic, moving your reticule to the left or right forces the agent to move in that direction, leaving them vulnerable to attack because they're standing out in the open. It's difficult to thoughtfully breach through a large firefight when you're constantly taking on bullets because your agent drifted into a clearing.
The best and worst of Syndicate plays out in the boss battles. Usually fought against other corporate agents, you'll see some cool tricks that often turn into a drawn out game of circle-strafing and cover grabbing while your DART vision recharges. An agent that can seemingly cast mirror image right out of Dungeons & Dragons becomes a bore as you down his doppelgangers and pick away at his life bar. As you're wishing you could violate his firewall, upload Suicide and be done with it, a robot flutters by ready to plop out guns, because the developers know you'll burn through tons of ammo. Even the stronger regular enemies and mini-bosses elicit FPS tactics from 1993. Still, every boss has memorable moments, the best, like playing ping-pong with rockets, require breaching and not bullets. Syndicate has a lot of ideas, but seems unwilling to let some of them out of the bag, instead parading them around at key moments, while some mechanics, like running through weak walls, never amounting to much.
Syndicate looks and sounds great, for the most part. You'll find a crummy texture here and there on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but it makes up for that with some terrific lighting and a good sense of style. The nice "upzone" areas where the sheep live have the pristine, futuristic look that you'd expect from a world run by corporations that want to keep the populace in line. Alternately, your trips downzone, where the unchipped live and are regularly identified by your HUD as simply "hobo," look every bit like the forgotten slums they're built up to be. Also, despite what the pre-release promotion may have led you to believe, this game is not accompanied by an all-dubstep soundtrack. That Skrillex remix of the original game's theme song makes it in during a boss fight, but the rest is standard, moody video game music that fits the tone of the action just fine. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is, obviously, up to you.
I had an outstanding time with Syndicate and really took to the game's cooperative mode in a way that I really didn't expect. The teamwork required there is just enough to get you angry when someone's letting the side down, but not so much that you'll have to organize and coordinate every little move. Rushing into a room full of enemy corporate scum and mowing them all down as they scramble for cover makes you feel invincible due to your own skill at playing the game, rather than some sort of overpowering ability or story reason that puts you above all. The smart players will rise to the challenge and feel like they've been appropriately rewarded for their prowess. The campaign gives you a great look at an interesting world, though its abrupt, too-clean ending feels out of place. It's a somewhat disappointing reward for an otherwise exciting adventure that puts a terrific and fun spin on first-person shooting.
You've already played hundreds of first-person shooters, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution may have satiated your desire for corporate conspiracies and transhumanism, but Syndicate pushes you to react quickly in the face of dangerous, well-organized enemies. Think of the game as a chance to test your multitasking skills while you breach the shields off turrets and command agents to commit suicide.
Cyberpunk fans unite! You've got nothing to lose but $60!