Way back in 1993 a blossoming UK developer by the name of Bullfrog took a leap of faith with designer Sean Cooper’s isometric RTS title. Setting a traditional RTS mechanic against a large dystopian cyber-punk future proved a wonderful pairing and the now legendary Syndicate was born.
Almost twenty years later and Swedish developers Starbreeze take the seminal classic and its sequel, Syndicate Wars, as a basis for an FPS remake. I, like many, groaned in sheer exhaustion when I heard the word FPS. But surely if someone could make an FPS with a unique slant it would be the creators of the Riddick and The Darkness title. Luckily my gamble, and EA’s, paid off.
Set in the same universe and the original titles, and using a whole heap of the original material as inspiration, we follow the exploits of super agent Kilo Miles. He’s the first of a new breed of agent working for the originator of the synthetic Dart chip that allows everyone and everything to communicate. The problem is that governments no longer regulate or control the world. This now falls to the mega corporations, or Syndicates. Each of these humongous organisations is hungry for power and dominance. This thurst has lead them to the brink of all out war. Not for land – but for the minds of the world.
As you progress as Kilo you slowly start to see the world as it is. Transitioning from corporate lap-dog and looking at the desolate world around you. Seeing the drastic difference between the neon glow and cyber-automation of the “chipped” and the down trodden and squalid existence of the unchipped downtowners.
So all pretty standard cyber-punk themes here and to be fair the game uses these tropes very well indeed. The story is reasonable and more than mature enough not to descend in to a sordid vehicle for the gunplay. Written by UK novelist Richard K Morgan (he of Crysis 2 as well!) it rises above the regular videogame heard and puts clever touches the genre.
The look of the game is mostly gorgeous. The design is what sets it apart aiming for a mixture of Brink and Deus Ex with a dash of Riddick’s shine. The game looks great, is smooth and runs at 1080p on the PS3. Character models are very nicely created and AI cannon fodder always moves and reacts slickly. The dismemberment mechanic is also pretty darn brutal in places! What I will say is that some of the environments can get a little repetitive and the over expose given to light sources, not to mention the bloom effect, can make the game too washed out and difficult to see at times. I had to really tweak my gamma and brightness on my LED TV to get a good balance.
Music is great throughout the game and moves the pace along with relevant, if a little obvious standard sci-fi/futuristic tones. Guns sound incredible, spot effects are well handled and the limited voice cast are superb. Well they should be with standard go-to corporate villain voice Brian Cox and the most gorgeous Rosario Dawson on hand to put in great performances.
Talking of tweaking I have to say that, out of the box, Syndicate’s controls were far too loose and twitchy for my tastes. Luckily this is adjustable in the settings menus so a little trial and error corrected this fact – I noticed none of this when I played the Xbox 360 edition.
Once tweaked though the controls are smooth and intuitive. What Syndicate brings to the FPS mix are some very interesting gameplay modifiers, in the form of upgrade modules, and the need to make most shots count. As you progress you will unlock three software updates to your chip. This will allow you to activate Suicide, Persuade and backfire. A press of the L2 button with an enemy in your sites will kick off the selected program. This allows you to breach the security of the target and introduce your program. Suicide causes your target to lose it big time and pull the pin on a grenade taking out anyone in the splash damage radius. Backfire causes up to three targets to have their weapons backfire and cause them to stumble (plus take a little damage). In this downed state you get a minute amount of invulnerability and they take more damage. Finally you have Persuade. Here you cause a target to switch sides and fight for you. They will plough their way through enemies until either the effect wears off or they run out of targets. Either way the result is the same and they turn their gun around and blow a sunroof in their cranium. Great stuff!
The campaign will see you entertained and partially frustrated (more on that in a moment!) for around 5 or six hours all told. Each of the 20 chapters will end with a multipage summary screen in the form of a formal corporate appraisal. You are scored on time to complete, accuracy, headshots, rampage (successive kills before a meter diminishes) etc. This will provide more than reason enough to go back through the campaign or at the very least individual chapters.
Using the Dart system (hitting R2) seems superfluous at first but if you neglect it you will die very quickly and very often. Shooting in the game is very satisfying with the various weapons ranging from powerful to WTF! Old series favourites like the Gauss Gun, flamethrowers and sniper rifles return complimented by the usual array of assault rifles, pistols and shotguns. The sporadic “boss” encounters are a great change of pace but serve up some of the most frustration in the game. Often you’ll feel cheated by a bad camera angle or cheap shot. More often than not you’ll be greatly overwhelmed on these encounters and it’s a real slog to progress.
In many aspects Syndicate does its best to try and take edge off your rapid progress. The game moves rapidly, combat is intense and closely fought with you transitioning over object (thanks Brink!) and sliding around the place in slick movements. Try and move to quickly without thinking or proper planning and you’ll be dead in seconds.
The game offers up a nice co-op mode for when you’re done with the campaign. Setting you and up to three others against unique challenge like scenarios. You take on levels with varying objective like collect and return hard disks from a rival corporation’s base and return them to your chopper. These levels are great fun and offer a stiff challenge unless you get the full 4 team member compliment. This is due to the fact does not scale based on players in the match. If it’s just you or you and one mate you will find it very hard even on the normal setting to get through the scenarios. Take along a full team however and the level is more than manageable. People need to work out that they should be healing and taking it slowly soon enough and even random encounters with players lead to more than acceptable team work matches. There is an unlock system based on XP earned during play that allows you to customise your agent, their load out and gain more abilities to use in the co-op games.
I initially told my colleagues at BG that playing Syndicate was about as much fun as trying to violate an eel in a hurricane – I was wrong. The initial difficulty, over saturation of lighting and sometimes lengthy loading just turned me off and left me cold. The initial few hours of frustration and realisation I was playing the game wrong soon faded and from that point the game was a blast.
Incredibly well conceived, fast paced and seamless breach mechanics mean you can run with a pistol held slanted like a John Woo movie whilst hacking turrets and causing enemies to blow their own heads off all without breaking a sweat. You feel like you could make Neo your bitch!
A measured departure from the isometric titles of old Starbreeze (a studio who I LOVE) have taken a well thought out world and wrapped it around their well thought out shooter mechanics to make a truly unique and satisfying shooter. It has a few issues here and there with the overly washed out lighting, some muddy texture work in place, unforgiving combat and sometime frustrating boss battles. These elements along with possibly a lack of longevity rob Syndicate of the highest ranks.
Nothing should stop you taking a chance on this updated classic, I really think you’ll be pleasantly surprised that Starbreeze took this and made such as well thought out action title.