Also available on: PS3, PC
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: First-person shooter
Syndicate has returned nearly 20 years after Bullfrog's original strategy title introduced gamers to a world run by ruthless corporations and technologically-enhanced special agents. But while this may be Syndicate in name, it's not Syndicate as we know it. EA's reboot welcomes back the Eurocorp Syndicate and its merciless operatives, sure, but replaces the isometric strategical gameplay with first-person shooter action. A controversial move sure to anger diehard fans, but one that will be forgiven if the latest entry can live up to its legacy.
With corporations and commerce essentially replacing governments and nations, the future is pretty bleak. Technological chip advancements are the key to power, and rival syndicates will stop at nothing to ensure that their technology is the best. Players assume the role of Miles Kilo, a deadly Eurocorp agent equipped with the latest Dart 6 chip technology.
Not only does this make him handy with a weapon or two, but it gives our agent the ability to hack into and control almost anything fitted with a computer chip. In addition to opening doors and bypassing security systems, Kilo can manipulate human will and weaponry, resulting in some rather unconventional gameplay scenarios.
What begins as a relatively simple mission to infiltrate a rival organisation and eliminate a top researcher, descends into a morality tale full of double dealing employees, betrayals and long-forgotten childhood memories. The callous cast of characters are well fleshed-out and the story is competently handled with twists and turns around every corner. Ultimately, however, Syndicate's narrative is a little too conventional, with the final reveal failing to deliver in the shock stakes.
Fortunately, the core gameplay experience is enjoyable enough to overlook a few shortcomings in the plot department. While Syndicate's actual gunplay offers little in the way of innovation - barring a homing rifle that shoots around cover - the Dart 6 chip technology has some rather interesting uses. Pretty early on in the game players will have access to its three core abilities: suicide, backfire and persuade.
Suicide sees enemies turn guns on themselves, backfire stuns and weakens enemies by causing their weapons to backfire, while persuade sees an enemy join Kilo and lay waste to their fellow goons (before committing suicide). Powers are charged by killing enemies (quicker for headshots, and so on), and each one is capable of affecting multiple henchmen.
Combined with an overlay ability, which slows time and exposes all nearby enemies, the powers quickly become an integral part of dealing with the plentiful supply of reasonably intelligent enemies. Figuring out which enemies are where and optimising your powers is key, and for all of the temptation to simply run and gun, you'll survive a lot longer if you use Kilo's abilities.
Use persuade on an enemy stationed on higher ground, for example, and they'll pick off soldiers beneath them. Backfire is handy for enemies hiding in cover, while inflicting suicide on a soldier surrounded by his buddies sees the blast range eliminate the lot.
Kilo can also manipulate mechanical objects, as well as enemy shields and cloaking devices. One part of the game sees him bring an elevator down on a couple of unsuspecting foes, while another area has him avoid turret fire by using his ability to move a sparsely loaded conveyor belt. While Syndicate doesn't feature quite the same level of experimental gameplay as something like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the breach technology adds a much needed strategical element and injects a heavy dose of variety into what could have been just another shooter.
Unfortunately, the development team has dropped the ball slightly when it comes to boss fights, which are too few and far between and lack much in the way of imagination. An early boss fight pits Kilo against a super speedy rival agent. With your overlay ability able to slow down time, it doesn't take a genius to work out what to do. Likewise, a later battle sees Kilo come up against an enemy with a cloaking device. Once again, it's simply a matter of using the overlay ability, in addition to one or two of the conveniently placed EMP grenades.
While we're a big fan of the cold-hearted world that the game takes place in, the actual gaming environments also err on the dull side. Largely taking place in Los Angeles and New York, Syndicate suffers the same fate as the majority of futuristic games, in that the sleek, mechanical interiors - whether lab or apartment building - lack character and personality.
Of course, while we understand and appreciate that this is in keeping with the game's cold vision of the future, it doesn't make the environments any more visually appealing. Predictably, areas that don't benefit from corporate money (the slums, basically) are actually the most visually impressive.
Hurrah, therefore, for the game's co-operative multiplayer mode, which not only contains many more diverse levels from around the world, but stages that hearken back to the original games. Almost immediately, an early level based in Mozambique contains more personality and diversity than the majority of the areas found in the single-player campaign.
Not only does the multiplayer add a little extra life and colour into Earth circa 2069, but it greatly increases the game's longevity past the seven to eight-hour single-player campaign. Each mission sees players tasked with completing a certain objective. These range from killing a powerful enemy soldier, to stealing valuable data and waiting for extraction. Even on lower difficulties, the tasks are tricky, with a steady stream of enemies on hand to unload a clip or two.
While the single-player experience features three core abilities, the multiplayer mode ups the ante, offering additional group-based powers such as shielding and health boosts. More are discovered and unlocked as you progress, with a skill tree (also featured in single-player campaign) proving your most valuable asset.
The substantial list of abilities and upgrades to both skills and weapons leads to a multiplayer experience with bags of depth and individuality. Choosing weapon loadouts and character types, which can limit your experience in rival games, contribute only a small part to your character's strengths and weaknesses. With so much to unlock and with levels needing to be replayed to progress further, experimenting with the vast arsenal is enormous amounts of fun.
The Syndicate multiplayer offering also strikes a nice balance between individual shows of skill and team-based tactics. Enemies appear in multiple locations and on different levels, often requiring teams to fraction into smaller groups. Stray too far, however, and there's no chance for revival once the inevitable occurs.
Likewise, some objectives limit your ability to shoot, giving one player the chance to play bodyguard and the other a big points payoff when the objective is met. Some of the more powerful enemies will also drop chips, so it pays to go after them, but who's protecting the rear?
Judged purely on the merits of the solo experience, Syndicate doesn't quite have the same impact and lasting appeal as its forebears. The narrative, while flowing and fast moving, is a little too by-the-numbers, while the gaming environments themselves are a little lifeless and lacking in personality. The gunplay is satisfying, but not overly innovative, although thankfully the Dart 6 chip powers inject variety into what otherwise would have been a far-too-ordinary shooter.
Fortunately, the game's four-player co-operative experience is far stronger. Objectives are varied, levels are interesting and the scope for weapon and ability advancements is mightily impressive. While Starbreeze Studios may have some trouble convincing die-hard Syndicate fans to open their hearts and minds to the series' new style and direction, its multiplayer offering should breach many a gaming session for some time to come.
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