Review: Syndicate (X360)

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In 1993, Bullfrog Productions introduced the world to an isometric, future dystopia where augmented “Agents” were used by megacorporate empires to take the battle for market share out of the boardrooms and into the streets.

It was a tactical game spread across fifty cities across the world as you guided your team of four to cripple the competition by any means possible even if it meant using civilians as meat shields. The Atlantic Accelerator mission still gets a nod from me for its ruthless difficulty, and that was before the expansion pack made things even worse.

Since then, it’s become a cyberpunk classic so when EA and Starbreeze announced that Syndicate would reboot as an FPS, more than a few people were upset. For some, it reminded them of what FASA under Microsoft had done with Shadowrun. Even I had doubts. At the same time, it’s also easy to understand why. In a market dominated by Activision’s Modern Warfare, it’s a safe guess that they were trying to answer how to get an audience that may not have even played the original game to give this a shot.

And now after moonlighting as a new Agent, I can safely say that while it won’t knock your cybersocks off, it doesn’t quite leave the operating table littered with leftover body parts from the original, either. 

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Starbreeze’s artists and designers have consistently delivered on set pieces and backdrops that embrace their love of the material. Massive skyscrapers, futuristic spires to capitalism, grungy alleyways at the bottom of these man made utopias paint a world surgically divided down into the haves and have nots if you can see it through the excessive bloom layered on nearly everything.

Data entries describing the other “syndicates” in the world, the megacorporate power brokers that continually vie for power, are crammed with text including names of who is on the board for what. Weapons have manufacturer’s writeups, characters have bios with paragraphs of text dedicated to their backgrounds, and collectable “business cards” contain snippets of what life is like in 2069 with the world divided between those who are “chipped” and those who aren’t.

It’s this kind of craftsmanship that their work on the Riddick games have demonstrated not once, but twice, in expanding the world well beyond that of the films and the reboot does that in paying homage to the original with as much detail as your eyeballs can take.

As an Agent, players are equipped with the DART 6 chip. Imagine being able to think your way into Facebook and update things on the fly, or look at an item and be able to determine what it is and how much it costs without even picking it up, and you’ll have an idea of how revolutionary the DART is. No one carries mobile phones anymore because it literally is all in your head. The chips also determine customer loyalties within certain regions.

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If you live in Europe or the East Coast, you’ll likely have a Eurocorp oriented DART while those living in Japan may have one from Aspari instead. It’s a layer of techno-oriented social commentary, along with the debate between the chipped and unchipped, that ask questions that seem wasted on a shooter. Syndicate is a lore hound’s paradise that seems more at home in a genre where story matters more, such as an RPG, and the game brims over with this stuff in nearly every mission.

Of course, Eurocorp has taken things another step further by militarizing the DART. Other syndicates have also followed suit creating Agents which are cyber-soldiers linked into their respective networks. They’re also not above sending these Agents in to defend their interests while making sure that their opposite numbers don’t come back alive. Wetwork has replaced hostile takeovers and private armies of grunts patrol the borders for each syndicate while Agents are sent in as scalpels to get things done. Agents like you.

Because of Syndicate’s cyberpunk, seeing the world through the augmented reality of a feature-rich HUD is part of the experience. Virtual tags mark things as innocuous as boxes or the status of your latest victim as “expired”. Activating an overlay drains a regenerating battery of power, but can also enhance your aim and allow you to “see” enemies behind walls. Upgrades found along the way can also improve your ability to survive combat and deal death on a faster scale with a regenerating shield or in being able to take more damage. Corporate lingo is used to describe your performance in every mission. If you were looking for a cyberpunk shooter that reveled as much in its material as Deus Ex: Human Revolution did, Syndicate comes close.

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But apart from its immersive world, the action doesn’t quite match up with it. Level design, while pretty, is often linear in funneling the player forward. Mashing the X button to open doors and panels quickly becomes routinely boring. Enemies pour from monster closets like cargo containers, elevator doors, and garages with repetitive fervor especially towards the end. A boss battle literally broke when I fought it forcing me to restart the fight until it worked. Aside from the cyberpunkish trappings and the neat upgrade system, it felt like any other shooter aside from the obligatory, and often harrowing, boss fights.

It’s also relatively short and experienced FPS players can charge on through the single-player in a day or two. The ending also delivers little reward which is strange considering how much material there was everywhere else supporting the story. There’s also no New Game + mode to go through it again with your upgrades, although you can play through previously unlocked chapters to pick up any collectables that you might have missed such as hidden subliminal propaganda tags or business cards. The only other reason to play through it again is to try out a new upgrade path if you can stomach the repetition. Or you can always hop online to experience a second storyline based around the multiplayer.

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Multiplayer’s initially crushing difficulty curve can surprise players that may have eased through the single-player campaign. If anything else, it surprised me as much as the bruising assault did at the Atlantic Accelerator in the original game that left only one of my agents alive at the end. And it’s that level of frustration that prospective agents may write off the experience with. Sticking with it, however, yields its own rewards.

It doesn’t pull many punches. It will bludgeon players with armored toughs and waves of cannon fodder ready to rain lead down on you and your team. The armored guys are the worst as they have to be hacked first before becoming vulnerable to fire just like in the single-player only there are more of them. The multiplayer scenarios aren’t shy about sending these into the fray. They’re like miniature boss fights, at least at first.

Each co-op scenario “suggests” having four players and it’s wise advice as the encounters do not scale themselves back regardless of your party size. Starting out with few enhancements and no weapon or application upgrades at the start, death can come quickly to the unprepared. Or to those that try playing this as they had Modern Warfare or Borderlands.

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Syndicate’s mix of customization and experience earned for every kill or use of skills is key to surviving more than a few minutes of battle. As your Agent graduates from level to level, tokens can be spent to unlock weapon and application upgrades for research. More importantly, each level earned gives you a chip enhancement point to spend.

Like in the single-player, your chip starts out with the basics only with a few extras for multiplayer – the ability to reboot your teammates if they go down, breaching enemy defenses with a hack attack, and so on – but by picking and choosing what you want, you can open up new benefits. Before long, your meek cybernaut can become a formidable survivor melting the difficulty away.  By the time they reach the cap at 30, it becomes possible to solo a few missions with your overpowered Agent. At least on the Normal setting.

But more importantly, it’s the emphasis on co-op that is the most important piece of the multiplayer experience especially against enemy Agents that can also heal and reboot each other as you and your teammates can. Syndicates, the game’s version of clans, are flavored with capitalism with the founder named as the CEO and the clan’s performance measured over time like a stock report.

There is no player vs. player other than leaderboard standings, but the co-op mode with its many upgrades and transhumanist neuromancy sets it distinctly apart from anything else out there. If you had ever wondered what Deus Ex could have been like in a multiplayer look no further. Syndicate brings in the kind of digital wetwork that tabletop titles such as ICE’s Cyberspace and the corporations in Steve Jackson’s Cyberpunk reveled in. For fans that have been waiting for a game to do that right online with an FPS, Syndicate might be as close to that as we might get for some time. Add to that difficulty levels that crank things up, and tackling the same maps with even more brutal opposition despite having so many upgrades can add to its appeal

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The downside is that it doesn’t quite have the kind of upgrade longevity that a Modern Warfare does though, at the same time, it thankfully scoots players along its upgrade path to avoid the feeling of grind. Whether additional maps or scenarios are going to be provided later on is still up in the air, but for those that have rinsed and repeated their way through this mode after so many times and have fully upgraded everything, syndicates and leaderboards might not be enough to hold their interest in the long term.

The original Syndicate was a test of tactical verve bolted and wired in megacorporate nihilism. It brought me countless hours of equal parts frustration and teary eyed victory while paying welcome lip service to William Gibson’s grit-filled, chrome plated future hell. Starbreeze’s take lifts the material up and out from it injecting it into a fairly competent game that shines more online than by its lonesome. The lavish attention paid to the world is a craft that few titles easily grasp making me wish that it could have been enough to raise the fairly linear gameplay to the same level.

At the same time, I’m not upset over this take on Syndicate. Starbreeze’s artists and designers show off their world crafting chops with an almost obsessive level of detail. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder if that kind of attention could have been taken further, beyond the rigid confines of an FPS and into something else equally as gripping. As it is, your trip into Syndicate’s single minded action may be too short and too basic a primer for its world. But when the online half easily ties together prospective Agents across the ether, it more easily synthesizes its voice.

Syndicate
EA / Starbreeze Studios
Microsoft Windows / Xbox 360 / PS3 (reviewed for Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature