First-person shooters and Cyberpunk futures saturate and often overstay their welcome in the gaming world. Starbreeze as a developer has a reputation for spicing up the mundane and implementing unique gameplay features. Syndicate is no different in that it overlays new gameplay elements in a well-lit Cyberpunk future. The future is bright.
Before we begin, Syndicate is a reboot of a 1993 game. The development team voiced its intentions early on that it wanted to retain the heart of the original franchise and modernize the experience. We will evaluate that later on. Just keep it top of mind throughout the review.
It’s 2069 and countries no longer separate the world. Huge corporate conglomerates called “syndicates” own and control various regions across the world. These syndicates all sell implanted computer chips that allow people to access the world around them. Data, currency, and identification all rely on these chips. For these corporations, the militaristic capabilities of these chips keep them competitive in the marketplace. There is an underground struggle for power balanced by gunfights, ambushes, invasions, abductions, and all other forms of organized aggression.
You play as Miles Kilo, one of the underground regulators in 2069. Employed by Eurocorp, Miles fights to keep the company’s intellectual property safe; that’s where the fun begins. Using his superior implant, Miles opens doors, diffuses grenades, and breaches enemy chips to garner a strategic advantage. Backfire damages enemies and makes them more vulnerable while jamming guns. Persuade encourages enemies to switch sides and ultimately commit suicide.
The story is perhaps the game’s weakest facet. It employs a lot of traditional storytelling conventions involving plot twists and things not being what they seem. It’s a shame really, because Starbreeze succeeded in making the game look and play different from many in its genre. If they had exerted the same amount of care and effort into the story, it would feel revolutionary rather than evolutionary.
The universe is a deep one with very interesting backstories. Competing Syndicates have a history, as do their most valuable personnel. You can access this information by listening to news reports, transferring data and finding collectible electronic busts throughout the game. The problem is that the text is so small, you will find it very disconcerting attempting to read the information. I have a 60″ HDTV and after reading text on a PC screen all day work, I could not bring myself to read any more on-screen text despite how interesting it may have been. An audio codex with audiologs would have alleviated this issue.
Don’t let that deter you though. Despite all the criticisms of the boss fights, I found them to be a nice reprieve from the corridors of grunts to work through. Playing the game on normal difficulty often feels unfair, as I died many times without knowing the why or where or whom. Ultimately though, the game felt very balanced and once you master the rhythm of breach skills, evasion and shooting; cutting down a crowd of 8 people becomes a mediocre challenge. The coop play more than makes up for the single-player.
You and three other friends represent an unknown yet separate Syndicate, and you tackle nine missions from maps lifted directly from the original 1993 version of Syndicate. It’s a very smart and well-executed homage to the original idea and works fabulously. The variety of layouts and vistas is awe-inspiring and each pose their own challenges.
As an elite agent, you level up and acquire new skills similar to those found in the campaign. Difference is, these are much cooler. E-Drain allows you to gain 50% of the damage you’ve dealt as health. Focus breaching, infinite sprint, regeneration boost, emergency resuscitation and many other skills round out the upgrade paths. Weapons also upgrade and with customizable loadouts, this is where Syndicate begins to show its depth.
In order to upgrade skills and weapons, you have to unlock the skills for research. As you play each mission equipping those researched skills and weapons, you gain experience points toward those researched projects based on your performance in each mission. When you cross an experience threshold (be it 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 or higher), you can than use the acquired skill or weapon. You can queue one research and skill project at a time; so if you level-up mid-mission, the queued research projects garner the accumulated experience points for the duration of the mission. Thanks to weapon research, my magnum has a red dot sight and splits people in half.
You can choose either an offensive, defensive or support role. How you classify yourself is not as important as the role you play in co-op. Squad healing and damage shielding skills really support the team. E-drain, persuade, and focus breach are more aggressive skills and are usually equipped in the offensive roles. However, if your team has no behavioral strategy in place before the firefight begins, there may be a lot of hurt feelings in your friend circle – provided you can get the multiplayer to work.
My entire play group encountered constant server connection issues. We would be kicked out of games, lose experience/research points, and be forced to hard reboot our Xbox 360s constantly. This happened to me seven times over the course of two nights. The temporary solution to that issue is to use the game chat feature and not the party chat feature offered by Xbox Live. This worked for about three hours on Friday evening and then the problems returned. Hopefully a forthcoming patch fixes that issue, because forced reboots on sensitive Xbox 360s are heartwrenching to those who have endured Red Rings of Death.
You can even extend your circle by creating clans called Syndicates. Starbreeze gets real cheeky with the corporate structure and the clan leader is appointed CEO. Only the CEO can invite others to and promote players within the clan to board members. Board members can also recruit other members to the clan. Clans are graded against each other via the stock market in game. The quality of your clan is directly reflected in your stock market assessment. Assign a logo to your clan and you are an official, unique Syndicate in this world. I think it’s brilliant.
Summarily, Syndicate is a good single-player experience with a fantastic cooperative structure. It is built around intelligent, structured gameplay mechanics and looks good doing it. The depth of the upgrades and playstyles combined with the clan support reintroduces gameplay popularized by games like Left4Dead. The game’s lore could have been presented in a cleaner, less text-heavy manner and the no-party-chat limitations makes talking to your circle about this great game problematic. Aside from that, Syndicate’s immensely entertaining cooperative structure is like few I’ve experienced before. It is a must play.