In the year 2069, corporations have succeeded governments as the dominant social and political structures in the world. These syndicates care for their consumers’ health, housing, education, employment and entertainment. With neurological chips, augmented life and lifestyle comes in a single package. But in the battle for market dominance, business is war.
Perpetrating this corporate espionage are the agents, neuro-chipped assassins who can hack into the hyper-connected world and its citizenry in order to breach the research and development departments of rival syndicates. One such syndicate is EuroCorp; its agent: Miles Kilo.
There’s no argument that it’s a topical time to reintroduce Syndicate’s vision of a dystopian corporate future. Never before have we been so cynical of the glass castles erected on Wall St. Whether by sheer luck or by good planning: cometh the hour, cometh the game.
But initial excitement surrounding the announcement of a rebooted Syndicate was soon polarised by the confirmation that Electronic Arts would shed the series’ isometric tactical gameplay in favour of first-person shooting.
It’s a contentious decision: there’s no shortage of first-person shooters on the shelves, and an unprecedented number of games in 2011 are sequels or extensions. But we vote with our wallets, and for better or worse our vote for several years has been for more of the same, please. With the possible exception of L.A. Noire, all the best sellers and all the likely candidates for top-five Games of the Year in 2011 are sequels – some of them reaching higher than their fourth iteration.
Perhaps fittingly for Syndicate, the change in genre reflects that clear preference in the market. But rather than judging the game on its own merits – of which there are a number – some have already dismissed developer Starbreeze’s efforts simply for doing something new with the license.
In one immediate way, this reboot is stronger than the games of the ‘90s. The technical and narrative advances made in videogames over the last twenty years mean that the new Syndicate delivers a deeper and more cohesive vision of its amoral future.
Our time with the game begins as agent Kilo follows his superior into the foyer of another syndicate. As that superior nonchalantly executes two unsuspecting security guards, he tasks Miles with the retrieval of a chip from the cranium of one of the corporation’s scientists.
Miles’ path towards his target is very much prescribed. He’ll scramble up ladders, around storage rooms and – of course – through air vents. To progress, Miles must hack and breach both the online-connected environment and the augmentation chips of his enemies.
Breaching is a straightforward process: look at the target, hold the bumper until the bar is filled, and the selected (or necessary) breach will be achieved. When it comes to doors, this usually means unlocking. When it comes to enemies, it can mean forcing them to turn on their allies or themselves – suicide is a recurring event. It can mean hacking their guns so that the next shot backfires with a fairly unsatisfying ‘pop’; enemy turrets can be turned against their masters, cover can be retracted.
Additionally, Miles can enter a DART mode: a kind of slow motion supplemented with a heat-sensing overlay. DART gives Miles a significant advantage over his foes for a limited time.
The game interface is cluttered by information regarding sofas, coffee cups and all manner of office items. It reinforces the interconnected future Syndicate posits, but it can initially be overwhelming. Discerning the superfluous information being displayed on the screen from the important information will either come with time, or prove a point of frustration.
Once Miles has reached the young scientist (this one voluntarily puts pistol to his own chin) he extracts the required chip with a drill-come-probe, inserted rather graphically through the ear. Such chips give Miles access to new augmentations and thus a kind of gameplay customisation system is revealed.
The gameplay elements frequently come together to present the player with puzzles. For example, a lock on the other side of bulletproof glass requires Miles to breach a vent and spray an adjacent panel with liquid nitrogen. Shattering the frozen panel still prohibits a direct shot, necessitating the use of the Gauss, a gun with the ability to bend bullets around or over shelter.
The elephant in the room is obviously Deus Ex: Human Revolution, another futuristic dystopia wherein an augmented agent must uncover a plot by a corporation that has exceeded the power of the government. In our limited time with the game, the augmentations in Syndicate don’t feel as substantial as those in Human Revolution. There’s no stealth option here, this is very much an action-focused shooter. Other titles that appear partly analogous include Mirror’s Edge – at least aesthetically – and to a lesser extent, Brink.
The vignette suggests that Starbreeze’s take on a corporate future run amok may not win over that kernel of curmudgeonly naysayers, refuseniks whose gaming collection, or memory, runs back to the mid-nineties. There’s still work to be done, but for the majority Syndicate appears set to provide an enjoyable – if currently imperfect – point of contact with an important piece of gaming history.