Let’s get this out of the way up front: those who aren’t too thrilled about the idea of the Syndicate reboot being an FPS will find little beyond the game’s co-op mode to change their minds. In fact, there is little on offer here that those familiar with modern shooters haven’t seen before in some shape or form. Despite this, Starbreeze’s controversial reimagining of Bullfrog’s seminal 1993 squad-based dystopian blaster is remarkably well-crafted and delivered with such assurance that it’s hard not to enjoy what’s here rather than pine for what could have been.
The year is 2069, and nations have long been surpassed by corporations, the top half dozen or so of which are fighting for control of the globe. Aided by unprecedented technological developments, industrial espionage has escalated into something resembling barely-contained warfare, with cybernetically-enhanced, remotely-controlled agents acting as super-soldier puppets for their Syndicate overlords.
The player assumes the role of Eurocorp agent Miles Kilo who is more super-soldier than most, having been the recipient of an experimental neural implant known as the DART-6 chip. Kilo is tasked with getting to the bottom of an information leak that has threatened to give rival syndicates access to the bleeding edge tech in his head, and what follows is a solid if predictable story set in a well-realised world that is certainly above average quality for the genre, however backhanded that may sound.
The DART-6 chip isn’t just a plot device – it also allows for some impressive gameplay options. A press of the right bumper activates a visual overlay application that triggers a bullet time mechanic while highlighting the position of any enemies that have been previously spotted, even if they are now behind cover or otherwise out of sight. Exploding barrels and other items of interest such as enemy grenades or switches are also emphasised, and for the seconds that the effect lasts, Miles takes less damage from direct hits while dishing out more of his own. That Starbreeze has managed to conjure up a fiction that adequately explains these abilities without veering into the ridiculous is a feat in itself, even if the bulk of the fiction can only be read via a codex that is bereft of charm.
A choice of three slower-to-load applications (or ‘breaches’) are selected with the d-pad and activated with the left bumper; backfire, suicide and persuade. Requiring enemy line of sight only for the instant it takes to begin activation, these apps take perhaps a second to kick in but the results are worth the wait. Backfire stuns enemies by detonating the round they have chambered, forcing them out of cover and rendering them vulnerable for precious seconds; suicide does exactly what it says it does; and persuade makes an ally of an enemy soldier for up to twenty seconds, at which point he will turn his gun on himself.
The left bumper also controls context-sensitive actions; it is used to defuse grenades (some of which may be then hurled back, rearmed), hack turrets and deactivate armour, for example. The time required for the latter two depends on the strength of the targeted armour, and so ranges anywhere from a couple of seconds to up to half a minute. Fortunately for the player, once again line of sight is only required to initiate the hack, after which the prudent will seek cover, or run in large parabolas in an attempt to avoid a hailstorm of lead. Heavily armoured foes become more numerous as the game wears on, and soon the rhythm of breaching armour while dodging fire by sliding between cover before picking off weaker assailants becomes second nature.
While the overlay app recharges after roughly seven seconds (or faster if kills are registered in the meantime), only the spilling of blood regenerates the backfire, suicide and persuade apps. The exception to this rule occurs if the bumper is released in a sweet spot when a breach attempt is 80-90% complete, resulting in a “breach spike”, which partly recharges the app instantly. Further recharge bonuses are attained when enemies are killed in rapid succession too, thus rewarding aggressive play.
Pair these powers with some weighty, immensely satisfying gunplay using upgradable weapons, a smooth and intuitive cover mechanic, gorgeous visuals and great audio (including the voice acting), and brutal melee, and you have the blueprint for an excellent FPS.
In execution though, some niggles keep the campaign from being a masterpiece. Most irritatingly, the player is never trusted to work anything out for herself. The whole thing is spectacularly linear – there are no alternate routes through levels, only the door behind the current group of bad guys, and even then other agents will guide you via intercom or in person. This is a common complaint when it comes to shooters, but given the creativity that can be unleashed during combat using combinations of powers and weapons, it’s too bad the level design doesn’t follow suit.
Speaking of weapons, the perfect weapon for defeating any enemy type is always found right before the player runs into said enemy, but then is generally taken from the player once that enemy is destroyed. Further, an ability Kilo has to crash through walls can only be used at a few select points and the game tells you exactly where – this could have been a great option for the player to have at their disposal more frequently rather than what amounts to an excuse for a cutscene. In short, there isn’t much wriggle room for creativity when it comes to choosing how to play or which tools to use, the best option is always staring the player right in the face.
Things improve in the second half of the game’s seven to eight hour campaign, mainly because the sheer weight of enemy numbers make for some hairy firefights, and because Kilo’s powers are at their peak. This doesn’t prevent some bosses from being frustratingly hard, but pushing through these moments is worth it.
Smaller annoyances are some blinding lens flares throughout that, fortunately, the player is never walking directly into, and some pointless button mashing to prise open doors that always seem to be conceitedly located right after a checkpoint.
The game’s co-op mode is a joy, however. With nine levels playable by up to four agents on the same server, the co-op represents Syndicate at its best. The story is non-existent, replaced by simple mission objectives played out in levels inspired by those in the original game. Players may create their own Syndicates that gives them a unique clan tag, makes them easy to find online and also provides some in-game bonuses. The progress of an entire syndicate across a number of stats compared to all others in the world can also be viewed, a great addition.
The sheer amount of customisation available is also commendable. Not only are all guns deeply upgradable in terms of power but also accessorising, extra team-based abilities are available for unlocking too, including squad healing, shielding, damage boosting, and so on. It soon becomes apparent that specialisation is a good idea, and so a smart syndicate will have distinct roles for each agent as the missions quickly become challenging making teamwork and flexibility essential. Nine levels may not seem like much, but they are much more open than their singleplayer counterparts and their replayability factor is high. Besides which, while on mission, weapons and upgrades may be researched as they were in the original Syndicate.
On the negative side, the co-op as it stands is pretty unstable, and lock-ups are a too-frequent occurrence. It’s a testament to the strength of the gameplay that most players will patiently reset their consoles and dive straight back in following these, but that’s hardly an ideal scenario. Limited drops per level also mean that there is competition for those precious upgrades. Fortunately in most of the online games we played there was a good deal of sharing, and private games can be set up to keep out the greedy anyway.
Starbreeze’s Syndicate may be a far cry from the isometric squad-based tactical shooter of yestercentury, but it delivers a solid campaign and great co-op. Sadly, civilians cannot be gathered for use as meat shields using a persuadertron, and there are no comical car-related deaths to be found, but what is on offer here is - for the most part - slick, violent and most entertaining.