Blinded by the light.
EA and Starbreeze are, once again, reaching back into the 90’s to resurrect another classic series and this time we’re getting a new Syndicate game. The first two Syndicate games were real-time tactical strategy games, played from a top down perspective but this time EA is going full first-person shooter. 2012’s Syndicate forgoes strategy and tactics for firepower and cybernetic augments. So, is there any of the old magic in this new entry? Step into the light with me and I’ll tell you.
That last line wasn’t a joke, get used to staring into a lot of bright lights as you play through Syndicate. I’m honestly not sure if this was a flaw of the engine, or just really poor visual design, but a large number of the lights in the world of Syndicate are just way too bright. What it really feels like is that Starbreeze Studios tried to go for one of those lighting effects where stepping outside makes things seem brighter for a few seconds while the character’s eye’s adjust. The only problem is that nothing ever adjusts, the lighting is seriously messed up. This doesn’t just happen when going outside, it happens with normal accent lights that are just placed around the game world.
After you’re done trying to adjust the brightness on your TV, and in the game, you can jump into the world of Syndicate. Set in a near future, cyber-punk version of Earth where corporations control everything Syndicate tries to tell a story of morality and struggle, but never really gets there. The corporate rivalries in Syndicate have gotten so out of hand that each company has its own private army and special forces. You play as a silent agent named Kilo who follows the orders of his Syndicate’s CEO. That’s about as much story as you’ll get. People will talk at you but no one ever delves into their motivations, it’s simply “go here Kilo”, “go there Kilo”. The futility of the story is thrown in your face late in the game as you are asked to make the one, and only, decision in the campaign only to find out your choice has absolutely no bearing on the story. The whole thing is very safe, and very boring.
Syndicate’s action never quite excites the player either. This is a straight-forward FPS game, where you walk down halls and shoot tons of security forces. Often you’ll stop in a room while four or five waves of bad guys come out of the same door. When you kill them all, you can move on. The combat isn’t broken in any way, it’s just mindless. Your character does have three special abilities he can use via his ‘Chip’, or in-brain computer. These amount to little more than three distinct ‘win buttons’ as Suicide and Persuade result in the death of the targeted enemy while Backfire only sometimes kills its target. Your melee attack will act as a fourth ‘win button’, you only have to get close enough to an enemy to deliver an instant kill every time with this attack. I don’t mind having some special powers, but Syndicate just ends up giving you four ways to instantly kill enemies instead of shooting them, and never ends up being very challenging.
It feels like Syndicate’s campaign was thrown together in a few days while all development time was spent on the engine. As a pure shooter experience it performs quite well, there just isn’t anything interesting going on. The ‘Breach’ system, where you can hack objects, is as simple as pointing, clicking and holding LB at a highlighted target. When these are story objects like doors or computers, they are the only thing in the room that lights up. The upgrade system is linear and points are doled out at specific points rather than earned. The levels are all very linear and the boss fights feel like they are there just to slow the experience down. At one point I even went from fighting heavily armored security forces to fighting hoodie-wearing thugs who could inexplicably absorb the same amount of damage. Six, or so, hours later and you’ll be glad you’re done.
Gallantly saving Syndicate from the bargain bin of your local Gamestop is its four player co-op mode. This is one of those cases where the co-op feel like an entirely different game. The setup to Syndicate’s co-op feels much like other full featured online shooters, you can choose loadouts, purchase upgrades, research upgrades and new software and customize your “Chip Apps”. The customization options you were looking for in the single player campaign are all hiding here.
As you play through each of Syndicate’s nine co-op missions you’ll be completing objectives for bonus credits and chip-ripping elite enemies for upgrade blueprints and research documents that can be used to upgrade your weapons and Apps. A sense of purpose pervades everything you do in the co-op missions and I really feel like they hold everything the campaign was missing.
Teamwork is key as you’ll have to preemptively heal your teammates or risk having to get closer to revive them when they fall. You will also be given a number of different ways to proceed so tactics, like flanking, can be employed in place of the simple march forward that was the campaign. I had a lot of fun with Syndicate’s co-op missions and they stand in stark contrast to the single player campaign. In truth, I think the whole game should have been this separate co-op mode and the campaign should have been ditched in favor of more co-op levels.
It’s hard to recommend a game like Syndicate. Two thirds of it is a disaster while the remaining third is gold. If you’re prepared to forget the campaign and focus on co-op you’ll have a lot of fun with Syndicate but examining the full package leaves me wishing for a much better effort. I want to ask my friends to get Syndicate so we can play some co-op but I can’t recommend anyone pay full price for the one third of the game that is worth playing.