I’m a huge fan of co-op, military-style shooters so when I was reading up on the specs for Syndicate I was more than a bit curious, and after playing the co-op demo a few weeks ago I was borderline excited. While I tend to keep my gaming rooted in the real world of military shooters I don’t mind visionary titles that explore possible future tech. In the case of some games; namely Ghost Recon, those visions often come dangerously close to revealing actual military secrets. Syndicate certainly takes some liberties with its weapons and bio-tech, but does so with enough attention to good science that it not only seems plausible but nearly prophetic.
Based on the 1993 isometric strategy game, Syndicate reboots this cautionary tale of a world dominated by mega corporations who have created high-tech digital implants that basically keeps the entire population jacked into the Internet 24-7. The year is 2069 and there are three major players; Eurocorp, Cayman Global, and Aspari. In the story mode you’ll play as Eurocorp security agent, Miles Kilo, trying to foil all sorts of corporate espionage in the highly competitive world of digital implants including the new DART 6 chip implanted in your own head. You can use your digital link to not only connect to the global data stream but link directly into other chipped device like weapons, security cameras, defense turrets, and yes, even other people. Once hacked you can command a person to commit suicide (often taking out nearby enemies) or fight alongside you (taking out even more enemies), or just send a signal to their gun and have it backfire in their hands. There are some nice VR training modules explaining and testing your use of these abilities.
Syndicate relies heavily on your DART 6 overlay, which not only slows down time giving you a great strategic advantage, it also locks key targets like people and explosive canisters and shows a thermal-style image of them, even through walls. Each kill fuels the independent meters for each of your breech abilities, and your DART overlay also has a duration meter and a significant cool-down period so you can't abuse your powers. All of these chip enhancements, as well as other abilities such as health and weapon proficiency can be improved through an RPG-lite leveling-up process whereby you can tailor the game to your own play style. If you favor weapons over digital attacks, you can dump your skill points into targeting, reloading, and stabilization, or you can bolster your DART 6 duration or shorten the cool-down.
Syndicate demands the use of both trades, since weapon-kills fuel the digital attacks and digital attacks are a great way to enhance the traditional combat. The weapons are incredible, some traditional and some very futuristic like the assault rifle that can lock its target then fire tracking bullets around corners and over obstacles. They even have one of my favorite weapons that combines a traditional barrel sight with a scoped view that can snap into place with a tap of the D-pad. Many of the weapons have exciting and useful secondary functions as well.
Enemy AI is surprisingly brutal, even on the normal skill setting, which really forces you to think creatively and use your weapons and DART 6 attacks effectively. Often, hacking a turret or using your Persuade ability is the only way to shift the balance of power in your favor. Levels are designed as fairly linear with frequent “arenas” of combat and a few areas of exploration for acquiring clues from data terminals. There are a few interesting variations like a giant elevator shaft that requires some sprint-jumping and a wild train ride boss fight that is quite literally, “on rails”. And yes, there are boss fights, which almost always negate your breech abilities and force you to rely solely on your DART 6 slow-motion and weapons' proficiency.
Despite have more lens flares than five J.J. Abrams movies; Syndicate is a unique visual experience that tends to blind you with its high-intensity light sources and washed out pastel environments. It was very reminiscent of the visual style in Mirror’s Edge. The futuristic cities and indoor locations had a distinctive "Blade Runner meets Fifth Element" flavor about them. The human models and animation are excellent with great textures and realistic motions, and the weapons looks great, loaded with realistic details most won’t even appreciate. One interesting element to the entire experience is the AR tagging. Every item in the world from a coffee cup to a recessed ceiling light gets a label that hovers over the object in some weird Terminator-vision augmented reality. My only concern with this was that it can confuse the player into thinking more things are important than they really are, plus, just about the time you get close enough to read the label it vanishes. I pretty much started tuning these tags out about two levels in and only looked for the important ones with the LB designator indicating I could breech the target in some fashion.
Syndicate delivers an outstanding sound experience with the best weapons effects I’ve heard since Black, or maybe Battlefield 3 for a more recent reference, but Black kept coming to mind the entire time I played this game for some reason. Speaking of which, it’s time for a new Black sequel EA…make it happen. The music is effective and knows when to fade away so we can enjoy the exquisite sounds of gunfire and the gargling death screams of a guy whose chip is overloading just before he blows his own brains against the wall.
While the solo mode is surprisingly light on narrative the four-player co-op mode doesn’t even attempt to clutter the experience with a plot. Each of the nine missions is a self-contained experience where you are breeching a different corporation for some reason or another. The rules of the game are slightly tweaked to promote a more team-focused cooperative experience. Gone are the Suicide and Persuade instant kills; now replaced with new support abilities to make your own team more effective in combat. The enemy AI seems almost designed to take out three of your teammates rather quickly, leaving the fourth to scramble to bring everyone back “online”. It really is a great four-player experience; some of the best since my Rainbow Six days on the PC, but it can be overly challenging if you play with less than four people. Each session is scored and ranked in various categories and you can compare your scores with past efforts to see areas of improvement, but sadly there are no global leaderboards.
I enjoyed Syndicate a lot more than I thought I would. Normally, cluttering up a nice weapons-based shooter with digital mind control and hacking tripe would send me diving into the nearest foxhole, but all of that futuristic nonsense actually added a nice tactical layer to the gameplay. The story mode is a fairly weak and linear 12-15 hour experience, but the online co-op will keep you and your friends entertained for weeks and months to come. I can see this game having a nice long life as long as they can keep the DLC coming.