With my lack of knowledge about Syndicate, or the original release for that matter, I decided to give the now-available-for-download XBLA demo a try. The sci-fi art style, four player co-op, and early 2012 release date initially piqued my interest, but upon entering the main menus, I already have a complaint to file in the cons column: The text is unnecessarily small. I have a modest 32” LCD TV, and yet I still found myself squinting to make out several words. In comparison, the text is not much larger than the font you’re currently reading. As such, I feel for those gamers with smaller televisions and/or eye problems.
Not content to dwell on the text issue though, I locate the controller layout menu. Standard shooter controls popularized by Call of Duty? You’re doing it right developers. But I notice the LB button serves several “breach” purposes. With no explanation for what the “breach” function entails, I eagerly jump into a quick match.
Within seconds, I am thrown into the fray mid-combat with no specifics for regaining health, interacting with the environment, or even completing the mission objectives. (In order of stated: Automatically regenerates, left bumper, and shooting dudes.) At first glance, the HUD appears crowded, but it doesn’t take me long to figure out the bars hovering at the top of my screen are my teammates’ remaining health. I let my fellow players mop up most of the opposition while I get acquainted with the breach mechanic. It seems the LB button is your be all, end all solution to surviving the waves of steel-clad, technology-toting foes. I can either choose to heal my teammates or swap the type of breach on the D-pad to shield my squad members from damage, even from a substantial distance away. The only times I was required to stay in close proximity to my allies was either waiting to enter the next area or reviving downed party members.
This is 1993's Syndicate. The 2012 release looks much better.
With a handful of skirmishes under my belt, the next and final area of the demo just happens to be against the mission’s end boss. We finish off his minions with little effort, but it’s clear the Colonel is going to require more collaboration. Until his armor is hacked, Mr. Mini-gun is immune to all damage. With a little coordination, two of us work on keeping the team healed while our allied meatshields deactivate the head honcho’s protective barrier and perform crowd control on incoming reinforcements. The Video Game Rule of Three applies here. Three separate breaches and the boss eventually falls. Moving quick, one of my squad mates works to steal the commander’s credit chip. Credit chips are not exclusive to bosses but can be acquired from slightly tougher enemies (Sergeants) as well.
These credit chips are the key to improving your numerous abilities, but more on that in a second. I’m rewarded with experience for my performance at the conclusion of the demo in addition to several Blueprint tokens and Application tokens. Each serves a different purpose when upgrading your arsenal. There are approximately two dozen passive abilities to experiment with like a 33% increase in health, longer sprint duration, and greater explosive resistance. The currency here is credit chips. Several of these perks allow you to add applications to your DART system, but there’s no initial functionality for this feature beyond identifying allies in blue and enemies in yellow. Blueprint tokens on the other hand are used to augment your various weapons, while Application tokens are used to, you guessed it, enhance applications. It’s too early to say, but it’s unclear whether these applications will tie into your DART system, your active breach abilities, your passive abilities, or all three.
There are nine total co-op missions to undertake with three other players.
After several more playthroughs, I uncovered some of the more subtle touches the developers have implemented to streamline the user experience. Downed teammates can crawl behind cover while waiting to be revived, and there’s no penalty for choosing to clear the area first rather than aiding an incapacitated ally, except for the abusive language that comes blaring through your headset. Crouching during a full sprint will perform a slide, a handy tool for getting behind cover quickly, and although there is no physically gluing yourself to cover like in Killzone 3 or Crysis 2, your character will automatically aim around the surface that’s currently shielding your biotic hide. I also learned how to equip grenades albeit waste them rather quickly. Pro-tip: Hold Y.
All things considered, I was extremely impressed with the demo considering I had little to no expectations going in. It is unfortunate the developers have only included one level to play around with, and there is no narrative justification for taking down hostile forces in Western Europe beyond a brief loading screen. Thankfully, there’s not much in terms of grating dialogue or annoying music. There are few similarities to draw between other games in relation to graphics, except maybe Crysis, but the game operates at a smooth, stable framerate even when the action becomes hectic, and the gameplay remains surprisingly fluid and tight throughout. Co-op fans should definitely give the demo a download, as the concept of team-based firefights seems to be the nail the developers are really trying to drive home here. But even if you aren’t a day one adopter, perhaps the best news I can share is the absence of an online pass. Since Syndicate does not include competitive multiplayer, Starbreeze eluded what could have been a possible sales detriment, you know with the publisher being EA and all.