What a long way video games have come in twenty years...
If your memories of the original Syndicate seem a bit hazy, I don’t blame you. When Starbreeze announced a remake of the original nearly twenty years later, I took to Wikipedia to glean some details from the 1993 release. The first Syndicate astonished thanks to its brutal assassinations and petty thefts with four drug-controlled agents at players’ fingertips. The 2012 reimagining is far different in concept to Bullfrog’s adaptation, trading territorial, strategy-based gameplay for an explosive, first-person showcase of cybernetics.
Welcome to 2069, a revolutionary era where humanity has deemed computerized implants the standard. Fifty years ago, megacorporations (syndicates) rose up to control the fifteen billion-something populace now inhabiting Earth. These organizations integrated half the population with unique neural microchips that grant access to the “Datascape,” a space-age version of the Internet. Complete with GPS functionality, object identification systems, and automated voice messaging, these inserts are not unlike miniature iPhones of our age.
As expected, each syndicate vies to be the sole technological leader in Starbreeze's cyberpunk future, while millions of residents carry on their mundane lives oblivious to the shady underpinnings that protect their interests. In the shadows, syndicate agents form the corrupt backbone of collective wrongdoings as kidnappings, public bloodshed, and the like remain tolerable tactics when executing missions. Never is this more apparent during an early train boarding sequence in which a fellow operative assassinates helpless civilians for no other reason than to suit his personality.
How long until our phones have X-ray vision, Apple?
You play the trench-coated, metric-named agent (or weapon if you prefer) Miles Kilo, a tool of the corporation EuroCorp and its greatest asset, recently given a prototype of the recently developed DART 6 chip. Little is initially known about our antihero other than he volunteered for the surgery despite the risk of brain cancer, but the rewards far outweigh the consequences. The new Overlay grants Kilo the skills to decelerate time, increase his firearm’s damage, absorb more incoming gunfire, and track enemies when hiding behind cover.
But wait, there's more! The DART Overlay not only heightens Miles’ reflexes but scrambles – frequently referred to as breaching – the outdated hardware of other syndicate employees with sadistic methods called Suicide, Backfire, and Persuade. Suicide forces soldiers to pull the pin from a grenade and detonate the explosive despite their incessant screaming – a cruel but effective instant kill. Backfire fries the circuits of an enemy’s firearm for a brief moment, halting its firing capabilities and leaving the wielder open for double damage. Instead of dispatching the target outright, Persuade compels an adversary to fight on your side until the power has expired. The victim's odds then quickly turn south as he promptly executes himself with a round to the skull.
To keep the experience balanced, Miles can only use these abilities once he builds up adrenaline from killing rival infantry, yet several elements detract from Syndicate’s pacing. The breach tutorials are intrusive. I don’t need to waste ten minutes holding LB to hack an enemy’s chip, and no way of skipping these lengthy demonstrations exists. Likewise, the plot falters when nearing the endgame. Kilo begins his tour of duty belted to a chair, beats a guard down with his hands tied, and proceeds to exterminate every rent-a-cop soldier in his way. What ensues is a tale of friendship, betrayal, and occasional cyborg awesomeness. Well maybe not that first one, but definitely the last two. It’s disappointing to say that Syndicate’s middle act lacks the narrative drive present in the beginning and end, however, often forgoing any story insight in favor of guiding you from firefight to firefight against infinite grenadiers and snipers that test your patience. That’s not including the boss fights, the first of which appears unfairly skewed towards the hostile agent with his teleportation techniques and heat-seeking assault rifle.
There are plenty of dismembered appendages to satiate one's bloody fantasies.
But upon a boss’s death, you’re granted with leveling opportunities once Miles’ scans the chip ripped straight from their skulls. It’s bloody, it’s invasive, it’s cringe-worthy the first time you witness the tendrils snaking their way through the adversary's brain, and damn it looks cool. Still, the upgrades come up short on creativity. Given the bosses' abilities to generate hologram-like clones or propel themselves thirty feet across scaffolds in a single bound, why I am resigned to the typical boosts in health, weapon damage, and power duration?
When you finally stop to absorb your surroundings, though, parallels between last year's Deus Ex: Human Revolution seem rather apparent. Instead of the black and gold color palette of downtown Detroit, Syndicate's artistic styling paints a cyberpunk future in hues of white and blue. The Manhattan skyline shines with commercial ships and troop transports, and the shantytowns showcase the lesser inhabitants that fell off the Datascape's grid. Also, subtle features such as the screen tearing of Kilo’s Overlay when he succumbs to injuries maintain the sense of immersion.
Beneath this artwork lie fantastic set pieces and combat scenarios polished with explosive debris and soldiers’ severed limbs. Although opposing syndicates only hire a handful of varied bullet sponges, their intelligence will push you to experiment with the best power for the right situations. These mercenaries blitz your entrenched position or retreat to seek the aid of fellow soldiers. Thankfully, minute touches ease the frustration. Perished enemies glow a bright blue to indicate their hearts have ceased beating. Considering the frequency with which adversaries roll, go prone, or stumble and falter, it's nice to have this included visual indicator.
The co-op is best enjoyed with three similarly skilled agents.
The voice acting is also more tolerable than anticipated, as both Rosario Dawson and Brian Cox lend their voice acting talents. Dawson fills the role of the beautiful, mentally gifted scientist responsible for the inevitable corporate war, and Brian Cox plays his traditional role of the megalomaniacal CEO. Michael Wincott of lesser fame verbalizes the loyal, yet psychologically unhinged, gravelly-voiced agent Merit, who speaks like a smoker since adolescence.
Despite the campaign's faults, the cooperative multiplayer fares much better. From the wintry state of Colorado to the foreign countries of China and Argentina, the setting variety has been given greater priority from the campaign’s three or four locations, even though some segments mirror their single-player counterparts. Meanwhile, players fight their steep opposition together or die a fragmented group. There are no class restrictions either, so it becomes imperative that half your team designate themselves as healers and the others breach the armor of the relentless bosses. Leveling works in much the same chip-ripping vein as the single-player too, except for the added bonus of customizable classes and upgradeable firearms. However, it’s possible to max out your agent level well before the tedium brings the enjoyment to a proverbial halt.
Syndicate brings the once-isometric franchise into the 21st century with refreshing outcomes. The campaign maintains the adrenaline rush of high stake rewards complete with dubstep soundtrack; the environments ooze beauty between a mixture of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mirror’s Edge; the weapons reverberate with an audible kick, from skin-melting flamethrowers to infinite-ammo miniguns to rocket launchers that fire salvos of locked-on missiles. Syndicate also provides some of the most robust cooperative action I’ve played in video games to date. The teamwork aspect will bring out your inner co-op buff, provided you play well with others. It’s simply unfortunate that poor narrative pacing and the abrupt conclusion prove detrimental to an otherwise remarkable experience.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Release Date: February 21, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-4 (Cooperative)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC