Syndicate Review

The original Syndicate is heralded by many as one of the greatest games ever made, and while its age means it doesn't hold up fantastically now, it is still a hard act to follow. Starbreeze's reboot of Syndicate doesn't reach the bar set by the original, but importantly it doesn't do a disservice to the franchise. If the transition from top down strategy to first person shooter had put you off, you may want to give this game another chance.

This game is not like the original Syndicate, but this is no bad thing, it's an exciting shooter that manages to bring this old franchise into the 21st century. Syndicate is not without its flaws though, it is a very well made shooter but it is not an excellent one (as far as single player goes anyway). Syndicate boasts some great new mechanics and truly satisfying shooting, but these alone are not enough to make the game truly special. Certain mechanics give the game its own identity, and help it to rise above your average shooter, but the campaign doesn't live up to the potential that the gameplay creates.

The one mechanic of syndicate that makes it stand out from the crowd is 'breaching'. The protagonist (Miles Kilo) comes equipped with a chip that lets him interact with enemies and the environment in interesting ways. In the world of Syndicate everybody who matters is chipped; without a chip you are a nobody, alienated from the civilised world. Miles Kilo's chip sets him apart though; he is an agent for a corporation who has the ability to breach other people's chips. If another person has a chip you can hack it and, in essence, control their mind. As far as gameplay goes this grants you the ability to force an enemy to kill themselves or forcibly persuade them to shoot their comrades. On top of this your chip also lets you interact with certain objects; electrical equipment can be breached, and you can even remotely backfire enemy's weapons. It's a great idea and it works excellently. This doesn't make you an unstoppable mind altering killing machine though, you can breach environmental objects at any point (which opens up the potential for some fantastic interactivity in level design), but your access to powers like persuasion, suicide and backfire are limited.

The limitation of your powers is very well handled; it's cleverly balanced in a way that forces you to play tactically and means you can't exploit your impressive abilities. The suicide ability forces an enemy to detonate one of their own grenades; this means that if timed correctly you can take down other enemies in the blast radius, forcing you to think tactically if you want to play well. The cooldown on abilities is also handled well; instead of only allowing access after a set amount of recharge time, use depends on your adrenaline. Adrenaline is generated in just the way you would expect, taking down enemies, and this is a clever way of keeping the gameplay at an exciting pace. Efficient and speedy marksmanship will give you more frequent access to the abilities, and using your abilities wisely will gain you similar effects. These abilities are undoubtedly the best part of Syndicate (from a gameplay perspective), but they are also complimented with fantastic shooting that makes regenerating these abilities almost as satisfying as using them.

The quality of the shooting may surprise those who played Starbreeze's last title, the Darkness. The Darkness was a great game that took great advantage of the first person perspective, but had weak shooting. It is clear that Starbreeze have a talent for first person games, but shooting may not be their speciality. In the case of Syndicate though, the shooting is genuinely fantastic. The feel of a shooter is incredibly important and Syndicate feels great; there is a certain amount of weight to the weapons which makes them feel really dangerous, but this doesn't hamper you're manoeuvrability. The great feel of the shooting is also complimented by well designed weaponry that tick all the boxes. The guns look great, sound fantastic and there is a good variety of them. This ranges from your basic (yet still very effective) pistol to some devastating heavy weaponry. The heavy weaponry is only accessible at certain points and this rarity, combined with how great these weapons are, makes every encounter with one of these death machines a memorable one. Great core gameplay can only take a game so far though; mechanically speaking Syndicate is a fantastic shooter, but when viewed as a whole the game doesn't quite live up to this.

Syndicate is a great game, but a relatively disappointing campaign stops it from being an excellent one. The cause of this is rather simple; instead of feeling like the campaign was designed around the mechanics the game feels like these original ideas were just forced into standard levels. The concept of being able to breach your enemies and your environment creates an incredible amount of potential that just isn't reached in the campaign. The enemies are fun to toy with, but they could have been better designed in ways which force you to cleverly use your abilities. There is some tactical depth there, but Starbreeze have really only scratched the surface with this game. The real let down as far as potential goes is with the environments though; the levels just don't seem to have been designed with breaching in mind. There are a good bunch of interactive objects, but none of these are hugely exciting. They mainly consist of objects that just allow you to progress in the level, like moveable platforms that let you reach the next area. There are some interesting uses though; being able to hack enemy turrets with your mind so that they target enemies is awesome, and one segment at the end when you hack a robot to aid you is a standout moment. However these moments are too infrequent and, once again, only scratch the surface of the possibility that this interactivity with the environment could lead to.

The campaign (as it stands) is pretty decent, but has some problems with pacing. The final third of the singleplayer is really great - everything comes together well, the pace is spot on and the gameplay scenarios created for you to shoot your way through are very entertaining – but the first two thirds of the campaign (though good) never reach this level. It takes too long to get going and this saddles most of the game with an uninteresting pace. It's never bad, it just doesn't excel. It feels like a generic competent shooter campaign (with some neat mechanics) that evolves into something truly enjoyable a bit too late. Another legitimate complaint is to do with the linearity of the campaign; being linear isn't necessarily a bad thing but Syndicate does such a good job of placing you in a compelling world that you just want to have more access to it, and see more of it.

The cyberpunk setting of Syndicate is a great one, the game pulls off the aesthetic perfectly and the background fiction that the world is built upon makes for an interesting setting. The world of Syndicate is one run by mega-corporations in which corporate espionage is a part of everyday life; it's a really interesting setting that lends itself perfectly to a game. The world is so well realised though that it makes some parts of the game disappointing; Syndicate provides a satisfying focused experience, but it's a world more suited to a more open ended game. There are some RPG elements in Syndicate, but these just manifest in basic upgrades for your chip. These have a good effect on gameplay and add another layer of depth to how you play the game, but you would never confuse Synidicate with an RPG. It may be because we have been spoiled with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which gave us another fantastic dystopian future setting, but let us explore it thoroughly and engage with the world. The fact you cannot do this in Syndicate is not a problem with the game as such, it provides a different experience from Deus Ex and that's fine; it's just that you can't help but feel there is a bit of a missed opportunity. They didn't need to make it an RPG, but making it a little more open ended would have made the game a bit more special.

A big part of what makes the world of Syndicate so compelling is how good the game looks; the textures don't hold up fantastically well on a close inspection (though they never look bad) but good lighting effects and a great aesthetic mean that this game looks fantastic in motion. This does come at some cost to the gameplay. Syndicate uses bloom and lens flare a lot. This makes the game look incredibly stylish, but these effects can also impair your vision on rare occasions. The game is constantly shining lights at you, and ninety percent of the time this is no issues, it's just that every now and then this can get in the way of the experience. It's clearly a deliberate decision on the part of Starbreeze, and the lighting effects are a large part of why the game looks as good as it does, but one can't help thinking that they are a bit overused.

Another area where Syndicate isn't as good as it could be is the story. The story of Syndicate is nothing special; it is pretty intriguing but it is mostly absent from the game. The gameplay in the first two thirds of the game has a few pacing issues, but these issues are aggravated further by a lack of any real story. There is just nothing much keeping you going for a good amount of the game. The story does surface towards the end though, and is a pretty interesting one; it's not a fantastic story (it's not even a great story), but it is compelling enough to keep you interested. The basic plot is that you are an agent hunting down a missing scientist in the midst of corporate warfare. The set up isn't very original (and later plot developments are quite predictable) but the world of Syndicate goes a long way to keeping the narrative interesting. The only major story issue is how back heavy it is, and the impact this has on the games pacing.

As a singleplayer game Syndicate is pretty good, but could have been a lot better. As a multiplayer game Syndicate is fantastic. The co-operative multiplayer on offer in Syndicate is superbly designed and incredibly addictive. The idea is simple; four agents get to team up to take on a variety of rather simple missions in different parts of the world. The developers claim this mode was influenced by the original Syndicate and, in all honesty, there is a clear similarity here. The global map where you can see all the missions is reminiscent of the mission select screen from the original, and the conceit of four agents working together in order to achieve set objectives is more than a bit similar to the original game. The gameplay is of course completely different from the 90's Syndicate, but the gameplay on offer here is completely fantastic. The abilities at your disposal in the co-op are different to those in the campaign, but are just as good. The co-op is designed in a way that co-operation and teamwork is actually necessary to survive, and this makes it very satisfying. The levels put up a decent challenge, but it's a good challenge that is never too hard and always achievable if you co-operate.

There are no set classes in the co-op, and this is part of what makes it so special. There is a lot of customisation in the form unlockable skills and weapon upgrades, and this allows you to play in a way that fits your own particular style. One of the major benefits from their being no specific classes is that any player can heal at any point, and any player can revive. The co-op levels checkpoint in Left 4 Dead style safe house areas where you can restock your ammo, and if there are no players left alive you revert to there. Everybody having the ability to heal and revive may sound like it could make things a bit too easy, but the game is designed to facilitate this ability to the extent that everybody needs these powers. It's another great way of promoting co-operation and makes you look out for, and importantly look after, your fellow agents.

The level design and enemy variety is another standout feature and the usual RPG style persistence of levelling up and upgrading also adds greatly to the experience. These elements mean that you will not be satisfied just playing through all the levels once; you will want to revisit them again and again. The joy of co-operation, and the pure joys the fantastic gameplay provides, will keep you coming back to this addictive co-op but this is (of course) all dependent on a stable community. Clever design decisions make a healthy community a likely prospect though; the usual multiplayer persistent elements will keep players coming back for more, but so will the inclusion of Syndicates. Syndicates work as clans; when you are in one you are not only playing to boost your personal ranking, but your syndicate's also. Joining syndicates could be better handled though; the only options available are to create your own or wait for an invitation from an existing Syndicate, an option to view all the Syndicates (or at least search for them) and join that way would be a good addition.

The co-op is by far the best part of Syndicate, without it Syndicate would be a merely good game that doesn't quite reach its potential. With the co-op Syndicate becomes something great, and something quite special. The campaign may disappoint in parts, but it has enough plus points to make this an all round good package. The co-op is where the real appeal is, but you could do a lot worse as far as a singleplayer experience goes.

Publisher: EA
Developer: Starbreeze
Release Date: February 21st, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 4 (Co-op)
Platforms:  Xbox 360 (Reviewed), Playstation 3, PC

Adam Page's picture

The last act in the tower made up for a lot of my frustrations, the single-player is bookended well by great moments but the middle just drags. Agree completely on the co-op, it's one of those situations where it shouldn't work but does.

Oh and you can insert big 1080p pictures and scale them to 640x360 using the image insert function, some of yours are a bit blurry.

stephenage's picture

@Adam Page, agree with on all points there. And yeah, me and formatting are not the best of friends.

John Tarr's picture

Syndicate boasts some great new mechanics and truly satisfying shooting, but these alone are not enough to make the game truly special.

My thoughts exactly. There was nothing about the single player campaign that wowed me, but there was nothing that particularly irked me either. And I had forgotten that Starbreeze created The Darkness (1), ironic considering how close of a release date Syndicate shared with The Darkness 2.

I have not tried co-op yet (aside from the demo), but you spoke so highly of it I will have to go back and play it.

Great review Stephen. There were a few moments while reading the single player portion that I felt you were reading my thoughts.

Josh Kowbel's picture

@Stephenage:

I'm constantly impressed by the new reviewers that sign up for the website. You and Adam Page definitely have an affinity for writing. The way your paragraphs flow drives me to improve my writing. 

@John Tarr:

I highly recommned the multiplayer given the time you devoted to the demo. The polished cooperative play sets Syndicate apart from the standard Horde-like multiplayer that seems to make its way into every video game on store shelves nowadays. 

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