Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available on: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Windows PC (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
You’ll quickly realise when playing Starbreeze Studio’s Syndicate, they’ve got a very different vision of the cyberpunk world Bullfrog Productions introduced us to in 1993. Back then, the focus was specifically on worldwide domination by any means, one territory at a time. Now, it’s also about cybernetics, dart overlays and breach spikes. This is still a world filled with dominant factions and revolutionary technological advances, but there’s also soul, revolution and propaganda. Maybe Bullfrog began this journey, but it’s Starbreeze that have evolved it.
STORY: The year is 2069, governments have been phased out, with the world now being divided into regions controlled by multiple syndicates. In fifty years, the world has been revolutionised and is now reliant on digital interaction, of which the syndicates are in full control. The only way for a consumer to interact with this brave new world is for them to embed a neural chip implant. This implant allows the consumer full access to the syndicate’s benefits and perks, and in return the syndicate gains control over the individual and their behaviour.
However, the syndicates remain obsessed with assuming dominance; their business providing the source of the world’s war. On the front line of this war are agents who have been defined by the syndicates to breach the world around them, manipulate their environment and protect their interests. Players assume the role of Miles Kilo, a new prototype agent from one of the syndicates, Eurocorp. Miles has been embedded with a powerful, yet largely untested new type of chip – Dart 6 – which has merited significant results. The success is encouraging Eurocorp to consider mass production, however, they’ve learned that Aspari, another syndicate, have gained the blueprints for Dart 6. Seeing as this would be a clear patent infringement and fearing there may be a mole in their midst, Eurocorp send Miles out into the field for the first time with experienced veteran Jack Denham, to eliminate an Aspari scientist, Gary Chang. Can Miles survive outside of strenuous training regimes and prove to be the force Eurocorp want him to be?
GRAPHICS: Starbreeze have created a beautiful sci-fi reality in Syndicate. From the rich, colourful city landscape, to the seedy, gravelly alleyways. This is a gritty, hard-hitting reality, swept along wonderfully by a pulse-pounding script, woven with intricate, engaging lore. Starbreeze have created a cyberpunk world befitting of fans of both Blade Runner and Shadowrun, a brutal, unpredictable nature in synchronisation with absolutely magical ambience. Truly, the transition to FPS suits Syndicate, and totally fights the corner against taking the series back to its RTS origins. It seems Starbreeze definitely made the right decision.
That said, the contrast throughout the game is blinding. I’ve rarely had to shield my eyes from the TV while playing any game, yet my eyes regularly felt like they were being set alight inside my head. Even adjusting the settings or alternating between Television sets didn’t seem to change this, unfortunately making the game disorientating and overly flamboyant. You can relieve your eyes temporarily by activating the dart overlay, but as this only lasts for a few seconds, it’s only a minor comfort. Additionally, there’s the frustrating inclusion of small image pop-ups over everything in the environment (where 95% of the items are irrelevant to the campaign) meaning Syndicate does unfortunately flaunt several graphical annoyances which remain throughout the duration of the campaign.
SOUND: While the imagery would be easily comparable to Ridley Scott’s interpretation of Blade Runner, the music is notably lacking Vangelis. It would actually be more accurate to compare it to Daft Punk’s soundtrack for Tron, or even Trent Reznor’s theatrical efforts. Don’t worry, it fits effortlessly. Equally, the game is well narrated by key Hollywood talent such as Brian Cox and Rosario Dawson. Syndicate leaves no expense spared, and that quality shines through from start to finish.
GAMEPLAY: Syndicate manages to creatively challenge what you know about the FPS genre, thanks in large part to the Dart Overlay. This is best compared to the Detective Mode in the Rocksteady developed Batman games or the nano-vision in Crysis. Not only does the Dart Overlay highlight enemies in the surrounding area, it slows down the action ala bullet-time. With Dart Relay active, you can also discover propaganda hidden on the walls behind posters and graffiti.
Additionally, Syndicate has a unique levelling up system which isn’t based on XP, but retrieving chips from dead bodies. Miles plunges a device into the ear, or through the eye, and uses a retracting tentacled device to pluck the chip out of the brain. Once he has the chip, he can access a pool of upgrades, with each upgrade providing Miles with a 2.5% health upgrade. While this isn’t split up into separate talent trees, there’s a decent assortment available to the player. However, the lack of variety available does see the campaign play out mostly the same way upon multiple playthroughs.
While Uzis and Assault rifles play a big part in the action, it’s not all gunplay in Syndicate. You can gain additional mods to use in battle, including a Suicide Mod which causes the enemy to kill themselves, or even a Persuasion Mod which turns the enemy into your accomplice. The game gives you the opportunity to test out these abilities with a holodeck like simulation before it awards them to you in battle. While these add a new dynamic to the game, there are only three mods. A shame, as I’m sure Starbreeze could have explored other creative options within the confines of the campaign.
What does make up for this however, are Breaches and trying to achieve Breach Spikes (hitting the sweet spot giving maximum effect). These allow you to overload turrets, deactivate shields and bypass security with just a tap of the left bumper. Controlling this is very natural and fluid, similar in part to the reload system in Gears of War. Combining it with the mods and gunplay diversifies the attack really well and provides a very natural combat experience.
The AI is a mixed bunch. When you’re badly hurt and regenerating, the enemy will hunt you down like a shark smelling blood to try and finish the job. However, you’ll also find that Snipers will jump out of their secure, tactical positions to try and fight you face to face. While the AI is a bit unbalanced, on the bright side the boss battles are much better than Deus Ex’s frustrating exhibitions. They still manage to be creative and unique, but without the tedium and unfair, cheap tactics.
MULTIPLAYER: This area of the game is much more akin to Bullfrog’s original vision for the series. Up to a team of four can go head to head against AI forces, with a series of mission objectives for them to follow. These vary from area to area, and there are over eight map choices for you to wade through. You can alternate the difficulty on these, and each player is graded on their performance. However, this is a wholly team-based effort, which requires you to heal your team mates, protect one another, co-ordinating both offense and defence and learning the maps to your advantage. Trying this with less than four can be a real challenge, although it certainly creates a much tenser, co-operative scenario with both players having to watch each other’s back at all times.
Multiplayer options also allow you to research weapon types, which add new abilities to your guntype, as well as create entirely new ones. You can also create syndicates (designing their emblem and name) and have friends join your syndicate. This is actually quite beneficial, as when players play together in a syndicate online, they get added bonuses.
The multiplayer component of Syndicate is refreshing and entertaining. It definitely stands out as the best part of the whole package, and actually provides one of the most engaging online experiences on the 360 in many years.
LONGEVITY: The Syndicate campaign is relatively short and can be blazed through in about five hours. Equally, there are eight maps in multiplayer, which could probably be completed in a week with a solid team of four. That said, Syndicate is very replayable, enjoyable and provides many refreshing changes to the genre. Future DLC will more than likely boost the content in the coming months, but out of the box the amount available does feel a bit underwhelming.
VERDICT: Starbreeze have a great handle on the series, and have created a game that is deserving of the Syndicate name. In fact, they could have the next big hit franchise on their hands. While there are some limitations in gameplay and a slightly underwhelming batch of content, Syndicate is a game that should be in any discerning gamer’s ‘Must-have’ list of 2012, and has a multiplayer mode that absolutely deserves to be experienced by everyone.