By Chris Davis on March 6th, 2012 (2 comments)
Science fiction stands as one of the backbones of fiction, interactive or not. The line between near future and distant future science fiction seems to blur every decade or so when the amazing gadgets of today’s movies and games become the tools we use every day only a few years later. This is the area where the cyberpunk setting used to thrive with pieces of entertainment such as Blade Runner back in the 80s and 90s, but was all but subsequently overthrown by the fantasy and modern settings we see far too often in video games. Thankfully it is making a return as of late with Deus Ex: Human Revolution leading the way. Syndicate, a series long beloved by PC strategy fans in the 90s, is the next in line to restore this genre to its proper place in gaming. Few studios are qualified enough to restore such a proud series and bring it up to speed with today’s game design paradigms but luckily Electronic Arts chose well, assigning the task to Swedish studio Starbreeze.
With a pedigree of titles like The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness behind them, does Starbreeze’s effort to reboot this almost forgotten franchise bear fruit worthy of plucking?
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 2/21/2012
The Man/Machine Gap
Today, man and machine are fundamentally separate entities whose integration is only experimental and usually out of medical necessity. In Starbreeze’s look at the world of tomorrow, however, this pairing is far from uncommon. In Syndicate, the world’s first neural enhancement augmentation, the Dart chip, is released in 2025 by Eurocorp, creating a dataverse that makes most devices like PDAs and cell phones all but obsolete. Knowledge and tools are now readily available on demand for anyone augmented with the Dart chip and the social revolution that follows redefines the meaning of the term ‘being connected.’ Governments dissolve and megacorporations known as syndicates take over, offering their wares and whole lifestyles to people. In just a few short decades over half of the human population is chipped while the remainders are considered outcasts by society, abandoned by the syndicates.
By 2069 Eurocorp is set to release the Dart 6 chip, the latest and greatest neural enhancement which has the potential to all but corner the world market. As Miles Kilo, an agent for Eurocorp, you are one of the test beds for the Dart 6. As an agent your job is maintaining corporate security and committing espionage against other syndicates to help secure Eurocorp as the dominate force in the world. Embarking initially on a standard espionage mission against a rival syndicate, what evolves is the beginnings of a major power shift in which Eurocorp may not necessarily come out on top.
The story Starbreeze put together for Syndicate, while interesting at the start, becomes a bit of an unfortunate confusing mess. This is especially an issue toward the last third of the game when a predictable plot twist occurs. While the story as a whole is enjoyable I found myself a bit upset at the quality presented to us in Syndicate: it simply isn’t on par with the developer’s previous efforts. Given how long Project Redlime was in development I was hoping for more but this final product, while better than most of the other stories in shooters these days, doesn’t do enough to garner the word ‘good.’ I have to commend Starbreeze for not leaving us with an ending that screams “sequel me!” but at the same time I wish the story had been more satisfying.
Like the rest of their pedigree, Starbreeze’s newest title is a shooter with an emphasis on combining tight gunplay with unique gameplay mechanics. Whereas The Chronicles of Riddick had a strong stealth element and The Darkness gave you supernatural powers, Syndicate gives you a technological advantage over your opponents. The Dart 6 chip, one of the driving plot points of the singleplayer story, also serves as the primary tool in the game. Augmenting the already good gunplay, the Dart 6 includes three primary functions: suicide, backfire and persuade. Suicide hacks your enemies’ neural chip and causes them to, well, end their lives, usually taking their friends out with them thanks to a grenade. Backfire causes a number of enemies weapons to explode in their hands, knocking them to the ground and making them quite vulnerable (and weaker) for a moment. Persuade, the last ability you gain, tricks an enemy into fighting on your side before subsequently terminating himself. Each ability comes in handy when in a squeeze against a large enemy force but suicide becomes nearly useless in large, outdoor environments.
Each of the abilities can only be used once however before they need to be recharged, and this is done by acquiring adrenaline. In a similar manner to the point-grinding systems of games like Bulletstorm, you accumulate points to recharge your abilities by killing enemies fast and in a variety of ways. Creating and mixing up combos will result in higher adrenaline gains and thus allowing you to earn your abilities faster. Given the nature of the cover-loving enemies you confront in the game though you won’t find yourself reusing the same ability more than twice in any firefight. The accumulation of adrenaline is also one of several stats that are calculated at the end of a level. Your performance is graded and encourages replay value for higher scores but outside of achievements it is almost irrelevant.
This is balanced however by the game’s gunplay. Unlike their previous titles which lagged a bit in this department, Starbreeze’s effort on Syndicate has resulted in an enjoyable, fast-paced shooting game. Weapons feel strong and each one has an alternate fire mode allowing for a little more variety despite being confined to only having two weapons at a time. At several points during Syndicate the game attempts to reinforce just how dangerous an agent is by giving you access to a heavy weapon such as a minigun or a flamethrower. These brief sequences are nothing short of wonderful as you are beset upon by waves of angry, moronic enemies who subsequently get slaughtered by the player, leaving you with the same “I am the destroyer of worlds” mentality the player gets when earning a jetpack in Warhammer 40k: Space Marine. The only downside to the combat comes in the form of grenades which unfortunately find themselves in a position to where they don’t have a dedicated button on the controller and thus have to be selected manually. Grenade handling is sloppy as well so it might take you quite a few tries in order to figure out just how to throw them at the right trajectory.
Keeping with the game’s original roots, Syndicate also have a leveling system. As you go throughout the game you will find various chip upgrades to augment your character. Players can choose their upgrades from a map but you can only activate these new attributes if you select an adjacent one. There’s plenty of variety to be had in upgrading your character but the convoluted approach all but forces the player to choose a higher upgrade at the beginning of the game and work their way to it over the course of its entirety. Given that you only get a handful of upgrades throughout the game you won’t find yourself really creating a supersoldier like you want to.
Riding High on Stock
For all the talk about Syndicate that’s been made since the game’s initial announcement just a handful of months ago, the most prevalent topic of debate has been the games art style and visual presentation. It’s hard not to talk about Syndicate and not draw comparisons to Eidos Montreal’s work on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If anything, these comparisons are apt as, for all intents and purposes, the game appears to be a brighter, more vibrant version of Eidos’ effort that was released last August. It’s curious to see two titles, long in development but virtually unknown to each other having such similar visuals but the results are visually impressive. Fans of Human Revolution’s presentation will find themselves enjoying Syndicate’s.
One thing I found particularly enjoyable was the game’s choice in voice casting. Though I appreciate prolific voice actors like Nolan North and Jennifer Hale it’s refreshing to hear new voices in a games. Starbreeze’s history with Vin Diesel must have had quite a bit of clout as they were able to get Rosario Dawson, Michael Wincott and, surprisingly, Brian Cox to play the three primary characters in the game. Each provide a convincing and entertaining act that, while not quite worthy of being remarkable, is still memorable.
A Shift in the Market
When Syndicate was announced back in September I was almost instantly worried about the title. A shooter reboot of an almost forgotten franchise has the potential to provide a layer of depth and intrigue to old fans and newcomers alike but the suddenness of the announcement with a quickly approaching release date made me fear that Starbreeze would not be able to bring an exciting experience to the table. After having played through the campaign however I only feel marginally better about it. Don’t get me wrong: Syndicate is a fine game but, in a year that will see such exciting titles as Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed III, Halo 4 and dozens of others, I fear that it will become lost in the crowd as the game simply doesn’t have the voice to rise above it. It’s well worth a look in terms of universe and presentation but if you play it and feel that this should have been the Perfect Dark sequel that should have been then you are not alone. It’s a good start but Starbreeze needs to bring more to the table if a Syndicate sequel wants to truly stand out.
(70-79%: Solid - A solid title that has a few major issues.)
*Please note: due to time constraints and other untimely incidents I was unable to do a proper review of the game's cooperative feature. Given that a demo of the co-op has been available for some time and the quality doesn't seem to have changed it should not have an impact on the game's overall score as it plays almost identically... just with more people.
I am 4Player's video and feature producer. I've been writing about games for years and I enjoy every minute of it. I'm pro-developer and I have a few friends who have gone on to successful careers in the industry. I may only be an amateur but I've got things to say.
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