Developers of first-person shooters are starting to realise that they can’t simply mimic Call of Duty in order to score a hit. While lessons can certainly be learned from Activision’s multi-billion dollar military series, there’s a growing sense that the industry understands it needs to differentiate too. The Darkness II is a good example: while it provided precise and snappy shooting, it also offered quirky supernatural powers and a neat co-operative mode, bringing something remarkably fresh to the table. Syndicate – coincidentally the latest project by original The Darkness developer Starbreeze – is the latest PlayStation 3 shooter to attempt something a little different, bringing a futuristic boardroom hook to proceedings.
Loosely based on the 1993 real-time strategy classic of the same name, Syndicate (somewhat cynically) re-imagines Bullfrog’s cult hit as a first-person shooter, offering an insight into the series’ corporate-driven universe from a brand new perspective.
You play as Miles Kilo, a prototype EuroCorp agent armed with an innovative DART 6 bio-chip augmentation with the ability to slow down time, scout out concealed foes and, by extension, mess up any competing syndicates that dare cross your employer.
The pseudo-commercial plotline is one of Syndicate’s greatest strengths, serving up a frighteningly consistent fiction in which the government has been abolished in favour of a series of global mega-corporations. The fiction works because it echoes the real world, with the corporations fighting over very familiar issues such as patent infringement and intellectual property. Without the intervention of government bodies and laws, the syndicates are free to tackle the breaches in a manner they deem necessary – which for the most part means war.
While Starbreeze attempts to add some moral depth to the narrative as the campaign wears on, the overarching corporate themes are strong enough to drive you through the story alone. You’ll spot the plot twists a mile off, but decent voice acting and good writing keeps the storyline interesting. That you’ll be able to associate with the actions of some of the corporations is most intriguing and, to a degree, a little unnerving.
By putting you in control of a partially programmed prototype agent, Syndicate opens up a whole wealth of engaging combat mechanics. Sure, at the heart of the action, it’s standard Call of Duty fare – smacking down on L1 points you down your futuristic weapon’s sights – but the ability to remotely manipulate the environment (and foes) brings a new feel to the familiar action.
At its most base level, you’re able to hack into nearby environmental objects to create makeshift cover and tweak each combat arena in your favour. That’s fun, but it’s through manipulating the personalities of your foes that Syndicate gets really interesting. Persuasion techniques allow you to trick enemies into thinking they’re on your side, causing them to refocus their fire on team mates rather than you. Similarly, the gruesome Suicide technique allows you to force an antagonist into killing himself, triggering an explosive blast that allows you to disable a radius of enemy foes with it. Finally there’s the Backfire mechanic, which stuns and weakens rivals, giving you an easy window to pick them off.
Each of these power-ups is affected by a unique recharge meter, which refills as you meet certain conditions in combat. Killing sprees, headshots and successful use of your abilities all help to replenish the three meters, putting an emphasis on tactical, efficient and considered play. In fact, these three staples play into the game’s larger scoring system, with each mission judging you on accuracy, speed and more.
The arcade nature of the gameplay does occasionally detract from the pace of the campaign – missions are divided up into chapters with lengthy loading windows between – but it certainly helps replay value, with scores saved and compared across multiple attempts.
Throughout you also have access to a timed Data Overlay, which can be initiated by holding down the R2 trigger. This mode not only slows down time, but also increases your damage and armour thresholds while allowing you to see the locations of enemies behind walls. By the end of the campaign you’ll come to rely on the mechanic, but Starbreeze keeps the game’s balance in check by limiting the amount of time you can use the feature before forcing you to switch it off and recharge.
With so many quirky abilities on offer, it’s a shame that Syndicate shows its hand a little too early in the campaign. While you’ll collect chips – gruesomely extracted from boss characters throughout the single-player – to upgrade your general health and ability statistics, the greater sense of progression is missing. By the time you’ve unlocked the Persuade power-up – about a couple of hours into the game – you’ll be pretty much done as far as character development goes, with the final four or five hours of the campaign leaving you to simply toy with the powers you’ve got. The progression is so limited that much of the middle third actually strips your abilities away, leaving Syndicate feeling like the bog-standard shooter its early moments try so hard to avoid.
It’s during that period that Syndicate begins to outstay its welcome. With invisible enemies bringing nothing but frustration to the campaign, and an overemphasis on combat padding the way to the game’s conclusion, Syndicate almost manages to squander much of the goodwill it develops in its opening moments. Thankfully, for all its lack of ambition, the combat is rock-solid, spurred by outstanding audio design and some clever – if 'borrowed' – alternative fire hooks.
Top of the homage charts is Insomniac’s Resistance series, with the auto-targeting Bullseye and multi-lock rocket launcher all represented. Fortunately Syndicate has a big enough weapon roster to make up for the game’s occasional moments of creative bankruptcy – and, to be fair, Starbreeze does do a good job with the ideas it borrows.
The game’s strong gunplay is aided by quality presentation throughout. It eschews the muddy visual style of alternative first-person shooters, opting for a serene, Blade Runner-esque vision of the future. It’s much more Mirror’s Edge than Call of Duty, with the bold use of primary colours making up much of the game’s sense of style.
Some of the texture work isn’t of the best quality, and occasionally the game stutters under the load of an intensive firefight, but on the whole the scope of the visual design and style shines through. Multiple times during the course of the campaign Starbreeze lingers over gorgeous skylines, underlining the game’s near-future feel. New York, for example, doesn’t look particularly different to the city we know now — apart from the airborne traffic and holographic information points, that is. The game’s packed with environmental diversity too: rich company headquarters contrast against run-down back alleys. There’s an intriguing sense that as the corporations have been allowed to thrive, the rest of the world has been left to rot.
It’s a shame, then, that much of the game’s plot and exposition has been reserved to menus, with collectibles and intel filling out a codex-like document system that doesn’t make for particularly compelling reading.
The game’s over far too quickly to boot. You’ll be able to power through the single-player campaign in about six to eight hours, and while there’s the draw of multiple playthroughs fuelled by the aforementioned score mechanics, if you’ve tired of the combat during your first exploration of the campaign, it’s unlikely you’ll feel compelled to sit through it for a second time.
Thankfully, the game quashes its longevity concerns by introducing a fairly robust co-operative campaign. In a move presumably designed to quell the criticisms of old-school Syndicate fans, the missions here have been designed around stages from the original real-time strategy game. The gesture’s unlikely to have a big effect on the opinion of the game’s detractors, with the first-person gunplay still at the core of the co-op mode, but we suspect more open fans will be excited to see classic locations revisited from a new perspective.
While the gameplay’s fun – with the hacking mechanics from the main campaign repurposed as a means to allow you to heal team mates as well as interact with the environment – it’s the meta-game that’s perhaps the most compelling feature of the component. Here you’re able to create Syndicates (or clans) with friends and compete against other factions online. Earning experience – as an individual – increases the rank of your associated faction, with stock-like charts demonstrating your fluctuations through the rankings over time. Your faction will also be assigned regular targets, and you can keep track of the team’s best (and worst) associates.
As you play, you’ll also happen upon chips and tokens, which can be spent on research and development for new weapons, abilities and augmentations. The game also adopts [strong]Need for Speed[strong]’s Autolog features, setting you contracts against your friends as they pass you in the rankings. It’s a fun, themed twist on the classic Call of Duty formula, and while you’re still essentially levelling up and unlocking goods, the game’s definitely successful at making tried and tested features feel fresh again.
Starbreeze’s take on Syndicate is unlikely to generate a fervent fanbase like its early 90s inspiration, but it’s still a decent shooter all the same. While the hacking mechanics don’t quite go as deep as the game’s opening couple of hours would lead you to believe, there are still enough options available to give the combat a fresh appeal – even if the game does rely a little too heavily on its weapon roster towards the end of the campaign. A compelling co-operative component – fuelled by some really clever clan and character development features – help to ensure the longevity of the title, though the concept of classic missions is unlikely to win over faithful Syndicate fans. It’s an above average monthly achiever; a confident performer that pushes itself hard, but never quite goes the extra mile to secure employee of the month.