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The Game Effect Review

Syndicate Review

Can Starbreeze bring Syndicate back to the future?

By Daniel Jones on 2/27/2012
At one point while playing Syndicate I found myself running through a high rise apartment complex gunning down enemy agents while screaming civilians caught in the crossfire ran from our bullets and cowered in the corners. When things got hairy, I breached one of the soldiers, hacked into his brain chip and caused him to attack the rest of his comrades. When the fight ended, he turned the gun on himself, leaving me and a few cowering citizens alone in the bloody aftermath. This is what Syndicate, the latest from The Darkness creators Starbreeze, does best. The sci-fi setting, music, upgradeable abilities, weapons and rewarding co-op all combine to create a shooter experience that is fresh and intense, while at the same time never quite living up to its full potential.

Modifying a classic

When EA announced that Peter Molyneux and Bullfrog Studios' 1993 strategy game Syndicate would be returning as a first person shooter, fans were worried that the new game wouldn't do the original justice. Those same fans aren't going to be convinced otherwise by this game. In this re-envisioning, players assume the role of Eurocorps agent Miles Kilo, doing the bidding of the diabolical CEO Jack Denham, played well by Brian Cox. Eurocorps is the largest corporation in a world where companies have replaced governments and control the populace through chips in their heads. Your boss sends you on various missions in an attempt to take down his competition.

The Syndicate single player has a great sense of place and time. I am a sucker for good sci-fi that presents a believable, thought provoking setting. Syndicate's version of 2069 is filled with high rises, flying cars and high tech gadgets. Each mission is filled with documents that provide more detail and civilians who inhabit the world and make it more believable. This is a future that resonates in today's political climate with the lower class citizens surviving in the streets and the rest of society living peacefully ignorant thousands of feet about.

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The story asks players to answer some philosophical questions about themselves, though none of them really matter in the end. The story, like the level design, stays on one linear path. It certainly has some great moments, such as one particularly tense scene early on involving Jack Denham and Lily Drawl (played by Rosario Dawson), but it never veers in any surprising directions. An hour into the game, you will likely know how it's all going to end. On top of this, the voice acting, while solid, isn't aided much by the script which moves to fast to endear players to any of the characters.

The missions vary from fighting through the impoverished streets of a city against un-chipped rebels to fighting a large gunship atop a moving train. The problem is that the missions don't exhibit very much variety. There aren't many memorable scripted sequences and the gameplay never wanders far from the standard "shoot guys in the face, don't die" path. What Syndicate does better than most shooters however, is that the game provides the player with several ways to approach a firefight.

I am a soldier, command me

Players have three chip-based applications that they can use to compliment a wide array of weapons. Backfire is the quickest and easiest to use as it causes the enemy's gun to backfire in their hand, making them unarmed and vulnerable for a short time. Suicide is exactly as it sounds, causing targeted enemies to pull their own gun on themselves. Persuade is similar to suicide in that the enemy will eventually shoot themselves, but not before killing all their comrades first. Similar to the plasmids in Bioshock, each of these powers adds depth to the combat and help it stand out among the pop and shoot style that dominates the FPS genre.

One thing that Syndicate does very well are the boss fights. I am not usually a fan of first person boss fights. I would rather see large set piece scenes like those in the Half-life franchise than fight a boss, but Syndicate did these right. Each boss has different abilities, such as invisibility or teleportation and they are infrequent enough that they help break up the pace of the game and provide a reward as well, since every boss has a chip in their brain that conveniently contains an upgrade point.

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The upgrade points can be used to enhance each application as well as health, reload speeds and other player attributes, though sadly Syndicate does not feature a new game plus option. This means that players will never fully max out their characters since there are more possible upgrades than there are upgrade points in a single playthrough. This negates much of the fun inherent in getting upgrades in the first place. The amount of replay value this feature would have provided can't be overstated. This alone is my biggest issue with the game, which can also serve as my biggest compliment. I enjoyed the single player so much that I wanted to replay it and carry over the work I had done my first time through.

More fun with others

The 2-4 player cooperative mode provides all the sense of reward that is missing from the single player. This mode includes a few different mission types. One involves simply moving forward from room to room pushing towards an eventual end goal. Another tasks players with retrieving briefcases and returning them to a helicopter. The game throws a few variables into the mix such as numerous boss battles and mini turrets that fight alongside each team. Players are always able to heal their teammates and earn points for doing so.

Each boss in co-op also rewards players with upgrade points, however, since there are four players and one upgrade point, it often becomes a race to see who can extract the chip first. This adds a fun bit of competition to the co-op. With each level increased players also receive upgrade points that can be spent towards weapon upgrades and earning various applications, such as persuade and suicide. Players start out without these powers, but the sense of progression and reward that these upgrades provide is excellent. Starbreeze nailed the co-op's pacing and rewards.
The one downside to the co-op is that every mission is designed for four players. Having less than four can make some of the missions far too challenging, such as facing four bosses at once or having to carry four briefcases across the level. However, when your team of four is working together, covering each other and healing each other, Syndicate's co-op is the best part of the package. Starbreeze should be commended for not trying to stick a Modern Warfare style multiplayer into the package and simply focusing on making the co-op experience deep and rewarding.

Handling your Character Against a Beautiful Dystopian Backdrop

The controls handle all of the game's variables extremely well. Players will feel very powerful when they are hitting the shoulder buttons for their breaching abilities while simultaneously shooting their foes with any one of the games high tech weapons. The available artillery is particularly engaging, such as a laser gun that rips foes to shreds and a rifle that locks onto enemies behind cover. The one downside to the controls is the way grenades are handled. The player needs to hold down the "switch weapon" button to equip grenades and can only retrieve them by disarming grenades thrown by enemy troops.

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Whether in single player or co-op, the graphics in Syndicate effectively portray a futuristic dystopian setting. As well, character animations are effective in conveying natural movement and real grounded emotion. The lighting and water effects help sell the atmosphere while the AI is diabolical and convincing. A little more variety in the environments would have been nice, but overall the graphics are excellent.

The sound design is well done if unremarkable. The futuristic sound effects go a long way toward selling the atmosphere and the guns all have a unique pop depending on which armament you choose. The best part of the sound is the Skrillex-aided soundtrack. These dub step songs are rare, but they hit at just the right moments to enhance certain firefights and kick up the action. Certain scenes take place in night clubs where the music makes perfect sense, and others such as boss fights, are enhanced by the fast paced electronic beats.

Overall Impression

Everything that Syndicate does, it does well but not great. Playing through the campaign, I couldn't help but feel a tad underwhelmed. I wanted a more challenging story, more memorable characters, and more variety in the missions. However, I came away from Syndicate satisfied with the overall package. The single player is mostly intense and exciting, but the co-op will keep players coming back for more. As a game that portrays a future run by evil corporations, it's ironic that it  never got the kind of marketing push it deserved from EA. Ultimately, Syndicate is an exhilarating, if somewhat unbalanced game. At its best, it can rival some of the most entertaining FPS experiences of this generation. At it's worst, it is simply forgettable. If you're a co-op gamer looking for a new world to explore, Syndicate is definitely worth your time.
The Good
  • Great co-op
  • Weapons and applications add variety
  • Upbeat Skrillex Soundtrack
The Bad
  • No new game plus
  • Lack of variety in the environments
  • No memorable set-piece moments
8.3
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moocowproduction on March 11, 2012
Wow, cover even looks amazing.
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mojomonkey12 on February 28, 2012
Am I the only person who does not love dubstep?

Good review, as I often find here. I have so many games to play right now, but this is definitely on my gamedar, may get it when the price drops to 49.99 or less.
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Entropic on February 28, 2012
Haha, I like dubstep in the right setting. It seems to fit for this game given the cyberpunk theme, but at the same time I think dubstep and skrillex are way overused these days.

I'm definitely interested in checking this out though; it's been a while since I've been excited about a boss fight in an FPS.
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KrazyTaco1 on February 28, 2012
I might get this game... just for the dubstep soundtrack.
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mitkenski on February 27, 2012
Dubstep as soundtrack...must play...
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