In a time when not every game in a genre was a copy of a copy of a copy (thanks Chuck!) and people actually listened to what Peter Molyneux had to say, the brits at Bullfrog brought us a tiny little game that was going to become a cyberpunk cornerstone in videogames, next to System Shock.
I’m talking about the isometric RTT Syndicate, which depicted a bleak future, built on standard Gibson or Phillip K. Dick material: as a result of laissez-faire capitalism, huge corporations run everything as they see fit and wage massive wars to conquer the market and ultimately the world.
Drugs, violence, the freedom to kill civilians without any sort of punishment and the sterile motivation depicted a universe lacking any sort of morality, in which the only God was Eurocorp and its often sinister intentions. However, if in 1993 we were discussing tactics and an eagle-eye perspective, this franchise reboot approaches everything in first person and brings back old concepts in an all too linear standard shooter, peppered with hacking abilities and mechanics.
Your new alter-ego is Kilo, a cybernetically enhanced agent employed by the largest corporation on the planet: Eurocorp. In 2017, the DART 6 chip divides people pretty much the same way a smartphone creates rifts in high schools in 2012: whoever doesn’t own one, doesn’t really matter.
The data universe this chip generates becomes more important than the real world, as proven by the alienation and stripping of rights inflicted on people who can’t afford such toys. But as the need for power keeps haunting the corporate heads even when the rest of the world is in flames, you’re sent in various assassination missions, data recovery errands and, most commonly, annihilation runs on whatever opposing syndicates you come across.
The simplistic cliches get a bit of spice in the voice acting and likeness to well-known actors (Brian Cox as the heartless corporate leader and Rosario Dawson as the token female scientist), but the modeling isn’t really top notch.
The story is pretty short and largely forgettable: it’s a rail adventure hitting checkpoints as you complete objectives, filled with gauntlet events that precede predictable twists and turns that bore more often than they excite. There are no moments in which you might declare something incredible happened, but even so, what’s memorable is how you do things.
There’s plenty of “show” integrated in the slaughter, both through the violent cut scenes that don’t interrupt immersion (by unfolding in the same 1st person perspective), as well as hacking elements, overlaid fairly fluently over the gunplay. The arsenal is pretty standard (assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, rocket launcher, flamethrower or grenades) and does its job, complemented by three hacking abilities and various exploding props in the background.
The hacking abilities are pretty simple: considering everyone who matters has a DART 6 buried in their noggin, you can convince them to either commit suicide, blowing up anyone who’s close enough, or persuade them to turn arms against their comrades and then turn the gun against themselves.
Even the weapons have hackable chips that you can hack, at which point they will backfire on anyone reckless enough to shoot the gun. In addition to these neat perks comes the DART overlay, the mandatory rechargeable “super vision” augmented with slow motion (fairly necessary in the numerous boss fights).
What’s interesting is that you can hack or use abilities while firing and thus deal with multiple enemies at the same time if you’re quick enough. Furthermore, there’s a certain RPG flavor in the form of a talent tree you get points for by extracting chips from certain NPC skulls, usually bosses.
Another thumbs up should go to the soundtrack, a few dubstep pieces by some of the most famous contemporary producers of the genre: Skrillex, Nero or Flux Pavilion. Whether you love it or hate it, the game seems to embrace dubstep, a pretty good audio depiction of the futuristic environment that hosts the fast-paced shootouts Kilo indulges in.
What’s less interesting is the linearity. There’s always one corridor with one door through which you must go in order to finish the level. All your abilities are offensive and there’s really no alternate approach – as a result, Syndicate becomes a standard FPS whose single-player campaign won’t last more than four hours. And subsequently, there’s really no replay value here.
Thus, the producers want to justify the price tag through co-op missions that try make up for the short and insipid single-player stroll. There’s nine of them in total, each lasting for about 30 minutes and rewarding every runthrough with experience and achievements (which in turn bring experience once you hit certain milestones). Customizing your arsenal brings a bit of variation (you can choose a primary and secondary weapon and two apps – or cybernetic “spells”), while the “breaching” (the in-game term for hacking) mechanics were also integrated in the multiplayer mode.
Teamwork – healing allies, using apps that affect an area or party, such as the forcefield and “squad heal” – is essential, and enemies aren’t scaled to the current player number, so it’s best you go out with the full quartet.
Objectives that need to be completed in each mission don’t really vary a lot: generally, they alternate between recovering certain items and boarding them in your escape chopper or eliminating certain agents (boss groups with abilities similar to what your party may use), but the first few playthroughs can generate interesting experiences, much like Left 4 Dead.
After trying the missions on normal, you can attempt to get two or three stars on the harder difficulty levels, or just try to beat your time. Even so, I don’t really know how long the multiplayer component will last, because there are certain fundamental elements that didn’t make their way into the game: classic chat (and random people rarely use voice chat in my experience) or details on any clan inviting you to join them.
The possibility of making a clan (or syndicate, in the game lingo) is open to anyone and brings a specialized leaderboard, as well as group-oriented challenges. Again, the laconic interface doesn’t allow you to do basic stuff, like talk to your clan or send messages to players (unless you add them in your Origin friend list, separately). The only redeeming quality of having a syndicate is being able to throw invites to people if you can’t fill up a party roster.
Therefore, Syndicate gets boring very quickly and I don’t see how it will last half as much as Left 4 Dead. It’s too short, too small in many ways and way too conventional in a market oversaturated with AAA alternatives. Alternatives which last longer and offer competitive modes, not just a few dozen hours of co-op runs in which you can’t point anything out to your teammates unless everyone has a microphone for the game’s VoIP.