Syndicate reminds me a lot of 2010’s Singularity – both titles drew me into their fiction, only to fail to achieve the promise of it. They differ in why they both failed. Where Singularity’s plot was simply delivered to the player in uninspired ways, Syndicate fails to make players care about its reality by not providing them with anything to rally against or fight for. The first motivating event that we experience with our hero, Kilo, occurs in the latter half of the game. Earlier on, as the player is sent globetrotting to recover stolen assets for his corporate masters, it almost feels like we’re at work with him, simply going through the motions to burn out the clock.
Set in the middle of the 21st century, Syndicate imagines a world in which major corporations provide the functions we’ve come to expect from government in exchange for the complete lack of accountability that they’ve come to expect presently. Kilo handles wetwork for one of these firms, Eurocorp. Each syndicate controls their own proprietary neurally-implanted devices and the networks that they run on. Competition is so intense that each has their own private security army packing incredible military technology, including sophisticated drones and advanced armor. Kilo himself has a brand new prototype chip stuck up in his skull, courtesy of Eurocorp.
Kilo’s chip allows him to hack into enemy chips, giving players three abilities: we can cause an enemy to backfire, kill himself or turn traitor and kill his former comrades before offing himself. He’s also armed with a fairly standard arsenal of pistols, assault rifles and shotguns. The gameplay is extremely sound, particularly the gunplay. Weapons pack a satisfying punch and ammo is generally always plentiful. This is a game about shooting and killing everything you encounter, and Syndicate delivers a brutal and fast experience. Melee kills recharge your abilities, encouraging players to go in and get personal. It’s common to sprint and slide through corporate atria, pulling the trigger with your gun pressed to the side of an enemy’s head as one of his friends is killing himself and those around him a short distance away. At times, it almost has as much flair as Bulletstorm, and it certainly has a style all its own.
That style is built around strong sound design and great point-of-view mechanics. Part of the allure of the gunplay is how accurate the weapons sound, dynamically changing depending on your confines. Rosario Dawson’s performance as Lily Drawl is also very good, providing the only memorable character. But perhaps what I’ll remember most from Syndicate is how it looked and felt to play. The game makes extensive use of lighting effects, particularly bloom effects. While others may not care for them, and I will admit they are a bit much at times, I really liked the overall aesthetic of the game world. It was vibrant in a really fresh way, often incorporating colors that other games in the genre don’t dare, like pastels. There are also certain subtleties to the game’s presentation that enhance the action, particularly the way Kilo’s head responds to changes in momentum. The camera sways ever so slightly as he moves to the right or left, which helped immerse me …
… because something had to.
Syndicate has a lot of good points, but it isn’t great by any stretch of its imagination. As interesting as the plot is on paper, it never delivers and the most promising moments come when the experience is nearly over. Starbreeze only scratched the surface of it, glossing over the subject matter and failing to push the envelope in the same way that they did the action. But what’s perhaps worst of all is that for all that does happen, we don’t care. We may occupy a space inside of Kilo’s skull, but we have no appreciation for him as a character thanks to a lack of development. We’re simply thrust into his head, with no knowledge of his background and no real concern for him or the universe he occupies. The other characters in the game are only present for a very small fraction of the experience, so there’s really very little time to develop any appreciation for the inhabitants. Maybe that was the point. Kilo’s just a grunt after all, a pawn of a big corporation, so what does it matter if you know your tool? You’re not friends with your hammer. In that way, perhaps Starbreeze is genius, but it doesn’t make for an interesting interactive experience.
Without knowledge of the character, we only have the extremely linear hallways that you traipse through for the bulk of the game to focus on. Perhaps, again, this is Starbreeze attempting to envelope us in a world without choice, where corporations decide everything for you, including where you go and where you don’t. And if they did, again, geniuses, but it still isn’t interesting to experience. Fact is, you can’t really expect Syndicate to deliver anything except really solid action, and in a very competitive shooter market, that’s a great attribute but still a tough sell. We all saw what happened with Rage.
By ditching all attempts to tell a story, Syndicate’s online co-operative play is probably the most enjoyable single element of the game. Up to four can take the game online, online pass free, to take on different stages against AI foes. As you progress, you can unlock new capabilities and attributes for your character and open up new items for your kits. Servers so far have been sparsely populated thanks to slow sales, but a decent community seems to have embraced the game so far and I’ve been able to find full games regularly. Matches generally take about 20 minutes and task teams to wade through gradually more powerful defenses on their way to a final confrontation against hardened foes. Points are earned based on kills, healing, headshots and basically anything else that you do. It’s an enjoyable time-sink, but I would have gladly given it up in favor of a stronger singleplayer experience.
Syndicate showed a lot of promise, and you can see some of it when you play it. It has some of the best shooting mechanics of any FPS on the market and the online play is entertaining. That said, Starbreeze could have done a lot more to make the story more interesting and engaging for players. This is a title that jumps back and forth from great to average and back again, and though it’s far from perfect, it’s worth experiencing.