Starbreeze’s retro reboot of Bullfrog’s tactical sci-fi tale is the best shooter of the year so far. Read the games™ review.
Back in the days commonly referred to as both ‘good’ and ‘old’, Bullfrog, the studio headed up by (now distinctly green-tinged) maestro Peter Molyneux brought us the original Syndicate for a staggering number of platforms. It mattered not what you owned, from an Amiga CD32, Atari Jaguar or 3DO to an NEC PC-9801 or Acorn Archimedes; whatever weirdo platform was your poison, you could play Syndicate, and if you have enough birthdays in the bag, the chances are you did.
Cyberpunk as a genre was still relatively infant, with the works of William Gibson and others having only just reached public consciousness during the preceding decade, and in gaming the likes of Deus Ex were still less than a twinkle in Warren Spector’s eye. If you wanted cybernetically enhanced corporate espionage in that year, Syndicate was it. But the market then was small and computery, and games on computers involving computers were a sure bet.
Near two decades later, the number of gamers around the world has swelled to a size inconceivable by the standards of 1993, and the requirements for releasing a successful title are far beyond the scattergun approach once adopted by the original Syndicate. But the tenet is largely the same; that to be successful, you have to appeal to the widest possible audience.
It would seem odd then to bring back Syndicate now. Though many of you are aware of the original, out there in the wider world, among the masses who throw money at almost nothing that doesn’t contain FIFA or Call Of Duty somewhere in its title, Syndicate means nothing. Which is probably why EA and Starbreeze have decided the franchise is best served as a pure shooter. What? Yes. Pure shooter. And luckily for all of us, it’s a pretty bloody good one at that.
Do not be fooled by Syndicate’s cyberpunk facade. There is no stealth, no hacking minigames, no complex system of levelling up (just a few health boosts and such). There are no story branches, there is no system to measure morality, no multiple endings nor even multiple dialogue options. Syndicate, at a basic level, shares more in common with F.E.A.R. than it does with Deus Ex and its ilk, the DART 6 overlay time-slowing powers making it particularly evocative of Monolith’s horror shooter series.
So there is hacking of a sort, but it’s action-oriented. The DART 6 chip in player character Miles Kilo’s head allows him all kinds of battlefield interaction. Most enemy soldiers also have chips, and these can be hacked on the fly for a trio of entertaining effects. Backfire causes the enemy’s gun to malfunction, inflicting a small amount of damage to both him and the enemy nearest him and putting them both in a brief, vulnerable state in which your own ordnance does double damage. Suicide causes enemy chips to explode so spectacularly hat you’ll think each of their heads is filled with C4. Then there’s Persuade, which switches the allegiance of one enemy so he fights on your side and, should he still live by the time all others are vanquished, will turn his gun on himself. Fun.
There are also numerous ways to interact with the environment using DART 6. Cover can often be folded away to reveal the enemy or raised up to assist you, and bridges, doors, shields and enemy sentry turrets can all be tinkered with contextually to serve your purpose as and when you need them.
There is not much story to tell; little more than could be crammed into a relatively economic piece of flash fiction, but what little there is is well told and always feels meaningful as it unfolds. The year is 2069 and Kilo is a Eurocorp Agent and, early on in the game, he is sent out on variously violent rampages against a rival corporation, accompanied by Giles Merit, a murderous psychopath for whom the part of the job containing the most enjoyment is the slaughter of innocent bystanders without lawful consequence.
We did have some issues with this. Not with his behaviour – he is set up to be the bad guy right from the off – but because, as a mentor character, we thought it would be fun to take his lead and spend the rest of the game doing exactly as we’d seen him do, shooting in the head every single pedestrian, tramp, scientist, bystander, commuter or other member of the innocent public as we went. Later it becomes apparent that you’re supposed to be the good guy, and the story then wraps itself up in that conclusion, irrespective of the hundred-plus innocent lives you may have deliberately taken up until that point. So there’s a sense that the game is not morally judging the player, but only because it’s too much effort to have the story characters react to skittish, psychopathic behaviour.
Syndicate is a decent length. You can expect to hit the end credits around eight to nine hours on hard difficulty, which considering today’s economically inflicted obsession with brevity is pretty good, especially since that length of time does not count the significant quantity of four-player cooperative levels that come on the disc, each based on a mission from the original Syndicate.
There is no online pass for this game, it’s tight, focused and despite its flaws is easily the best shooter to arrive so far this year. In this sense, we can’t help but wonder why EA has not made a bigger deal out of Syndicate. Games this well-made are a rare commodity at this time of year and Syndicate, with the right marketing behind it, could and should be a roaring success. So do yourself a favour and pick this up – just don’t expect anything more than an enjoyable, linear shooter.