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First look at Syndicate

Electronic Arts used its first annual Vegas Games Show to premiere a new take on a classic game franchise. Syndicate has been re-designed as a first-person shooter by acclaimed developer Starbreeze Studios, which has made a name for itself with games like The Darkness and Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.

Syndicate features a new story by New York Times bestselling author Richard Morgan, who worked closely with Starbreeze on this project. Like the original, it’s set in the future. In this case, it’s 2069, which is marked by the early rise of the Syndicates, which have placed bio-chips inside everything from humans to weapons. Three corporations, Eurocorp, Cayman Global, and Aspari are in a constant battle amongst themselves to gain market share and dominate the North American chip business.

Mikael Nermark, CEO, Starbreeze Studios, said the goal of the Swedish studio was to re-create that classic franchise from the ‘90s, take everything that made it such a classic of its time, and bring those elements back in a form that is more suitable for today’s gamers and today’s gaming platforms.

“When we partnered with Starbreeze, we wanted to make this more than just a first-person shooter,” explained Jeff Gannon, executive producer on Syndicate at EA Partners Europe. “Obviously, we wanted to be faithful to the original, but we also wanted to make a great, immersive, futuristic world filled with great characters and great narrative. We always set out to make this game for core gamers. When you see the software, you’ll see that the AI, for example, makes it a hugely challenging experience. It’s not scripted at all.”

Nermark said his team also needed to innovate. They wanted to bring something new to the first-person shooter genre. What they’ve created is chip-enhanced gameplay. The game’s protagonist, Milos Kilo, has a DART 6 bio-chip installed in head, which allows him special abilities like slowing down time and seeing digital signatures of enemies through walls. As an agent for Eurocorp, Kilo can hack, or breach, enemies as he’s sent out on assassination missions against the competing corporations. The game’s breach mechanic opens up a new way for players to battle enemies without even pulling a trigger.

“As you progress from the single player, you can upgrade all of these breaches through attributes like how fast they recharge,” explained Gannon. “Breaches get added to your interfaces to go through. The most memorable ones are the Suicide Breach, which is a great strategic tool that you have as a player. If you have a lot of enemies in front of you and you can’t get to them. You can suicide one guy and he pulls a grenade and takes out everyone around him. It’s great fun.”

There’s also the Persuade breach, which can be used to hack into an enemy’s chip and force him to switch allegiance for a short period of time. This allows players who are in the thick of a firefight to get an instant re-enforcement in the form of a sidekick who’s running around shooting enemies.

Another breach, called Backfire, targets enemy weapons. Within the future landscape of the game, even weapons have a digital presence in the world. You can affect those in a similar way that you can affect the chip inside your head or the enemies head, causing a weapon to jam and backfire. This does a small amount of damage to the victim; but more importantly, it knocks the guy out of cover and knocks him on his back. This makes it easy to take out enemies who are hiding from your gunfire.

Syndicate runs on an advanced version of Starbreeze’s proprietary engine, which allowed the team to create a futuristic shooter that has a very unique look thanks to its art direction. The game looks and plays nothing like the classic title, as the levels on display featured impressive visuals like the heat-vision view of enemies hiding behind walls. The environments also featured plenty of destructible objects, including glass, office desks and walls. It’s this level of detail, and the game’s new gameplay, that EA hopes will introduce Syndicate to a new generation of gamers.

“Clearly, the first-person shooter market is very crowded, but there’s always space for innovation,” said Gannon. “We set out to make a very core shooter experience; something which you might call traditional, almost. It’s a tough game. The AI, we think, is excellent. The game is very lightly scripted, so you can play it your way. We really focused on the AI to enable the chip-rich mechanics that offer players the ability to play as they wish. And the AI adapts to that.”

Nermark believes Syndicate adds to the very experience of a shooter.

“First-person shooters have a rhythm,” explained Nermark. “Obviously, you have a gun, you fire, reload, etc., eye on sight. The chip-enhanced gameplay mechanic adds another beat to that rhythm. You do it all at the same time using them in any given situation.”

Players will be able to experience this new rhythm on February 21, 2012 when Syndicate is released on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.