Syndicate hands-on preview

Starbreeze Studios needs no introduction. The Swedish game developer of The Darkness and the Chronicles of Riddick games has earned a reputation for creating lushly detailed virtual worlds and giving players a robust set of controls with which to navigate them. It’s great news then that Electronic Arts finally confirmed that Starbreeze’s fabled “Project RedLime,” first announced in 2008, is a reboot of the classic, cyberpunk-infused Syndicate series.

EA and Starbreeze stopped into New York City last week with the latest build of Syndicate, which shifts the series into a first-person perspective and adds some light RPG elements. The game is only a few months away at this point, with the release set for February 21, 2012, so the section on offer during the demo was fully playable.

The game opens in the year 2069, with players taking control of Miles Kilo. Our hero–or maybe protagonist is a more accurate description–is an agent of Eurocorp, one of the megacorporations that has risen up in the game’s near-future dystopian world of corporate rule. Kilo is a bio-engineered enforcer for the company who has had a special DART-6 Bio-Chip implanted that allows him to interact in some unique ways with the technology all around him. This particular demo picks up at an early point in the game; Kilo and a fellow agent have been dispatched to the headquarters of the competing Asari Corp, where they must find company executive Gary Change and extract the chip implanted in his brain.

It’s corporate espionage taken to a new, more gruesome level.

The mission itself is pretty straightforward, though I’m told later missions open things up a bit for Miles. The Asari HQ is a maze of corridors and research labs. Starbreeze’s attention to detail is immediately evident; minor environmental additions attract the eye from every angle resulting in a sensory overload that fits perfectly with the game’s cyberpunk theme. The chip installed in Miles’ brain gives him a constant heads-up display that automatically tags every item around him with floating text–from collectible, holographic business cards to non-interactive, everyday couches, labeled simply (and somewhat hilariously) “couch.”

The first task for Miles involves breaking into the facility, which is where I get to sample his breach ability for the first time. This context-sensitive action can be performed anytime a breachable being or object falls between your crosshairs. Pressing and holding the right bumper (on an Xbox 360 controller) triggers one ability or another.

In this first example, Miles targets one of two armed guards in an interrogation room that is sealed behind glass. Since the guards are “chip’d,” Miles is able to breach one of them and trigger a scripted sequence in which the guard shoots both the prisoner and his partner at point blank range, then himself. The window is shattered in the process, giving Miles an easy entrance to the building. Breaching serves multiple purposes, however. Performing the action on a stationary turret encountered later on converts it over to fight for Miles, targeting Asari security instead. Breaching is also necessary for some enemies, such as flying robot drones whose armor can only be removed with a breach.

The mission proceeds along a fairly linear path overall; there’s a slight bit of backtracking, but you’re pretty much being funneled along from one encounter to the next. The few guns showcased during the demo felt hefty and reasonably powerful, though the coolest is undoubtedly the Gauss Gun, a machine gun with a high rate of fire that locks onto a targeted enemy when you press and hold down the left trigger. Like Halo‘s Needler, all bullets fired at a locked target will home in on that target, no matter where your weapon is pointing.

The Gauss Gun actually comes in handy during a puzzle solving moment as well. Miles comes to a locked door, the control panel for which is clearly visible on the other side of a wall-to-ceiling sheet of bulletproof glass. Fortunately, a leaky pipe filled with liquid nitrogen (or some other extremely cold, gaseous substance) can be shot, allowing you to break through the newly frozen glass near the ceiling. You then secure a lock on the control panel and aim the gun at the new opening, firing a stream of bullets up through the hole and down to your target. Like magic, the door opens.

Eventually I manage to guide Miles to Chang’s office. The executive, ready now for the intrusion, reaches for a nearby pistol. Instead of trying to gun down his assailant, he turns the gun on himself and fires, possibly in the hopes of destroying the chip. He fails though, as I learn when I use a special device to extract the chip. It’s a fairly unsettling process, as you watch an X-ray visual of tendrils working their way into Chang’s brain and tearing out the chip, which emerges covered in blood and brain goo.

You’ll pick up other chips throughout the game, typically when you’re dispatched on these missions with the express purpose of obtaining one. Each chip you collect allows you to make use of the game’s RPG-lite features, with the chip plugging into a grid filled with various ability buffs that increase the damage, duration and other properties of various skills and attacks.

With the mission accomplished, it’s time to escape. I guide Miles outside so that he can be extracted, only to find a hostile force waiting for me. It’s a pretty overwhelming number to face; even breaching the odd enemy and turning him to your side doesn’t cut it. Fortunately, Miles has another tool in his bio-utility belt: DART Vision. In addition to letting you see through walls, DART Vision beefs up your damage resistance while it remains active. An on-screen meter ticks away how much longer before it shuts down. It’s a big help when taking on this final gauntlet of enemies.

The demo ends as a heavily armed flying vehicle appears on the scene — I’m outside now, on a series of suspended walkways connecting various skyscrapers in the cityscape — and fires a volley of missiles my way. Miles falls to the ground as the screen fades to black and the demo comes to an end. I’m told that the game will also feature a four-player co-op mode that stands apart from the single player story, but that’s not being shown at this demo.

My first encounter with Syndicate is a positive one. I’ll want to see more of the game, particularly some of the later missions, to see how Miles various tools and abilities can be used in a more open setting. The basic puzzle pieces all seem to be in place, however, and the world delivers the impressive level of detail that I’ve come to expect from any Starbreeze effort.

Get our Top Stories delivered to your inbox: