If Charles Dickens were somehow thrown into a time machine—maybe a portable telephone booth piloted by two would-be 80s rock stars—and suddenly found himself in the unlikely position of writing video game reviews, he would already have the opening line of Syndicate ready to go: Syndicate is very much a tale of the best of times, and the worst of times.
EA and Starbreeze have teamed up to bring back the 90s game Syndicate, but beyond the name and general setting, the titles are mostly unrelated. So too are the campaign mode of Syndicate, which can generously be described as generic, and the multiplayer, which offers a satisfying—albeit slightly brief — experience.
On paper, Syndicate’s campaign should be great. The story is a filled with twists, the action can become intense, and the setting is rife with possibilities. Technically it is a sound game too, with a good frame rate and respectable animations. And yet after completing the campaign, it is hard to pick out any real distinct features from it. There’s nothing really wrong with the game, but there isn’t all that much right with it either.
Forgettable would be a good word to describe the campaign of Syndicate, bland would be another. Even with a few unique abilities at your disposal, the gameplay is familiar to anyone that has played an FPS in the last few years. That isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t really memorable either. The same is true of the story. From the first moment you are introduced to all the key players, you can guess how they will end up. It almost makes you want to shoot them in the head immediately to avoid their incredibly obvious betrayal.
Syndicate feels like a game that missed its release window by about four years. It takes numerous parts you’ve seen in other games, but doesn’t build on any of them, and things you may expect to find are notably absent.
Now all that said, there are a few moments in the game that are worth the price of admission. The gameplay picks up quite a bit during the last few levels which leads to some frantic battles, and the online co-op missions are incredibly addictive. Syndicate is not a bad game at all, it is just forgettable.
Back to the future
The year is 2069, and the world has become a moral lesson in the dangers of letting corporations become too powerful. Governments are little more than a footnote in society, as the world is dominated by international mega-corporations known as…wait for it…Syndicates, complete with their own goals–and their own armies.
You are Miles Kilo, an agent for mega-corporation, EuroCorp. As an agent, you walk on the dark side of corporate affairs, and are frequently involved with assassinations, industrial espionage, and all the scariest things you could think that a corporation with few morals and less legalities might dream up.
The rise of the corporations was ushered in thanks to the acceptance of neural chips, the next stage in digital connectivity. These chips connect the world to the dataverse, but more than that, in the case of the protagonist they offer enhancements and the ability to hack into others’ chips and tamper with them, which leads to some of the better gameplay moments in Syndicate.
After being issued the newest and greatest prototype chip, you return to your duties at the instance of EuroCorp’s CEO, and over the protests of the chip designer, Dr. Lily Draw. The story then begins in earnest as you and your handler/partner, Agent Merit, are sent to investigate a rival Syndicate’s newly design chip, which bares suspicious resemblance to the new EuroCorp chip.
What follows next is an exercise in predictability. There are a few twists, all of which you can guess from the first few moments. There is at least one “oh my god” moment that is taken directly from at least three or four other games that did the same thing, and did it better. You can expect betrayals, twists, and a plot that promises that “nothing will ever be the same!” before it sets up a possible sequel.
I am trying to avoid spoilers, but really, from the first hour of the game you can predict how it will play out. It wouldn’t be so bad that the plot is unoriginal—that happens often in entertainment—but Syndicate tries really hard to sell the predictable surprise twists, which is almost adorable, like a little kitten trying to jump up to the table but missing.
Putting aside the plot, the bigger issue is that the story just isn’t told that well to begin with. There is an interesting world outside the windows of Syndicate’s future, but it is never given room to breathe. There are plenty of data transfers that you can access then read through the menu, but this type of information should only ever be used to supplement, not create the world.
The future is nigh!
All of the problems in the story could easily have been overlooked—and may have even worked on their own right—if the design had been compelling. But as with the storytelling, there is a very generic and sterile feeling to the levels.
The game tries a few times to remind you that it is the world of tomorrow, especially when you are outside and can look at the city, but even then there is a bland feel to it. Take away the flying cars and impossibly tall skyscrapers, and nothing really stands out as futuristic. It is a bit disappointing.
The biggest issue with the design though is the levels themselves. Although they are all different, they really aren’t, and by the time you reach the finale (maybe six to eight hours if that), all of the areas will have blurred together.
There is even one level that stands out, a floating city that you infiltrate, but after a few minutes you find yourself in yet another office-themed level. Seen one office hallway, seen them all.
Beyond that the game looks good. There is an odd decision to use light in a way that saturates the environment and means that if you stare at a bright sign it will almost blind your character, but that is a deliberate choice. Weird, but deliberate. The animations and environments look good too, and you’ll have plenty of time to see them again, and again, as you go through familiar looking areas over and over.
Once more unto the breach
The gameplay of Syndicate is standard FPS fare—with one minor exception.
The “chip in the head” aspect of Syndicate is leveraged to create the game’s only really unique feature. As you power through hordes of enemies, you will have an advantage that you can draw on, the breach abilities.
Once unlocked, you have three options you can use: backfire, suicide, and persuasion. When you are close enough to an enemy, an icon will appear over their head that allows you to use one of the three commands. The backfire makes the target’s weapon explode and will hurt or kill them and anyone nearby, the suicide makes the target explode, damaging those close, and the persuasion turns an enemy against his allies for a few moments.
It is a fun addition, but the charging times are long, and make it so that you can’t rely on them. Because of that, most will probably focus on the standard firearms (most of which have regular and alt-fire options), and the DART view, which is an X-ray mode similar to Batman’s Detective view.
Besides that, the combat is fairly decent and fast-paced, and as you level up you can speed up the recharge on the breach abilities. The first few hours of gameplay are forgettable, but the final levels offer some white-knuckle gameplay that almost make up for the earlier hours of repetition. But even so, there is the problem with the AI.
In the future there will be idiots
The enemy AI is woefully stupid in Syndicate, especially in the early stages. They rarely advance in the early levels, and sometimes they will just appear from the oddest places. That’s usually not a big issue though, since they can sometimes literally stand right behind you, less than ten feet away, and still miss you. They are all wearing futuristicy armor though, so like the song says, “if you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough,” and they are. Many of the later enemies even require you to breach their shields before you can attack them.
Like everything else in Syndicate, the enemies tend to blur together. There will occasionally be the odd mini-boss-like enemy that springs up and requires you to use all your tools, but after a while they get repetitive. There are a handful of boss fights, but they face the same problem, and never really offer anything too interesting.
The good news
The campaign in Syndicate is little more than a distraction. The story, the enemies, the design, and even the action all feel like they were about 80-percent complete, but then stopped before the detail that makes a game stand out was added. There isn’t really anything wrong with it, but it is never compelling. The multiplayer, however picks up the slack quite a bit.
Rather than offering a competitive mode like so, so many other FPS games out there, Syndicate offers nine co-op missions, which can be completed with up to four other players. Each mission is unique. Some have you simply going forth to kill, while others have specific objectives that need to be completed.
There really isn’t a story other than the mission briefing, but there doesn’t need to be one either. The only downside to this is that there are areas that you will need all of your teammates to proceed—usually they just have to be there to unlock a door—and you cannot advance without everyone there. If you are a fan of jumping into games with new people, you can probably guess the problem. All it takes is one idiot to leave their game on, or just try to be annoying, and the game grinds to a halt. It is hard to blame Syndicate too much for this, but there should have been an override of some sort to deal with the occasional online fool that inevitably comes along.
Other than that, if you have a group of friends, or just people willing to work together, the online is the best part of Syndicate, and makes the rest of the game palatable. There are issues with dropping games which you cannot rejoin, and the nine missions can be torn through in a single sitting, but a robust leveling systems helps keep the replayability high.
Maybe the best way to consider Syndicate is that it is dated. If it had come out four years ago, it would have blown people away. Instead, it feels like it is missing many of the improvements that we may take for granted.
One simple example is that when an enemy winds up to toss a grenade and you shoot him, rather than the grenade exploding, it simply disappears. That isn’t a big deal, but it is something you would expect. Just like the level design—you would expect a greater level of detail in the world. The setting is ripe for some insane and imaginative locations, but they mostly blur together. From the first flashy moments to the dub stepping credits, the campaign of Syndicate just feels flat and uninspired. It is never bad though, but it is bland and generic.
Thankfully there is an entertaining multiplayer to fall back on, even though there isn’t all that much of it. If you are looking for a good co-op experience online, you can do worse.
Score 7.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by EA)