Starbreeze's Syndicate – a reimagining of a 20-year-old real-time tactics game as a first-person shooter – squanders a great idea.
It tackles the notion of corporations usurping governments to become the greed-driven, nearly omnipotent sovereigns of our world. I'd hoped to see something reminiscent of Norman Jewison and James Caan's Rollerball, which also wrestled with corporations run amok and acted as a violent and scary meditation on individuality in the face of crushing authoritarianism.
The violence is there. The meditation? Not so much.
We take on the roll of Agent Kilo, a superhuman enforcer for one of the world's great corporations in the latter half of the 21st century. For the majority of the relatively short single-player story mode he follows his CEO's orders, mindlessly attacking rival corporations and members of the corporate resistance with little care for citizens caught in the crossfire. There's a twist at the end, but it arrives late, is predictable, and offers little narrative satisfaction.
Instead of really sinking its teeth into the idea of what a world run solely by business might be like, the game settles for superficial flourishes with about as much depth as a sheet of paper. For example, at the end of each level we're awarded a corporate rank (middle management, executive, or CEO) and shown a combat results screen headed by a double entendre: "Are you hitting your targets?" Clever fluff.
You can dive a little deeper into the game's speculative fiction by collecting bits of downloadable data scattered around the world. Read these lengthy text entries and you'll discover stories about average people suffering under corporate regimes and learn how the global conglomerates came to power (it starts with the rejection of antitrust laws and a new biochip that renders personal electronics obsolete). There's some vaguely interesting stuff here – we see how wars are waged for improved market share, which means more consumers/citizens for the winning company – but it's pretty dry and far-removed from the story at hand.
The problem is that we never really get into the mind of our antihero. He never reacts to the information we collect, so we don't know if or how it affects him. He doesn't speak, and the dialogue of characters around him is filled with simple, sweeping admonitions of the corporations or self-righteous monologues by wicked executives. There's little to resonate with players or stir their emotions.
Still, those interested simply in shooting stuff may come away moderately satisfied.
Syndicate offers players several high-tech weapons, like a gauss gun that can shoot around corners once it's locked onto an enemy and a rifle that can penetrate cover. They handle well and can be a lot of fun, even if they aren't as powerful as you'd expect (it takes a few too many rounds to take down even weak enemies).
Plus, Kilo is no normal man. He can use his biochip to slow time and track enemies, as well as interface with environmental objects, turning emplaced turrets against their owners, sending rockets back at those who shoot them, and moving machinery to create impromptu cover.
And he earns a few neat abilities as the game progresses, like being able to breach the biochips of enemy soldiers and their weapons. This causes foes to go crazy and kill themselves (and those around them) and their guns to backfire. They recharge through combat and can only be used occasionally, but are great for getting out of a tight spot.
However, I have two pretty big beefs with the action; one to do with my taste in shooters, another that's simply a matter of bad design.
First, while we can take cover behind objects, it rarely pays to do so (save to pause for a moment to regain health). That's because existing enemies charge to our flanks and new foes spawn behind us. There's nothing inherently wrong with games like this; they're made this way to keep us on the move, and Syndicate does just that. That said, I happen to prefer less twitchy shooters in which I can take cover and devise tactics.
And it was due to my time spent running and gunning that I ended up discovering what I can only describe as a glaring design flaw.
As mentioned earlier, it takes quite a few rounds to down most enemies. Execution moves, which require a simple thumbstick click, are far more efficient. In most games we can only execute enemies when we sneak up on them, otherwise we open ourselves to deadly fire. However, midway through Syndicate I earned a biochip upgrade that bestowed upon my agent the ability to heal half his health with every execution. This made him ridiculously powerful. I simply ran into large groups of enemies and started snapping necks. I took fire while doing so, but I also healed with each kill. I was unstoppable.
Of course, some enemies are immune to execution moves. However, there were long stretches where I was able to neglect my weapons entirely. It made the game extremely easy and a little foolish. It reminded me of an established rule in game design that suggests players will usually take the easiest and simplest route to accomplishing objectives, even if it makes the game less fun. That's exactly what I ended up doing.
Syndicate's saving grace is multiplayer. The cooperative mode, which puts four players together as agents, is polished, fun, and much more rewarding than anything we encounter in the single-player game – especially if you find yourself working through a mission with a squad of just two or three players rather than a full four-player squad, which ups the challenge.
But while multiplayer may be the mode that eats up most of your time, it's not peerless. I found myself longing for last fall's Gears of War 3, the cooperative mode of which remains unparalleled in its variety and satisfaction. With such a compelling alternative, it's hard to imagine many players choosing to stick with Syndicate long term.
In the end, Syndicate isn't a disaster but rather a disappointment. It nails the basics, but its narrative and combat are filled with missed opportunities and minor flubs. With such tough competition in the sci-fi shooter category, new contenders need to fire on all cylinders to have a real shot at success. Expect to find this one in the mark-down bins by Christmas.
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Release: February 21, 2012