Upon completing Syndicate’s irascible and nebulous campaign, it doesn’t take long to pick up the bloody scraps of what just happened and attempt to fashion them into something meaningful. Whether that quest bears fruit is directly proportional to how frustrated the player feels at the end of the tale. And there will be a lot of frustrated players.
Syndicate is an exhausting game. Never mind the gorgeous skylines, hummingly intuitive interfaces, and pristine aesthetics- Syndicate is about killing. That’s all there is. This future is not one to be celebrated; it’s one to be survived, and its myopic stranglehold on the player’s purpose in the story is both its most engrossing and most repulsive feature. Whatever narrative meat there is to be carved out of this game is ultimately there to serve publisher EA’s own cathartic wishes about its place in this industry. It’s no wonder they published this- Syndicate is an ideal of corporate interaction, the apex of metaphorical commercial fantasy. While that’s all well and good for EA, it isn’t so enthralling for players.
Thank goodness for the co-op.
Syndicate’s outline is easily understood. Governments do not exist anymore, but have been replaced by commercial superpowers known as “syndicates.” These multinational companies, pioneers of technology and architecture, spend the majority of their energy both spying and screwing each other over, and researching new ways to spy and screw over each other. There’s no window dressing for this, just a cold acceptance that life is a series of contributions to a company’s bottom line. But these contributions are not made by accountants, builders, and day-traders. Rather, they are made by wet-work agents, implanted with the most advanced cybernetic abilities, and kitted with the deadliest weapons.
Players are cast as Miles Kilo, a cipher who serves as the most promising guinea pig for the syndicate Eurocorp’s new “DART 6” chip implant. Anyone who matters, and especially every agent, comes with a chip in their head that allows them to interface with any electronic object without having to lift a finger- but the DART 6 is something greater. Activating it transforms Kilo into a dervish that can see through walls and move twice as fast as any of his opponents.
Kilo’s DART 6 abilities also allow him to control the chips of others with sinister intent. In the blink of an eye, he can cause enemies’ weapons to backfire and knock them down, convince them to fight against their peers, or, most disturbingly, lead them to pledge allegiance to an unpinned grenade. The tactics available are merciless, and unflinchingly rendered. Tangos aren’t simply taken down- they’re blown up, shredded, mauled, broken, and immolated. There is a constant sanguinary exchange between Syndicate’s gorgeously pure environments and its spectacular violence. Developer Starbreeze did its best to make the juxtaposition between these things as jarring as possible.
Problems begin to arise when Kilo gets through his first mission and into the campaign proper. Syndicate happens to suffer from the same design issues that brought down BioShock 2: it does everything to build up the player’s confidence and abilities, but doesn’t support those abilities to their fullest. Every seemingly innovative aspect of Syndicate turns out to be a cul-de-sac. Though Kilo’s abilities would suggest a wealth of possibilities for planning and tactical disruption, lack of cover and diverse enemy formations often render the DART system as little more than a panic button. As with BioShock 2, it isn’t until the last quarter of the story, after a wealth of upgrades and practice, that Kilo starts to feel like the badass he should have been all along.
In fairness, Syndicate’s control methods and FPS behavior are quite well realized. Starbreeze definitely has their own style of gunplay, which is very refreshing (however it is recommended to pick up the Stability upgrade as early as possible). The inertia takes some getting used to, but it feels comfortable once broken in. It’s just a shame that the campaign doesn’t often make the most of the ingredients on hand, frequently collapsing into a loop of frustrating trial-and-error firefights, aggravating boss battles, and poor player guidance. Fortunately, co-op is there to pick up the slack.
Syndicate’s co-operative mode is one of the best seen from this generation, worthy of mention in the same breath as Left 4 Dead and Borderlands. All of the problems carried over from the single-player are alleviated with the addition of a few partners in crime. The breaching ability, used to remotely manipulate objects and enemies, is expanded upon in the co-op to include healing your teammates and boosting their abilities. Players have their choice of 9 standalone missions that feel much more inviting than the campaign’s disconcerting stoicism. In fact, co-op feels more true to the spirit of the original strategy game, which had players sending operative squads of four to cause merry hell in isometric business complexes. Bearing that in mind, the direction that Starbreeze and EA took with this reboot makes complete sense.
Co-op comes packing a full experience and upgrade system, which is enlivened by expansions to the DART abilities and true weapon customization. Players can also band together and form their own four-person syndicates, which is both thematically satisfying, and very appreciated. Syndicate will catch players falling asleep at the sticks faster than any shooter out there. It demands complete attention and dedication to the team at even the lowest difficulty, which means well-practiced teams will always fare better than random players looking for a quick match. If co-op disappoints in any way, it’s that it doesn’t last as long as the campaign. To be sure, leveling up and speedrunning the missions will take Syndicate far, but it needs and deserves DLC.
Starbreeze has an inimitable reputation for great looking games, and Syndicate is their best looking title to date. Every frame is soaked in light, cutting through the environments, and filtering each location in a different hue. The campaign begins awash in soft blue, which slowly gives way to warmer tones, and eventually a grimy, unpleasant patina that obscures the clarity of the world. There’s a clear theme of degradation that matches the fall from grace of certain characters. If nothing else, Syndicate’s art direction serves its story much more than its dialogue does. It’s also worth noting that while fantasy games tend to corner the market on art direction accolades, Syndicate is a strong reminder that it can be just as important and impressive in realistic games.
Starbreeze is also one of the few developers that knows how to convey personality through first-person animation. Kilo, and each of the co-op avatars, moves with purpose and detailed grace that makes gameplay feel much more like person and much less like shooter. It’s a welcome feeling, especially considering how strong the gunplay is.
Syndicate’s single-player campaign is not fun. It’s gorgeous, and plays well on a mechanical level, but the level designs, enemy placement, incomprehensible narrative, and underpowered player abilities conspire to frustrate for most of its length. Things open up towards the end of the narrative, as the upgrades really start to make a difference and the player develops a savant-like talent for exploiting the AI, but it ultimately can’t transform its new ideas into game-changing elements so much as reactionary crutches.
Similarly, the story doesn’t do its part to push people through. Every line of dialogue is baked in a mysterious combination of business talk, legalese, and hamhanded attempts to philosophically describe what humans are now that they can force someone to blow their own heads off with their minds. It ends in a messy, confusing confrontation that fails to shed light on just what the actual motivation for the conflict is, if not just shed light on its villain. It’s the kind of story that throws out tenuously connected exposition and all but taunts the player to get it, man. Time will tell if Syndicate really has the depth to redeem its story, but it simply doesn’t bait the hook well enough to challenge any but the most dedicated players to come back and dig deeper.
To the game’s saving credit, however, co-op is a completely different experience. It’s a hard-as-nails cyberpunk grinder that makes players fight for every square-inch of ground. Though the challenge is high, it’s not insurmountable with strong teamwork, which is exactly what the campaign is lacking. Lots of upgrades, varied mission objectives, nice loadout customization, and really well implemented teammate interaction add depth to the proceedings. It’s a great cooperative experience, and a terrific foundation for Starbreeze to expand on (hopefully) moving forward.
Forget all the drama surrounding Syndicate’s allegedly “dumbed-down” reboot. The game survived its much-ballyhooed announcement cycle and arrived in a form that’s as brilliant as it is maddening. Players looking for a truly innovative first-person shooter will find glimpses of one, but not as a single-player experience. Syndicate’s world is oppressively violent and cynical, which doesn’t do its messy story any favors, but when opened up for 4-person teams and a standalone mission structure it makes perfect sense. There is no question that Starbreeze has all of its ducks lined up in a row here, it just doesn’t lead them anywhere interesting until it bids them to go off and do their own thing.