Dated interpretations of the future are so cool. I'm completely serious, I think watching movies like Strange Days or reading books like Snow Crash two decades after each were created is fascinating in a way that can never be replicated. Syndicate does this concept one better by its obedience to pre-millennial fiction first realized nearly twenty years earlier in Bullfrog's tactical isometric shooter of the same name. Starbreeze, celebrated for their surprisingly clever handling of Escape from Butcher Bay, made the bold decision to shift Syndicate's perspective to a first person point of view. Conforming to standards seems rather antithetical to Cyberpunk's rebellious fate, but Syndicate, almost in spite of itself, typically emerges on the right side of social order.
Examine the fiction; Cyberpunk 101. Huge corporations known as syndicates play their game of thrones by seeing who can offer the best neural chips for the otherwise ignorant masses. It's not terribly important what these chips do for the populace, likely the usual exchange of pleasure for control, but it manifests on the player's end through Miles Kilo. Aside from having a name ripped straight from Neal Stephenson's brain, Kilo also happens to be an agent for EuroCorp. Outfitted with the latest in chips that transform regular people into insane killing machines, Kilo is adept in all the usual methods of gunplay, badassery, and breaching (more on that last one shortly). What follows is a highly predictable but never-the-less stylish and provocative tale of Kilo finding out what's really going on behind the scenes at EuroCorp.
At first glance Syndicate doesn't leave much room for subtlety. Kilo's partner Merritt seems content to execute every person he comes across, innocent or otherwise, emphasizing to the player that agent and sociopath are basically the same role. What struck me as particularly interesting was how indifferent Syndicate seemed toward the player's role in the process. You can kill bystanders or leave them be and the game offers neither punishment nor reward. This becomes even more apparent when the game dedicates and entire chapter to Kilo making his way through the squalor that lies beneath ultraclean skyscrapers. It's not especially poignant or original, but the game's simultaneous indifference and effort in painting that picture created a weird moment of empathy I totally didn't see coming.
Other than that Syndicate's style is what Bladerunner would have been if someone cleaned up the place. Every surface is clean and perfect and every agent wears a trench coat and screams cool. Being designed for 2012 dubstep blasts itself into the picture whenever something provocative is about to happen, as do a menagerie of sound effects that can best be described as robots being castrated. Oddly it all works, serving as a proper compliment to the uncontaminated dystopia masquerading as desirable living.
Kilo has access to an expected load out of firearms. A couple varieties of pistols, shotguns, and machine guns compliment the occasional future gun, like the one that forces bullets up and over objects to home in on opponents. Syndicate’s gunplay isn't very distinctive, but it is incredibly well refined. Guns feel great, and the satisfaction gleaned from zeroing in on some dude's head and successfully unloading an entire clip on him and two other guys is appropriately gratifying. Another great sequence is the sheer joy of ripping people in half the first time you pick up a chaingun. Gunfire also has that Michael Mann penchant for filling out the histogram, ensuring that every single blast is appropriately earsplitting.
Of greater interest is Kilo's particular neural chip, a prototype known as DART-6. By employing DART with the touch of a button, Kilo engages a helpful visual overlay that not only slows down time, but also boosts his health and damage output and then highlights all off his seen opposition in yellow for good measure. At first I used DART exclusively for contrasting bad guys from their similarly colored positions, but later it turned into more of a Vanquish sort of game where I was shifting out of Syndicate’s dynamic cover system and systematically unloading on three or four guys before popping back into cover until my DART ability managed to regenerate.
And then there's Syndicate’s calling card, breaching. Kilo's particular chip allows him to hack the other chips embedded in everyone else's brain. The campaign spreads this ability out over three separate powers. Backfire jams an enemy's weapon and causes him to stumble out of cover. Suicide makes one of them pull out a grenade and kill himself as well everyone around him. Persuasion, which causes one enemy to turn against the others before ultimately shooting himself in the face, is the most enjoyable. Breaching can also be used to hack incoming grenades and render them inert, remove the shields from annoying UAVs, raise random platforms for impromptu cover, and a host of other tricks typically discovered when fighting bosses.
Syndicate's combat isn't much for variety. This isn't really a problem with a campaign that doesn't last more than six or seven hours, but it can feel disappointing. Eventually you'll start running into guys whom are invulnerable until properly breached. Dealing with them and an increasing number of regular enemies works for a while until the game ups the ante and tosses two invincible guys and even more normal enemies. Breaching is cool but it seems incidental. In case your powers are on recharge they absolutely can’t be required for any normal encounters beyond busting UAVs. It can feel like Starbreeze didn't have time to really exploit all of their cool toys. Sharp level design helps mend those shortcomings, as do the bosses which offer legitimate, if not occasionally frustrating, challenges that do cater directly to Kilo's powers.
Cooperative play is startling in how divorced it seems from the solo campaign. Classes replace your Kilo, and your means of progression is widely expanded. Rather than the sole chip board that composes Kilo's perks, your co-op character gets a much larger field and numerous weapon and application abilities to dump points into. Applications go well beyond what's offered in the campaign. Backfire remains but are joined by abilities that provide a temporary shield, increase the damage output for everyone on the team, and make your DART last longer among dozens of others. You also get overarching level based goals like kills, kill assists, and objectives completed. Clan support, aptly titled as your Syndicate, is also available.
All of this is spread out over nine maps with a varying degree of objectives. Actually that's not entirely accurate, in the five maps that fellow Digital Chumps editor Chris Stone and I managed to clear, objectives ranged from (1) getting from point A to point B and killing everyone on the way there to (2) acquiring some sort of item and getting it back to da choppa, which also was under constant assault and required defense. It says a lot for the contextual reasoning behind any of this when your character routinely exclaims, "I'm taking this piece of shit back to the ship" upon grabbing a coveted item.
It turns out the how and why aren't necessarily important, as running through those levels with a friend was a lot of fun. A certain caveat, one that is relatively inexcusable but also responsible for the amount of fun we had (putting Syndicate in this weird design limbo that I'm not totally sure if I should appreciate) was Syndicate's assumption that you're always going to play with four people. Chris was my only friend who also had the game on launch day and I'm not into the idea of playing cooperatively with randoms, so we opted to make it a two man show on the easiest difficulty (normal) rather than a four man parade as god intended. While Syndicate offers this option, it did not appear to scale to it.
What resulted was Chris and I getting the crap kicked out of us until we had a proper handle on what we were doing. The first map was a massacre. At the end of that we had learned to apply MMO sensibilities to our actions and designate tank/healer abilities when needed. The second map came with a giant hulking bad guy at the end that required several lives worth of manipulation before we claimed victory. The third map, Atlantic Accelerator, ended with a battle against three or four agents who had the same healing and combat prowess we did. That seemed impossible, and the strategies and planning Chris and I refined over and over and over again eventually, after like an hour, bared the fruit of victory, or, as Chris exclaimed, "I can't believe we just ----ing did that." This was more of a case of us beating the game rather than us beating the intended challenge, which arguably made for a better feel of elation. We had a ton of fun for sure, but I'm going to wait until more of my friends pick up the game before attempting any of the remaining levels.