Syndicate strives for singular sci-fi greatness and settles for expertise in the area of cooperative gameplay. It’s unlikely that critics will recommend this one on the strength of the campaign alone, which is often bland and lacks a gripping narrative. That rankles simply due to my enjoyment of a well-written storyline, but there’s no denying the inspired, deep, and entertaining co-op play, which could eat up many hours.
Graphically, you’re looking at a super slick, almost sterile environment that embraces the concept of a world where humanity flags and electronics and robotics hold sway. There’s an engaging yet almost disturbing emphasis on the pristine atmosphere; “pristine” only because it’s as clean as a laboratory. And that’s the pervading sensation: that you’re wandering through a giant laboratory, no matter where you are. The detail isn’t great, the PC-like visuals lack luster, richness and even hue, but again, that’s the point. In other words, it’s not exactly pretty, but it’s extraordinarily apt.
The sound effects work hard to enhance the futuristic world in which you operate as a powerful agent. The background ambient effects never let you forget that things have changed, and the soundtrack is also fitting. All of it seems to kick up a notch during intense, white-knuckle situations (which are too few and far between in the campaign, by the way). The voice acting is decent with flashes of really supreme talent, and this too adds weight to the immersive, somewhat intimidating climate.
Emotion and human feeling has taken a permanent backseat in this depressing vision of a technologically superior civilization where only money matters, and human life is almost secondary when compared to the advancement of science. At first, although I’m not a fan of the background and style, I immediately wanted to know more: what the hell is EuroCorp even trying to do? How did they come to have such power? And so what if I don’t go get this thing, or stop this person? See, I never really got any answers, even though I really wanted them.
Too much of the plot is told through the incessant – and sometimes irritating – delivery of information and details. It felt probably the way a computer feels when it’s fed data…oh, okay, computers don’t “feel” but then again, neither did I. The solid voice acting, great backdrop, and compelling situations are all pluses, but they almost become minuses when the developers don’t follow through with their initial story presentation. So much of this game reminded me of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but the latter exhibited, perhaps surprisingly, a more personal flair.
But above the lack of emotion and feeling sits the gameplay, as this is of course an interactive experience. And in this category, Starbreeze does a good job of giving us a mechanic that allows us to approach first-person shooting combat with a familiar yet jazzed-up panache. The familiar part comes with the smooth aiming and firing system, combined with a decent cover mechanic that might remind you of Killzone. The only flaw here is that cover doesn’t always seem to work. Bullets have a mysterious way of…finding you. Magic bullets, sometimes.
But that jazzed-up portion I mentioned comes from your prodigious set of abilities that just beg to be used on a frequent basis. You’ve probably seen promotional footage of the suicide skill, which lets you fog the mind of a foe who in turn disposes of himself. It almost feels wrong; as if you’ve become God for a few seconds and can completely dominate another’s mind to the point where survival instinct is overridden. Crazy. Then there’s the persuade application, which turns an enemy into an ally; extremely useful and not quite so grim.
Sometimes, though, your foes are protected by a particular type of armor, which must be breached before you can invade their minds. You just have to hold a button down for a few seconds to accomplish this task, but in hectic situations, it can be problematic. Personally, I gravitated toward the tactical overlay feature, which lets you temporarily slow down time and highlight all foes in the vicinity. That’s the sort of ability that plays to my strengths as someone who wants to dominate with peerless power. …so sue me.
There’s decent variation in the gameplay segments and environments, but the problem is that the minute you really start to get involved, something happens to disconnect you from the experience. There are just too many downtimes; too many, “look at this, isn’t this cool” sequences that really aren’t all that cool and only serve to add unnecessary tedium to a campaign that could’ve used a more focused flow. Also, and I may be the only one to complain about this, but I found some of the ridiculously bright lighting and wicked tiny print to be downright vexing.
In short, the campaign is punctuated by brief albeit satisfying combat situations, and can be completely thrilling when you take full advantage of your futuristic abilities. But it’s just too uneven and lacks a cohesive energy. The good news is that the co-op play is pretty damn great, as you can play with up to three buddies and engage in all sorts of action. There are a bunch of awesome weapons lying around, a host of unlockable stuff to keep you playing, and the chance to create a clan of your own; i.e., a syndicate. Each mission is designed for four players, but some can be completed with only two or three.
The best part is that the online component boasts a very attractive intensity that you don’t find often enough in co-op entertainment. This goes beyond just teaming up with a friend and taking down enemies. The objectives are interesting and diverse and because you progress at a decent clip, you always want to reach the next plateau; you always want to increase the effectiveness of your arsenal. This really feels a lot like co-op should, in that your allies always seem helpful and even critical, and the challenge is always significant without being stifling.
Therefore, as I said in the intro, Syndicate really shines when you get together with a few people. The campaign really isn’t bad at all – and I don’t want to give the impression that it is – but having a ton of info thrown in your face doesn’t necessarily mean you’re fleshing out a story. And the pacing is off, too. The AI is good, the control is good, those skills of yours are totally bad-ass, the atmosphere works beautifully, and the high-energy parts of the adventure are intoxicating.
But this can’t eliminate the issues, which include a slightly flawed cover mechanic, a less-than-accomplished narrative, and a campaign that never quite gels. Oh, and the lighting just pissed me off at times. But if you can look past this, or if you plan on focusing on the co-op aspect, then I’d say you’ve got yourself a winner in Syndicate.
The Good: Great atmosphere. Voice acting is solid. Good control and feel. Futuristic skills make you feel powerful. Some interesting characters and situations. Co-op is the definite jewel of the production.
The Bad: Lighting issues get in the way. Story doesn’t deliver the promised goods. Tedious, boring parts of the campaign.
The Ugly: “The light…wow…saturation much?”
2/27/2012 Ben Dutka