If you’re going to reboot a beloved game franchise while ditching the original gameplay that made past installments so memorable, you’d might as well go all the way with the execution. One can only hope that 2K’s XCOM will pull it off, much to the kneejerk disappointment of many PC gamers knowing that the game is going first person. Same goes for Syndicate, a classic series that originated as a small-squad strategy game and is now also a first person shooter. One reason to stay optimistic in spite of this design departure is that the new Syndicate is being designed by Starbreeze Studios, a company with a recent track record that includes the well-received Chronicles of Riddick games and The Darkness.
Syndicate’s strongest connection to its predecessor is in preserving the themes of the dominance and the lethal competitiveness of mega-corporations. The playable protagonist is Miles Kilo, a well-augmented, bio-engineered agent who works for Eurocorp, one of the many businesses involved in this corporate war. His latest assignment is to obtain a biochip implanted in the brain of one Gary Chang, an executive from a rival company.
Many younger gamers who don’t remember the original Syndicate will be the ones drawing comparisons to a certain critically praised cyberpunk adventure from this summer. You indeed can call this Deus Ex: Human Revolution For Busy People. The level design is relatively linear and the hacking element of the game, known as “breaching”, is mostly performed using one button. The transport you start in is reminiscent of the chopper in Deus Ex; it’s a scene that also includes the obligatory mission debriefing. It was unclear how Miles and his partner actually got on this rival company’s helipad with no resistance, but it made for an amusing transition once the two marched with Matrix-inspired stoicism into the building proper, surprising a couple guards who were disposed of in an instant.
There were many opportunities to test out the breaching feature on other characters and useful objects. While the standard first person shooting mechanic is addicting and performs well, it is equally satisfying to mix things up by breaching sentry guns to turn on foes or hack guards’ brains so they can kill themselves. One noteworthy scene found me looking in on an interrogation. By hacking one of the of guards’ brains, I managed to drive him mad enough to shoot not only his partner, but also the guy they were interrogating, finishing off the scene with a shot to the guard’s own head. Breaching is also one of the various abilities that can be improved, using an upgrade system that can enhance weapon performance, influence other characters, and even cause enemies’ weapons to backfire.
If this 20-minute demo was any indication of the overall game, you can expect a very focused playthrough indicative of the cool, all-business nature of the line of work Miles is in. The linearity is nothing too unusual for an FPS these days, but such level designs have to try harder these days to standout.
The world of Syndicate appears to be one drenched in information and rich in near-future believability. Miles either has special contact lenses or interactive data eyeglasses, because the player can view and read background info on many of the game’s objects from dropped weapons to business cards.
It’s also a world where the corporation comes before the individual. When I finally reached Gary Chang, he already had a gun to his chin, ready to blow his brains out. If you’re quick on the draw, you can do him a favor and save him a bullet or just let him pull his own trigger; he dies either way. Obviously his rationale was to prevent me from taking his chip. Well, either he’s a really poor shot or Starbreeze are just into, theatrics because I had a neural device on my finger that extracted the chip with ease from the now deceased Mr. Chang. With all the technology around, you’d think Gary would have had access to cleaner methods of destroying the chip.
Chip in-hand, it was time for the extraction. As one who has a low tolerance for backtracking, it was pleasing to have been forced to take an alternate route back to the transport ship. One noteworthy part of the escape was when I came across the Gauss gun, a weapon that shoots bullets that can curve in midair, similar to the Bullseye from the Resistance series. It was also during this part of the game that I got a taste of Syndicate’s puzzle element. In this case, it involved a pair of locked doors and bulletproof glass. I found it to be a tricky spot until I found out that I could breach a nearby pipeline to freeze the glass for easy breakage.
Unsurprisingly, there were more guards to greet me at the helipad, though I took full advantage of my breaching skills to trigger a suicide and survive against the remaining thugs with a slowdown feature that’s part of Miles’ ability set. There was an additional obstacle in the form of a drone, although it was nothing a brief breach and a few pistol rounds couldn’t take care of. Even after all that, there were still a couple more complications preventing me from getting to the transport ship. For one thing, my partner (or the pilot) didn’t seem to have complete control of the ship; but more importantly, the demo ended.
Every game publisher has their rationale for timing the announcement of a title in relation to its release date. While the brief announcement-to-release period might be cause for chin-stroking concern, what I got to see and play didn’t look or feel like a rushed game. A spokesperson from Starbreeze Studios said that Syndicate’s been in development for three years, and it shows. It already delivers a clear sense of polish that made me want to play it more. Characters facial detail is almost on par with L.A. Noire and the subtle animated nuances of the gun gripping and firing animation lend a strong sense of realism more than your average first person shooter. While it’s known that Syndicate will feature a separate four-player campaign, the mode wasn’t ready during this hands-on session, yet I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a preview for that mode before the game’s release.
Syndicate will be coming to PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on February 21st, 2012.