While the single-player campaign leaves a lot to be desired, Syndicate really shines when it comes to the co-op multiplayer. Is this a successful reboot of the series? All signs point to yes.
- Unmatched co-op campaign
- Stunning vision of dystopian future
- Fast-paced multitasking of weapons and abilities
- Frequent choke points with infinitely spawning enemies
- Tedious single-player boss battles
- Story falls well short of its own ambitions
- Overall uneven pacing and intrusive tutorials
In 1993, EA and Bullfrog painted a cyberpunk vision of the future with Syndicate. It was a future where corporations battled for dominance in the streets with brainwashed agents while their customers were reduced to mindless loyal zealots. Now that gamer fanboy culture has proven at least part of the dystopian future a reality, EA and developer Starbreeze are giving the series a reboot for a new generation in a whole new genre.
First Day On The Job
In the original Syndicate players took on the role of a soulless corporation, dispatching agents across the globe for the sake of espionage, assassination, and profit. The reboot, however, tells a more personal tale. The campaign focuses on a single agent, Kilo, as he embarks on missions for his EuroCorp overlords. Of course, nothing ever goes quite as planned, with Kilo getting caught in the middle of a three-pronged war for corporate dominance.
Syndicate’s story is an ambitious one, attempting to tackle weighty issues from corporate corruption to free will. However it does so with such broad strokes that it never evolves past a simple “freedom good, corporation bad” mentality. Perhaps those themes wouldn’t have come across as so shallow if some degree of freedom had actually been provided. Every scene of plot importance takes away all control while remaining locked in the first-person. Bioshock pulled a similar trick, but did it only once, creating an effective contrast to the control previously felt in the narrative. Syndicate has no such contrast there, instead preaching freedom while providing none.
Once More Unto The Breach
Visually, Syndicate excels in its depiction of the future. Stark, sterile skyscrapers and lively train stations contrast masterfully with slums and industrial yards. Each setting has a unique tone and personality, yet despite their diversity I always felt that they all belonged in the same cohesive world. Starbreeze has also managed to find natural ways of incorporating cover objects into the scenery through windows, kiosks, and columns. It displays an impeccable sensibility for creating a lived-in world, making it all the more disturbing when the bullets begin to fly and disrupt the familiarity.
While Syndicate agents have a nice arsenal at their disposal, weapons aren’t their only tool. Agents are equipped with a DART chip implant that grants some rather impressive feats. The DART overlay is an agent’s most valuable skill, briefly slowing time while simultaneously granting x-ray vision and making the agent more powerful and durable. While I fully expected the DART overlay to become an instant win button, the long cooldown and short duration of the powerup made it pleasingly into a rare tactical tool.
Enemy agents also have chips installed, which you can take advantage of with various breach abilities. With the press of a button you can cause enemies to commit suicide, jam their weapons, or even turn on their allies. Some enemies can also have additional shields that can only be taken down through breaching. It flows seamlessly into Syndicate’s fast combat, as I found myself breaching one enemy for suicide while shooting another before taking cover and breaching the shield of a third. It’s at times like these that Syndicate is at its best, dual wielding weapons and breach abilities for frantic but carefully orchestrated destruction.
However, there is an issue of pacing at work in Syndicate. Surviving the well decorated corridors all too often leads to open arenas with blatant chest-high walls and waves of enemies spawning in staggering numbers. Or an excruciatingly long boss battle would ensue, testing my patience more than my skill as their health bar slowly depleted long after their strictly programmed pattern had been memorized. At one point a tutorial popped up as I was in midair jumping into a burning elevator shaft, temporarily transporting me to a virtual reality training ground before resuming my descent. For every moment of immersion and impeccable window dressing, Syndicate has an uncanny ability to match it with something equally jarring.
Though Syndicate’s story falls flat, the co-operative multiplayer truly shines. Throughout the nine specially designed co-op missions, players must work as a cohesive unit to fight through scores of enemies and accomplish their goals. Honestly, it’s almost a completely different game.
Take breaching, for example. The standard three breach abilities from the single-player campaign are replaced with twelve new ones focusing on a team dynamic such as shields, damage boosts, or group healing. You can also target a teammate and use the breach button without a skill to heal them at any time, or revive them when they fall. Breach abilities can then be upgraded using the experience and blueprints found during missions to create a custom character for the any combat, defensive, or support role you wish to play.
This extended depth permeates all aspects of Syndicate’s co-op mode. Weapons can be upgraded and customized in a similar fashion to breach abilities, and defeating boss enemies earns chips that can further upgrade your character. Yes, bosses are in the co-op campaign as well, but here require carefully coordinated attacks by all four players rather than tests of endurance. Teamwork is so essential that joining a game with random players is almost surely a recipe for disaster. But find a team of friends to play with, and Syndicate becomes multiplayer bliss.
Many games focus on their single-player campaign with multiplayer seemingly tacked on as an afterthought simply because it’s expected. Syndicate is the inverse of that trend. While Syndicate’s sense of atmosphere leads to rare shining moments, they are thwarted at every turn by a stilted storyline, unlikable characters, and numerous pacing issues that make the experience difficult enjoy. The co-op, however, surpasses almost anything else available in the genre. Does that make Syndicate a successful reboot? Despite reservations, I would have to say yes. The prospect of a fully co-op Syndicate 2 is too tantalizing to say otherwise.
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Editor's Note: Syndicate was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game; however, we also played the PS3 and PC versions, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 and/or PC editions of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.