Syndicate does so many things so very right that its utterly dumbfounding plot will almost certainly catch you off guard when it begins to unravel. Although countless industry luminaries are determined to suggest otherwise, there’s really no need for a compelling storyline in a game like Syndicate, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that it might have benefitted from not having one at all. For the most part, developer Starbreeze evidently have their sights fixed squarely on the old school anyway – there are post-mission stat screens and progress trackers galore, beckoning you back to the campaign once you’re done – but for all of its unparalleled clumsiness, the story never demands that you sit through interminable cut-scenes; it may be an unbelievable mess, but it’s allowed to be an unbelievable mess quietly, and on the sidelines. Thank God.
Syndicate is really all about the shooting, and on this score Starbreeze has clearly progressed in giant leaps since The Darkness; their last thoroughbred FPS, and a shooter in which the gunplay was easily the least interesting aspect of it. Syndicate’s combat is fast and weighty and also completely relentless; if you ever have as few as five enemies thrown at you simultaneously, that’s because twenty five more are already assembled on the fringes waiting to join in. In Crytek’s estimable Crysis and its sequel – two games that are broadly comparable to this one – your options in battle were broadened by the empowering functions of your Nanosuit; here, your rechargeable toys come via a bio-digital brain implant. Whereas Crytek used the Nanosuit to bring stealth gameplay into the mix, Starbreeze are only interested in forcing you to use impromptu flair to help guide yourself through absolute bedlam.
Your skill-set is relatively narrow in comparison to the one found in Crysis and it’s founded very early on, and with the exception of a small skill tree – it’s more of a simplified skill-grid, actually – you won’t encounter any fundamental adjustments. Your implants gift you with the ability to corrupt your enemies’ own brain implants from a distance, causing either their weapons to backfire, their allegiance to falter or you can simply inspire them to take their own lives; and all three options can directly affect any comrades who may be in the immediate vicinity. Because these abilities recharge slowly (and only in correlation with how many kills you’ve been getting) you have to be very shrewd about when and where to use them, and even with that ferocious insta-kill melee attack, sitting behind cover and biding your time is only ever going to result in brisk death.
You can also do exceptionally cool things like remotely disable hand grenades before they detonate, but your skills don’t blossom as you progress; instead, it’s the enemies who graft to keep things fresh. Sometimes they do this by emerging en masse, often they’re brandishing shields that have to be disabled before you can attack them, and they’re never anything less than relentlessly aggressive. Syndicate is a very conventional corridor shooter at heart but it doesn’t actually start to feel like one until the plot exhales its asthmatic final breaths, which is a big testament to its creators. It’s indistinct and it’s dumb but it’s also terrific fun, and though we hope that this outing hasn’t put anyone off making a proper remake of Syndicate, a direct sequel to this one wouldn’t be totally unwelcome.
That said, if Starbreeze had focused solely on creating a co-op multiplayer experience – a gamble, admittedly – they might have had a cocksure Game of the Year contender on their hands. Because the co-op here is downright wonderful; directly comparable with the Onslaught mode in Bad Company 2, it’s arguably the first co-op game to offer up some of the frenzy, the tension and (above all) the tactical complexity of an online game of Battlefield. It’s so difficult that tackling it with anything less than a full squad of four people is basically a wistful pipe dream, and you’re only going to persevere if you employ the same degree of tact and teamwork as you would in one of DICE’s awe-inspiring online arenas.
The co-op component isn’t unsubstantial either, and it’s buoyed by a few things (clearly borrowed from somewhere or other) like squad perks, clans and unlocks that will encourage many to have a crack at the fearsome higher difficulty tiers. Syndicate’s drab world feels totally unpopulated and visually it’s a tiresome collage of just about everything you’d expect – Deus Ex, The Fifth Element, Half Life 2 and in several very explicit instances, Blade Runner – but this is a videogame that knows that it’s a videogame above everything else. It doesn’t want you to ponder or peruse, it just wants you to shoot the hell out of as many AI droids as you can physically stomach, before politely asking you to get the hell out. If you remember it in the morning, your memories are likely to be rather fond.
Syndicate is due for release on the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC on Friday, February 24th 2012.
Watch the launch trailer for Syndicate below: