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Hands On: Syndicate

Eliminate the hooligans

As everyone knows, Syndicate is back. And as everyone also knows, it's a first-person shooter, which perhaps isn't the direction everyone was expecting it to head in. I've sat down and played a small section of the game, and below you can read my thoughts.

If you watched the in-game footage of Syndicate released a couple of weeks back, you’ve seen the section of the single-player game I was able to get my hands on at a recent event. Unfortunately the only version available was on 360, but I bit my bottom lip and bravely went on. (I'm assuming the PC version will have some manner of anti-aliasing, and not look quite so wobbly.)

I was going after Chang to get the device in his head. I’m not sure who Chang is, nor why I want this device, but a man who clearly has more authority than I told me I should. And that, well, is it really.

Syndicate, or at least the ten minutes of it that I played, was disappointing. Not because it’s a first-person shooter based on a top-down strategy game and seems to have little in common with the original. I don’t care about that. The existence of the new game in no way affects the existence of the first game, and we’re promised that this FPS’s story is entirely based in the Bullfrog-created world. It was disappointing because this snippet was surprisingly dull to play.

Let’s be extremely clear – this was ten minutes. I played only ten minutes of Deus Ex: Human Revolution in June this year, and didn’t feel much toward it. Syndicate could easily flesh out to be an extraordinary game. But, at this point, my confidence is knocked. And that knocking comes in conjunction with the inevitable comparison with DX:HR.

Ur, Alex?

It’s unfortunate for Starbreeze that the two games look quite so similar. Clearly a coincidence (Syndicate would have been well into development before they could know how DX was going to look), it’s one that’s going to prove an extra challenge for EA’s shooter. Because it is a shooter, and it’s not trying to be much more than that. This isn’t a game that encourages stealth – it’s a game about brutally shooting everything that moves.

And it’s remarkably brutal. That scene in the footage, where the man in the room loses control, shoots his colleagues, and then himself in the face – that’s pretty shocking. It’s a lot more so to be the person causing it.

Along with big guns, you have three special abilities (at least at the start). They are Backfire, Suicide, and Persuade. The first causes enemy weapons to explode in their hands, obviously causing them quite an owie. The second, being quite self-explanatory, has the enemy kill himself. And the third, by far the most interesting, causes the target to become a colleague, joining your side in a firefight. These abilities are recharged by killing more people, and you can add to your skills with various improvements of your brain-tech. Names I saw and scribbled down included Perforator (which causes direct shrapnel explosions), Kill Streak, Dexterous, Cerberus Backfire and Adrenaline Rush. However, I didn’t get to experience any of these in my short play.

So as you use your ability on that man in the other room, and the staged moment of his unwillingly murdering the others and himself, the terror and desperation on his face makes it pretty clear you’re not playing a good guy. Not a bad guy, either, apparently. Just a man doing what he’s told by his bosses.

It doesn’t seem likely that the game will be too deeply exploring the ethics of this. It really is aiming to be a brutal shooter, with the gun-toting mentality of the original game intact. It’ll be interesting to see how such a thing is received 18 years on. But perhaps more interesting will be to see how it stands up in a dense field of run-n-gun shooters.

In the glimpse I saw, it’s pretty crucial to point out that I felt like I was in control. The only people fighting with me were those I mind-controlled to do so, meaning Syndicate certainly differentiates itself from the curse of the Modern Warfare acolytes. But that brings us back to that Deus Ex comparison.

Both games are rejuvenations of defunct licenses, created by teams who did not work on the original. Both were massively popular cult hits with die-hard fans, extremely nervous of the newer game. And as I mentioned, both look awfully similar. But Syndicate isn’t going to try to offer a third of what DX was up to. It’s deliberately not a multi-pathway stealth RPG. It’s a shooter. And I’m concerned that may not be enough.

The key thing is, I had little fun when I was playing it. The first time I Persuaded someone to fight with me was great, a really nice idea and well executed – he fought well, and didn’t feel like a 30 second power-up. But beyond that, I went into rooms, killed people, and then looked around for inanimate objects to use my brain powers on. They let you override computers, door locks, etc, which seem to be intended to offer some sort of puzzles.

However, the only example in this short demo was entirely flawed. The challenge was predicated on knowing to need to look high above you for the first time in the game, and nothing hinted that this should be the case. I asked a nearby developer if I’d missed something, and he said I had not, and that this was something they were going to change. However, it seems they only noticed it after the press were getting stuck. Some internal testing, Valve style, would seem in order here.

Combat was pretty mundane, and it was mostly easier to kill people with the gun than faff around with the special abilities. I died a couple of times with absolutely no warning, and then on replays breezed through, which was a touch confusing. And then there were stupid, annoying flying things (SAFT), which apparently the games industry still hasn’t learned not to include in games. Except these ones required that you “override” their shields before you can shoot at them!

This all climaxed with finding Chang, who held a gun to his own head and said if I took another step he’d blow his brains out and thus destroy the chip. So I stood still, and nothing happened. So I shot him in the head. And took the chip. Hmmm.

So I don’t know. It was not an impressive showing, but it was far too small a chunk to draw any proper judgements from. Unfortunately, it’s the only single-player chunk they showed us, so it’s all I have to go on. The weapons are certainly meaty and satisfying, the game extremely violent and amoral, but it felt pretty hollow, pretty pointless. I really hope we get to see more of the game soon so I can have my mind changed.

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John Walker avatar

John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org