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Wot I Think: Syndicate (Singleplayer)

Not terribly persuasive

I've been playing EA and Starbreeze's contentious FPS reboot of the legendary Syndicate. I've only done a little dabbling in co-op, a report on which I will present very soon (so far: better than singleplayer, but very much in the unlock/ranking modern multiplayer idiom). You can find my rather more positive thoughts on the co-op mode here, but below is my take on the campaign mode, and the tale of the hysterically-named Eurocorp Agent MILES KILO.


1) Whether Syndicate is a decent first-person shooter or not.

2) Whether Syndicate 2012 is anything like Syndicate 1993.

3) The coffee I'm currently drinking.

1) Syndicate is Deus Ex: Human Revolution without the stealth, hacking or conversation. It takes the concept of being a hard-as-nails cyborg enforcer in a near-future world dominated by sinister corporations and leaves you free to indulge in the power fantasy, rather than worrying about what the right thing to do is, how to build the most efficient character spec and whether you've found all the side-missions. You're a walking war machine, so go wage war.

Primarily this is in the form of shooting enemy soldiers in the head with a small but ultimately ludicrously powerful array of guns. A very simplistic cover system and recharging health are your major allies here, but the key difference from other shooters is your Breach powers. There are three of these, although two are pointlessly deactivated for a long stretch mid-game. Also, their effects are largely pretty similar, so it's really a matter of which one has finished recharging rather than applying any strategy. Backfire causes a spot of damage, makes an enemy fall out of cover and makes them temporarily extra-vulnerable to your bullets. Suicide makes a single enemy execute himself, but if he's in a group he'll do it with a grenade. It's funny the first time. Persuade turns a single enemy to your side for a short while, but if there are no other enemies around he'll commit suicide.

All of these happen by pressing and holding E. All of these result in there being one or two fewer enemies in front of you. It's smartly blended with the shooting, in that it becomes an intuitive and effective additional layer of mob management, but it is always the same. As is the infrequently-visited upgrade tree, which offers only faint choice between more health and more damage. On top of that, the game is sternly determined to deny such fun whenever a boss or miniboss appears, something which becomes an aggravatingly frequent occurrence in the later stages of the game. These fellows are silently immune to your Breach powers, but invariably you'll use exactly the same E-and-hold mechanic to temporarily deactivate their energy-shield then attempt to whittle away their big fat health bar before they drop their annoyingly over-powered special attack on you.

Syndicate comes across like Human Revolution's half-wit cousin even at the best of times, but even more so at the worst of times - these godawful boss fights. The difficulty doesn't so much spike as transform into a thousand-foot tall stalactite of infuriating, grinding cruelty. They're certainly not impossible, although I did abandon the game what appears to be minutes before the end because I couldn't face a fortieth miserable attempt at vanquishing my sucker-punching nemesis, but they are this amount of fun: 0. Like Human Revolution they render your special abilities useless, and like Human Revolution they destroy the sense that you're a superhuman whirlwind of destruction. Instead you're a guy who hides behind pillars, swearing and frantically wishing your health would recharge a whole lot more quickly.

That aside, Syndicate is a competent enough if forgettable and often boring shooter. There are flashes of real excitement, when it grants you the space and the headcount to decimate a room full of goons with a combination of ultra-guns and mind control and thus like Sir Bad of Ass, bad-ass ruler of Badassia. But then it'll collapse into ten minutes of making some lifts go up and down, hammering F to slowly open some doors and listening to boring people say boring things.

General technical things: it looks 'fine', if occasionally blighted by low-res textures, but somehow even manages to make Blade Runner-esque future cities and secret towns built on an artifical island completely unmemorable. Occasionally it attempts Japanese-infused urban areas, but you're locked into such a restrictive series of small alleys that there's no hope of believing it's a place that actually exists. Oh, and I found the locked, limited FOV rather unpleasant at times, and had to play sat as far back from my monitor as I could. I hope someone manages to hack that.

The one thing Syndicate begins to get right is being a power fantasy, but it's dramatically outdone even in that by the recent Darkness II. That may be even more dribbly of plot and frequently leans towards obnoxiousness, but it is consistently an opportunity to totally indulge yourself in superpowered, semi-customisable excessiveness. Syndicate, meanwhile, is guilty of that most dispiriting of crimes: overwhelming ordinariness.

2) A boring fact for you: a grumpy twitter post I made yesterday reading "they could release a My Little Pony Game called Syndicate and it'd still be more like Syndicate than Syndicate" received probably the most retweets I've ever had. The internet sure does get behind someone having a moan. In amongst the storm of repeats were a few people opining that my 140 characters of open pith were unfair.

They're not entirely wrong, though it depends on the My Little Pony game. If it was squad-based game set in large, civilian-packed environments and documented a turf war between Ponies (presumably fought by throwing berries at each other or offering stern lessons on treating people nicely), it would certainly be a lot more like Syndicate than a first-person shooter with gigantic guns, infuriating boss fights, an underbaked psychic-hacking mechanic and a plot cobbled unegagingly together from over-familiar bits of The Bourne Identity, The Matrix, Robocop and Half-Life 2.

If Syndicate was made because the devs/publishers felt the original Syndicate provided a fertile world to tell stories in, and offer an 'intimate and close-up perspective' or whatever marketing codswallop was offered for pulling the 'oh, just make it into a shooting game' lever, then it makes no sense that they've ignored most of the theme in addition to the genre. The game tells you that in the future, warring corporations basically run the world and are cruel, oppressive bastards with loads of money, technology and weapons. Great! Time to go out and be a cruel, oppressive bastard with loads of money, technology and weapons!

There is none of that, outside of endless text-screens of background info gained from tediously collecting hidden items. Instead it's purely about running through a load of warehouses and corridors and office complexes and headshot some generi-soldiers again and again and again, before (and minor SPOILERS, if you really are so dim that you didn't immediately guess where Syndicate's plot was going to go) having a change of heart and shooting some different generi-soldiers again and again and again instead.

Alright, there is generally a very small scattering of unarmed civilians dropped into the corners of Syndicate's locked door-infected small spaces and you can kill them without consequence, but I suspect that, like me, you'll find this to be a particularly apathetic breed of sadism. They cower on sight, and if you can bothered to divert from your soldier-slaying to go kill them, they fall over. You might as well go kick a cardboard box. There's no sense that this is a society, Orwellian or otherwise: it's just enclosed spaces with a few cowering NPCs dropped in here and there. You will not feel like a tool of oppression, the right arm of cruel corporate control: you'll just feel like N.E. Action Hero. Inches Centi or Yards Metre or Miles Kilo or whatever it is your silent, faceless non-entity of a character is called is deliberately designed to have no personality, as he is a reprogrammed Agent of Eurocorp who's supposed to just robotically follow orders, but there is an enormous and deflating difference between telling such a slave where to go and being inside the empty head of said slave. In Syndicate '93, you're a knowing and driven overlord, calculating your own method of achieving an ultimate objective. In Syndicate 2012, you're a walking gun who follows preset waypoints until he gets to the cutscene.

No strategy. No subversive sadism. No roleplaying. No inhabiting the dark powermonger fantasy. No sense of world. No stomach to stick to its 'you are the bad guy' concept. Just a man with gun running through a series of doors. A My Little Pony game would at least be about something.

3) Small, cheap cup, slightly acrid, milk tastes a bit funny. 'Salright though. Had better, had worse, wouldn't buy again.

Syndicate is out now.

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