Syndicate was a PC strategy game released back in 1993 by Bullfrog Productions, the original game studio founded by Peter Molyneux in 1987, where he remained until he left to start Lionhead Studios in 1997. Syndicate was very well received at the time, and was successful enough for an expansion pack, and a sequel titled Syndicate Wars. The Syndicate games are cyperpunk themed and set in a dystopian future where mega corporations control most of the world, but have more in common with crime organizations than legitimate businesses. There hasn’t been a Syndicate game since 1996, but EA has decided to change that by rebooting the franchise into a first person shooter, simply titled Syndicate.
While developer Starbreeze Studios has opted to ditch the isometric strategy gameplay of past games in the series for the more mainstream friendly first person shooter genre, they have not entirely abandoned the core aspects of the original games. In the world of Syndicate, neural implants known simply as chips are becoming more and more common. In the original games, the player character was controlling the individual units through their chips, but in this game the chip actually works more in favor of the individual. The main aspect of gameplay that sets this game apart from other first person shooters is the various abilities that your chip grants you.
This demo consists only of a four player cooperative mode, which seems to be a completely different mode than what will be featured in the single player campaign. This co-op mode doesn’t have any story to speak of, but is quite more than you would expect from a mode like this. I was expecting this to simply be a horde style mode, but it actuallyconsists of linear levels with forward progression, and even an end boss. The co-op supports up to four players, and I played the majority of my time with a full group of four.
I was quite surprised by the amount of depth and customization to the pre-mission loadout set up. There is a pretty expansive unlock tree that you can spend points (which earn by leveling up) in to unlock new abilities, improve your efficiency with abilities, increase your health, or improve your resistances to particular types of damage (explosive, firearms, etc.). You can also invest application tokens (earned by completing missions) in individual abilities to improve their effectiveness, and you can also invest blueprint tokens (earned by killing specific enemies and removing their chips) into weapon research to add modifications and improve overall effectiveness. This layer of depth and customization is one I absolutely approve of, and it gives you some incentive to replay missions or try missions on harder difficulties.
While all these peripheral RPG elements are nice and all, the most important aspect of a shooter is the gameplay, and Syndicate is acceptable, though not outstanding. The actual shooting is entirely average and unoriginal. It is exactly what you expect from a shooter in world where Call of Duty still sells 20 million copies a year; meaning you aim down sights with the left trigger, there is a generous “snap” on enemies as you aim, and you get a hit marker when your shots hit an enemy. As far the indefinably but supremely important “feel” of the shooting, it feels good enough. The weapons sound okay, and the shooting is decently satisfying, though not spectacular.
While the shooting is generic, the one aspect of gameplay that I thought was pretty cool was the chip abilities. You can interact with many objects in the environment simply by aiming at them and pressing the “breach” button. This results in hacking turrets, opening doors, raising cover, or any number of context sensitive actions. You can also fully heal any of your squad-mates by simply looking at them and pressing breach. This adds a great layer of strategy to the game. For instance, our group found that sending in two guys on a suicide run while having the other two stand back and continuously heal them was a great strategy against some of the tougher enemies. In addition to your standard context sensitive breach ability, you also have addition abilities based on your loadout. You can do things like activate temporary shields for you and your teammates, heal your entire team at once, jam your enemies’ guns, and many more abilities that unlock at higher levels. The abilities add a nice wrinkle to the fairly generic shooting, and make the cooperative play mean more than just having four people in the game, because most of the abilities contribute to team play in some way.
Unfortunately, I did encounter some problems with Syndicate. The enemy AI is not very impressive, and doesn’t seem to do much more than charge at you, shoot you from a distance, and occasionally throw grenades. There didn’t seem to be too many advanced behaviors, and often times they will do super fast 180s while you’re trying to sneak up on them. However, the AI oddities pale in comparison to the main issue my group encountered in this demo. The game seemed almost incapable of maintaining a full group of four for any period of time. We couldn’t seem to go more than 5 minutes without at least one person having their game lock up on them. One member of my group froze over 5 times in a span of 15 minutes, spending more time at the Xbox dashboard rebooting the game than he did actually playing the game during this span. When I first started playing and there were just two of us, it seemed fine. Even with three players there weren’t any issues, but as soon as we added a fourth, the game seemed determined to crash. I can’t say whether this issue will be unique to the demo, or is a fundamental flaw of the game itself; I can only hope this issue is not present in the final game.
I’ve never played the original Syndicate, but based on everything I know about the original games, this reboot seems like a pretty respectful re-imagining of those games. I’m sure, much like the whole XCOM reboot situation, many hardcore fans of the originals will want no part of this game, but it seems pretty cool nonetheless. When it comes to shooters, I am definitely a fan of games that add more depth than simply shooting you enemies. While the abilities in this game don’t change the fundamental gameplay as much as say Plasmids in Bioshock, or powers in Mass Effect 2, they do add a nice bit of depth to what would otherwise be generic and unimpressive shooter combat. With a game like this, the story may be the main draw, but the co-op mode seems like it will be a solid addition to the main game, provided the stability issues when playing with a full team are cleaned up for the final release.