On the surface, Electronic Arts' re-imagining of 1993's real-time tactical simulation, Syndicate, shares a lot with Square Enix's recent Deus Ex reboot. In addition to both titles being set in corporate-controlled, cyber-punk futures, they star similar protagonists; like Human Revolution’s Adam Jensen, Syndicate’s Miles Kilo is a badass in a black trench coat who provides security for one of these corrupt companies. Embroiled in a conspiracy-riddled plot, he also gets an employee discount on human-enhancing technologies that allow him to eliminate enemies in cinematic style. That’s where the similarities cease, however, as Syndicate's more of a straight-up shooter. Of course, thanks to Starbreeze—a studio that's successfully separated themselves from the FPS pack with innovative entries The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness--Syndicate's much more than another excuse to fill evil-doers full of holes.
As with their previous titles, Starbreeze's latest isn't simply about peering down the iron sights and scoring head-shots. Sure, emptying magazines into chumps' chests is an option, but Syndicate's traditional combat is complemented by a far more sophisticated form of gun-play. As agent Kilo, Eurocorp's most capable ass-kicker, players utilize powers and abilities programmed right into his head. This isn't unusual; you see, in 2069 everyone has a mega corporations' microchip implanted in their noggin'—it's kind of like your current mobile contract with AT&T...if your iPhone was buried in your brain—but agents possess special chips that essentially allow them to play judge, jury and executioner to the masses.
Early in the story, players are given a taste of this mind-manipulating power with “suicide”, a neural implant hack that convinces targeted enemies to off themselves in especially graphic ways. It's pretty gruesome the first time you make a dude blow his head off, but by the time you’re using “persuasion”--an ability that forces targets to turn their guns on their friends, before nibbling on the barrel themselves—you'll be pretty comfortable with the sight of pulpy brain bits.
While these hacks and others, such as one that stuns baddies by making their guns backfire, could have come off as gimmicks, they're implemented really well here. Plenty of games feature similar powers, but they’re often reduced to Hail Mary attacks you trigger as soon as the HUD tells you they're good to go; you rarely rely on them, you just feel lucky when they happen to work as intended. Rather than taking a backseat to the primary bullet-whizzing action, Syndicate's abilities inject the combat with welcome nuance and strategy. Hacks are fueled by individual meters that slowly replenish as you fill body bags—the more creatively you kill, the quicker you'll get your hacks back. The thing is, I found myself anxiously monitoring these meters as much as my ammunition and grenade supplies. Anticipating the next time you're able to slow down a specific enemy type with “stun”, or conserving “persuasion” until the moment when a turned enemy will make the most affective asset, delivers thrills rarely experienced in more traditional shooters.
Admittedly, finding this rewarding rhythm takes some time and, for the first hour or so, I actually found the combat a bit clunky. In addition to hacks, players control a night-vision-like ability that shows enemies' heat signatures, allows you to see through walls, boosts your power, and even slows time. It runs off the same adrenaline source as hacks, and managing all these skills—and their accompanying HUDS—feels a little awkward at first. It doesn't help that the tutorial continuously directs you to the pause menu, which explains everything in lengthy, tiny text. My advice is to ignore these prompts and let the learning curve take its natural course; soon enough you'll be breaching brains with the best of them.
While hacking is Syndicate's hook, the gun-play has no problem holding its own. Weapons, many of which have secondary fire modes, feel weighty and won't disappoint the ears with their room-rattling effects. When not effing with foes' heads or filling them with hollow points, you'll occasionally use your neural implant to breach environmental items such as turrets, doors, and movable cover points. Some of the most engaging combat encounters even task players with hacking enemies' armor to make them vulnerable to attacks; trading between armor-breaching hacks and buckshot-spraying blasts, while running backwards as a hulking, hand-cannon-toting threat stalks you, is an effective way to whiten your knuckles. Breaching a live grenade seconds before it blows up in your face will do the trick as well.
Syndicate's a linear shooter at its core, but it does offer a modest amount of character customization. Players can rip chips from higher profile targets' heads, getting rewards through both a gory animation and gained skill points. The latter can be used for common upgrades, such as increased ammo capacity and permanent health boosts, as well as hack-specific perks like the ability to stun more enemies with a “backfire” breach. This element doesn't go as deep as I'd like during the campaign, but Syndicate also sports a robust co-op mode that focuses even more on personalizing your character. Up to four online players can tackle story-driven side missions, while using a number of weapons and abilities not available in the solo run. More than a tacked on addition, this mode retains the critical path's layered combat, and should keep players hacking heads long after the campaign's credits roll.
Based on Starbreeze's previous efforts, I shouldn't be surprised by how much I enjoyed Syndicate. That said, I played it a number of times at preview events and, as with my first hour in the final game, it didn't click with me in pre-release state. I'm guessing Starbreeze released a co-op focused demo--rather than a single-player level--because they too realize it takes more than a mission to fully appreciate its decidedly different combat cadence. Take some time to get into Syndicate and you’ll discover it’s not just another shooter with a pretty Blade Runner paint job.
Disclosure: Reviewed on an Xbox 360 copy provided to us by EA.