Syndicate seems to polarise opinion. Haters hate it because it bears almost no relation to the classic action strategy series whose name it bears, and because it shares themes and some aesthetics with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but isn’t anywhere near as smart. Lovers love it because it pays homage to a much-loved series and because it’s a very well put together shooter with some ingenious touches and an excellent co-op mode. For us, the truth is somewhere in between. Syndicate is by no means as soulless or generic as some have made out, but there’s no question that it’s not as good as it should be.
It’s not a car crash on the lines of Haze or Bulletstorm. It’s not even as ‘by the numbers’ as the single-player campaign in Battlefield 3. And yet it’s also not exceptional. If you buy it, you’ll play it and enjoy it and even think it’s great from time to time, but you can say the same about a wide range of shooters, many available at bargain-basement prices as we speak. Syndicate deserves a little better than that.
We also expect more from the developer, Starbreeze. With Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness, it was responsible for two of the most stylish and innovative shooters of the last decade, and 2009’s Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena still carried the studio’s hallmark. With Syndicate, something seems to have gone awry. It doesn’t have the Starbreeze magic.
Let’s not be too negative. Bar the odd bland environment and possible the most badly-rendered ornamental trees in recent history, Syndicate is a good-looking game. It has a strong cyberpunk aesthetic, with a lot of cool blue glowing neon, and this feeds into everything from the in-game menus to the ammo counters to the enemy design. It has satisfying gunplay, with a good selection of meaty weapons, decent if unremarkable enemy AI and some useful slide and cover moves. The level design is – as with so many current shooters – ridiculously linear, but the maps are well-paced and the encounters are nicely set-up to offer a range of different challenges. It's hardly a chore to play through. In fact it's thoroughly enjoyable for most of its running time.
Syndicate also nods to the original games through its setting, and through its use of DART chip capabilities. The game takes place in a dark near-future, where rival corporations and their followers squabble over the markets of the world and those squabbles spill over into violent corporate espionage and high-tech warfare (one upside if this is the way things are going is that it might see some of the shriller Apple/Android/Sony/Microsoft fanboys wiping each other off the map).
As in the nineties Syndicates you play a corporate agent, specialising in assassinations, IP theft and anti-corporate black ops, and your role has a few perks attached. Firstly, you can ‘breach’ the processors used in enemy security devices and – more importantly – embedded in enemy agents. By doing so you can open gateways, cripple armour or even defuse grenades in the air, but you also have three ‘apps’ you can deploy to give you an edge. The first, suicide, causes vulnerable enemy agents to top themselves. The second, Backfire, causes enemy weapons to malfunction and explode, dealing damage and stunning your foes for a second. The third, Persuasion, forces an enemy to turn on his comrades and open fire.
On top of these, you can trigger a DART 6 Overlay which alters your perception and improves your combat capabilities for a limited period. Time slows down, enemies are revealed as glowing forms, even behind cover. Your bullets do more damage, and your health can regenerate faster. DART 6 Overlay has a cooling off period, so like FEAR’s slowmo mode you need to use it tactically if you want to survive the game’s overwhelming odds.