Gamers of a certain age will remember the Syndicate franchise as a bleak, dystopian isometric shooter that not only pushed the limits of then-current-gen performance, but tested the boundaries of taste and morality as well. Drug-controlled agents were sent scampering through a near-future cityscape, and if civilians got in the way of their flamethrowers… well, that was just too bad.
For a new generation, however, Syndicate has been reimagined as a stylish first-person shooter. The near-future setting remains, and Starbreeze have worked hard to create a world that feels as believable as it is grimy. A few years from now, national borders have been superseded by globe-spanning corporations, and personal technology has reached its epoch in the form of cranial chips that interact directly with the human brain. Corporate espionage is the new international war and shady businessmen control the populace through subliminal messaging and martial law. You play as Kilo, a supersoldier for global behemoth EuroCorp, and one of the only human beings in possession of the revolutionary DART-6 chip. With this fancy bit of technology, you can force enemy soldiers to turn on each other, cause their weapons to malfunction, or even make their heads explode. Which is useful on your travels as errand boy, enforcer and general intimidation specialist for your corporate masters.
An impressive voice cast (including Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson and Michael Wincott) help flesh out Syndicate’s virtual world, and there are some lovely flourishes that make the earth of 2069 feel like a very real, very dangerous place. The lighting is stunning, with lens flares, blurring and temporary dazzling effects that are startlingly realistic. Your chip creates an overlay of relevant information on everyday objects – like Augmented Reality on acid – and there’s plenty of superficial visuals to look at during the missions. There are some fun touches too – NPCs will occasionally react to your presence in surprisingly amusing ways – and the attention to detail given to the world’s detritus as viewed through your chip is impressive.
The biggest problem with Syndicate is not how it looks, but how it plays. Mechanically, the title functions as well as any decent shooter – there’s a weight to weapons and controls are instinctive – but the disparity between how powerful you are supposed to be, and how much of a badass you actually are, is too pronounced. You can make bad guys’ heads explode, and force them to shoot each other, but then you need to wait five minutes to earn enough adrenaline to do it again. You can use your DART-vision to look through walls, but only if the game has already loaded in the bad guys – short of ammo and low on health, I bounded into a room that my DART-vision had promised me would be empty. I was human sushi moments later. Every boss fight seems oddly predicated on the fact that you can’t make them just kill themselves (it would be a lot quicker), which begs the question: How great is the DART-6 if it only works on rent-a-guards?
To be fair, there’s a lot to love about Syndicate, and credit should be given for making this more than just a re-skinned Call of Duty. But it’s hard to feel true immersion, or any kind of vested emotion, when it’s not clear what your character is morally capable of. The only insights into the silent hero’s personality come between levels, in the form of inane statements that pop up during loading. “I am a weapon. Command me.” “Why is she helping me?” That sort of thing. During early levels, your teammate happily stalks through a train carriage, dishing out bullets to civilians like they’re going out of fashion. But you can’t react, even if you wanted to. Then later on, you’re expected to make some moral decisions. What, so you’ve suddenly grown a conscience?
Syndicate’s biggest strength is its rich world and interesting story. But games (especially first-person titles) need to make you feel at least partially privy to a character’s mindset, and confident in their abilities. There’s a real chance for Syndicate to establish itself as a current-gen franchise in its own right, rather than just a glossy reboot. But glitzy tech alone isn’t enough for a game to stand out.