Picked up a new game, but only for blogging’s sake (separate budget from the wedding/house planning, so it’s ok). I wanted to get a post out so I haven’t had a foray into the multiplayer yet on this one. I understand the online play is considered the best part of this game from reading other reviews. I promise to actually try the multiplayer this time also (as I’ve gotten older, I tend to shy away from game commitment). Long and short of the single player campaign though is; middle of the road. That’s becoming a difficult proposition for a game that retails for $60 and isn’t being stocked at local Walmarts/Targets around here.
Any sort of sequel or title referencing another source material will always draw comparisons to the original. Syndicate  preserves some of the dark motif of the original 90’s series. The non-aesthetic elements of those games has not been preserved though. First, get a feel for what the first two games were like. The 90’s was a long time ago. Remember how awesome Sound Garden was? I’ve found some YouTube clips of the games below, so I can spare you from having to read another 5000 words of rant.
I’ll confess, I liked the first two Syndicate games a lot for some reasons I’ll get into later. At the time though, I knew they were not for everyone. The core of the game’s theme was amorality. The games also suffered from some terrible flaws in AI and controls (you MAY have picked this up if you actually watched the first YouTube video). You couldn’t really go inside buildings and getting into cars was frustrating and possibly suicidal. It was VERY difficult to play Syndicate Wars on PSOne. I also understand completely that a 2012 game with an isometric overhead view and bad controls clearly can’t be a blockbuster. Syndicate  resurrects itself as an FPS. Given the success of games like Skyrim, Deus Ex, or Modern Warfare, it’s clearly an adequate perspective to support great action and immersive story and gameplay. So, I’m not going to gripe on the perspective change.
First off, fifteen years is a long break between installments. Resuscitating IP that old is risky, because it’s possible your fan base will no longer care or remember the original. And true die-hard fans might not respond if you change something major, even if you’ve done a good job in making something new (I have to play as this blond teenager?!? WTF! #MGS2). So I wonder why EA attempted to bring this franchise back? I suspect what happened is that some new ideas for a shooter were developed, and someone found something in the IP vault that reminded them of Syndicate, and then the two were melded together. “Oh, you’re coming up with some futuristic shooter, cool cool. You know that sounds a lot like this other futuristic game we have the rights to…”
The original story has apparently been discarded from what I can tell, but the world of Syndicate has essentially been preserved. In the future, there are mega-corporations that are so big and powerful they have displaced governments and nation-states. They fight each other in brutal proxy wars and engage in violent espionage. These corporations control the population thoroughly through brain implants, and turn their “agents,” into cyborg slaves devoid of free will. Their product is control. In Syndicate, you were the bad guy. There was no doubt about it. Your missions were to assassinate rival scientists and leaders, and “persuade,” which of course, was not through delicate means. The goal was to conquer the world one country at a time by displacing local and rival syndicates. One aspect of the original franchise was that you were clearly NOT the agents on the field, but an executive controlling these living puppets remotely. I tend to think that acknowledging the player’s existence is a neat narrative trick. Syndicate has you feeling like an honest to goodness entrepreneur. After all, it’s just business. Human life, meh. In these isometic view games, it also explains the rationale of why the perspective is the way it is. You’re not Link running around with a sword, you’re watching your agents from a satellite or airship located over the terrain. Truly you are “roleplaying” here. I love these old 80’s and 90’s games where they had to create a story where the player was actually being sucked into the game. Aside from being able to hack pedestrians and turn them into drones, you also could customize your own operatives with metal skeletons and bionic implants. Fine tuning of combat performance could be achieved by administering reservoirs of narcotics which increased speed or weapon accuracy, but also could cause your agents to go on an unintended killing spree. Metal Gear had the balls to insinuate drugs could be used to make you shoot better, a concept Syndicate did earlier times 100.
Syndicate  has you taking the reins of a Eurocorp agent, and not that of an executive. Presumably EA has re-imagined these agents as having somewhat more autonomy. The brain implant is back, and now is the primary source of your amazing FPS ability to survive thousands of rounds of automatic weapon fire. The brain implant is the source of the main abilities of your character. You grow through extracting (physically) other brain implants from dead agents. Your chip lets you hack remote devices as well as enemy chips. This is the principle puzzle-solving element in the game, moving an elevator up or down or opening an access door locked from the other side (although it is underutilized). The drug-use aspects of the game has been removed (ages M for Mature…??), and replaced with a Dart6 Overlay, which essentially is like a cross between some sort of futuristic meta-vision and the Max Paine “bullet-time” function.
The story centers around discovering your origins, a covert resistance group fighting the corporations, and ultimately revenge. There are really only like 4 characters. None of them are very interesting or sympathetic. You are predictably thrown into very long action sequences that don’t really escalate in difficulty and are pretty darn easy because of your awesome chip. The campaign moves nonstop from action sequence to action sequence without any noticeable breathers or reflection. There are technically breaks in missions, and the game separates chapters by giving you score recaps and statistics on performance, but the theme is noticeably devoid of control and options. I guess that is the life of an agent after all, but you were never the agent in the original Syndicates in the first place.
The environments are generally futuristic corporate facilities. You know the type, glass lobbies with a lot of cool lighting and access tunnels and elevator shafts. Although there are pedestrians and civilians caught in the cross-fire of these escapades, once they are alerted to your presence they usually just lie down and hope to not get shot. Certainly this is a rationale response, but what is missing is the open-ended worlds you could walk around and the careful plotting you could do while looking for ambush points. The gameplay quickly feels redundant. The strategy and plotting aspects are gone, as are the open ended city exploration (which to be honesty was barely utilized in either of the original two games). You are funneled through installations which are comprised of ventilation shafts and lobbies. The cities of Syndicate are gone in place of something that looks cool, but has been done before.
The brooding synthesizer music in the first two Syndicates (think Blade Runner) no longer permeates the environments you’re roaming. Some cool techno is in this game, but it’s only noticeable in a few points. I can’t say for certain that there is no music in the rest of the game, but if it was there, I didn’t notice. I think maybe some corners were cut at the end of development. More would be welcome here. Afterall, a lot of music for a video game is like 25 minutes. It’s not that much effort honestly (explain to me why a game like Starcraft where the developers know people are playing for literally 1000’s of hours only has like 35 minutes of music?). There is a chance here to really make ANY game better with more and better music that was passed up on.
One especially irksome thing I find about this game is how big parts of the story and environment are hidden in a menu available data-dictionary. You pick up an item in a stage and it updates an entry in a little in-game encyclopedia. Talk to a character, and their life story is loaded up there. Complete an objective and you sometimes learn about something unrelated. This is just frankly lazy writing. If the developers want me to understand the motivations of the CEO of Eurocorp, they can develop it through narrative or some sort of actual in-game event instead of trying to story board with stupid footnotes. When you’re constructing a sci-fi world, naturally there are going to be a lot of elements that aren’t explained fully. The important ones to the plot need to be explained in the plot. I’m not going to pause a game that is non-stop shooting to go read a bunch of crappy Wikipedia entries. This was a stupid and annoying concept in the Xenosaga series, and it was stupid in Final Fantasy 13, and it’s still stupid now. Granted, I don’t want all these extraneous details in a Metal Gear type 45 minute cut scene where someone is talking, but perhaps an interactive database could be prepared. A mission briefing screen that reads these elements to you in the form of a history lesson. The interface for this encyclopedia menu itself is clunky too, it’s actually kind of tough to read the text and the font is relatively small. In the future they forgot how to make Kindles? I didn’t read most of these little updates, and I think consequently the story didn’t make a lot of sense. Please, figure out a way to explain what’s going on by showing me what’s going on, or having me somehow interact with it through what the characters are saying and doing. Don’t make a bunch of text and hide in a menu.
If you find the futuristic thing interesting, try Deus Ex 3 instead. That game deals with the issues of technology and social control on a much more cerebral level and is a more complete experience. The most shocking thing about the story is how short it is.
This isn’t a bad shooter, but the mechanics and balance elements haven’t been thought out that well. There are cool and diverse weapons that all have a feature that separates them from just another assault rifle or machine gun. There is a gun that goes around corners, a gun that penetrates light cover, a sniper rifle, and of course the awesome mini-gun (a Syndicate favorite). Been there, done that. These have all been done in other games already.
The hacking skill is neat, but generally most of the puzzles setup require you to either hack a remote switch to open a door, or hack an enemy armor to cause it to lose invulnerability. I think there is potential for this option to be used more here, but that would require more interactive environments.
The Dart6 Overlay is neat, but it can be used too frequently and is overpowered. Your Dart powers regenerate with time, making most encounters that of patience, rather than skill. The Dart mode increases damage resistance, can increase health, can increase the damage you cause, and also starts with the bonus of slowing down time. They might as well call it Jesus mode. It recharges after about 30 seconds from being completely depleted. So does your health, which will only be depleted if you take too much damage in a short period of time (think Call of Duty). I’m not naturally good at these shooter games, but this was just way too easy to exploit.
Actually,while we’re talking about other games, come to think of it, think God of War too. Certain doors or metal grates that need to be opened prompt the player to either hold the square button, or tap it repeatedly. This is clearly borrowed from the God of War series, where you had to interact with massive pieces of stone or repeatedly bludgeon somebody by ferociously tapping a button. This works really well in God of War, because it links the feats of strength and endurance of the player with the feats of the avatar, the God of War, Kratos. Most importantly, if you fail, the stone you’re trying to push or the monster you’re trying to decapitate will punish you. Here, the “feats of strength” come up infrequently and are really just a distraction. Why do I need to tap square repeatedly to open a door? My character can snap a metal chain and padlock with his bare hands. It just doesn’t make sense and is inconsistently applied. But there it is every time you open a certain door or lift up a certain grate. There also is no punishment and these never really come up during actual action or tension scenes. They merely add a very plain interactive element to areas where swarms of enemies aren’t flooding and trying to blast you. It’s in the game because it worked in another game that was popular. Arkham City had something similar. I hardly believe Batman would have trouble removing a ventilation duct cover. Although it works in God of War, it feels tedious when it’s half-hazardly applied.
Dart special abilities, which let you hack enemies and cause general disarray, are primarily limited to affecting enemy bots. The potential here is not really developed. Although you can force a suicide or persuade enemies to fight each other, these elements aren’t used in puzzles or any type of level design. Perhaps there could be an infiltration mode where you have to move from target to target to force them to open doors for you. Instead, there is just gun battle after gun battle.
There are moments where you’re operating in a sort of stealth mode, at least according to your chip’s narrator voice (think of it as a pro-murder version of Siri). I get the impression that the point was to make infiltration, and it’s close friend discretion, seem like they are part of this game. They are not. Granted, in the original Syndicates, you couldn’t really do covert missions due to the AI, the game tries to make you feel like you’re sneaking when you’re not. You’re forced to fight the same enemies no matter what, they know where you are all the time, and they’re going to swarm you just the same anyway. Why ISN’T there a stealth mode in this game? The classic Syndicate agent, and your character in this installment, always sort of looked like ninjas with their face coverings, so it’s only natural to expect that, right? Basically these stealth modes just serve to break up the action. There’s no suspense because you can’t blow your cover early, and there is no penalty, because you can’t blow your cover. It just sort of happens. Why not just shoot everyone when you’re coming in to kidnap someone instead of just shooting everyone when you’re coming out? It’s nonsensical from a design perspective, as the “chip” and “hacking” concepts that are supposed to be imbedded in the game logically should support some sort of stealth or meaningful trojan-horse-play. There are definitely missed opportunities here.
Gameplay, due to the overly awesome chip modifications, is pretty easy. Gripes I have about this game I generally have about all other shooters; enemies have too much life. Headshots are valued as a statistic and do more damage, but this isn’t exactly Metal Gear where certain areas react differently to gun fire (tranq in the leg vs. the head for example). Little details like this are appreciated when someone plays a game enough. The extra mile effort is simply not here. Enemies have different skins and designs, but ultimately all have the same weapons as you do. Combat seems repetitive with exception of the boss fights which are all pretty good.
Choice and Final Thoughts.
What is really lacking in Syndicate  from earlier Syndicate games is the lack of choice that you have. Again, if you’re an agent, this does thematically make sense. But it’s not satisfying from the player’s perspectives. The first two Syndicate games did not really have good balance as far as weapons and upgrades, but they did give you some control over your destiny. You had the choice of what missions to choose, what equipment to bring with you, what mods you wanted to implant on your agents, and finally, what you actually wanted to do once you got to the mission (knock off a bank in en route to your assassination maybe…??). It made you feel entrepreneurial (mentioned above). In this story, there is no real choice. I think if you want a good Syndicate feel, the right game is probably Deus Ex3. Hey, maybe it’s not $60 anymore. That’s what’s really missing here. Or if the illusion of free will was supposed to be a part of the narrative, why isn’t it as good as it is in BioShock?
SPOILER ALERT (not really….). The game ends with a question, “what are you going to do next?” Aside from it being a confirmation that you’ve earned your freedom, this ending is presumably an invitation to go online and murder a bunch of strangers. If you liked the game, you’ll like playing with your friends, or other randoms from all corners of the internet.
I doubt that though. Competitive and healthy online play only come about from there being a healthy community of people who want to play the game online. It’s called the network effect in economics. It’s the theory that the value of a good or service is dependent on the number of other people using the good or service. Nobody wants to play a game that isn’t a blockbuster. I think this aspect of online gaming is frequently overlooked. You need to have a REALLY good game to get a lot of people online to create a critical mass. Otherwise it will be a flop. Think of the vacant lobbies of Syndicate , but only instead being empty lobbies of multiplayer mode. I will have to test this theory on my own when I decide to use the multiplayer. I think I’d want to play a Halo or a Call of Duty before I’d want to jump into a niche like this. Without being a perfect 10 game, developers are really asking a lot out of their audience to commit to the massive amounts of time it takes to get good in an online environment, potentially filled with out of work super gamers and other ace players (like my totally cool friend Erik Lawson). It’s especially insulting to make a crappy single player mode for a franchise that nobody probably remembers, and then expect people to just jump online. If I’m disappointed in the mechanics of the game, why would I want to play it with a bunch of hopped-up super teenagers who will call me a noob incessantly? The single player mode it seems is an add on to EA’s intended multiplayer modes. Again, I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I heard these were good. But the correct approach is to totally blow a player away with the game as opposed to expecting them to just go online. Convert me to the religion of Syndicate; don’t expect me to just read the bible of my own (the bible of the Church of the New Epoch maybe?).
The real question I’m left with is exactly what EA is attempting to accomplish here? The product is a relatively run of the mill shooter that only sort of innovates. It’s derivative and not daring. On its surface, Syndicate appears to have the same dark-themed dystopic potential as the earlier Bullfrog games. An hour or so into the game dashes these hopes though. The critical heart and soul of Syndicate, and its 1996 sequel Syndicate Wars, has been removed though, ironically much like the series signature “agents.” EA, please, please, try and come up with something daring. It may involve characters using drugs and controversy though.