Dragon’s Dogma, Dark Arisen (PS3) – A Bright Spot for Capcom

I’ve written some things about Capcom’s inability to continue the development of its major franchises. At the same time, newer series the company has created constantly appear to be  foundering (is this a screaming endorsement or what?). I’m wondering if it all comes down to development resources, particularly that we’re now in the era of the quarter-billion dollar game. Whatever the reason for Capcom’s woes, Dragon’s Dogma represents another major launch of an original title.

First off, I want to couch any positive review with some warnings that there are some huge problems with Dragon’s Dogma. Surprisingly, they don’t detract from the parts of the game that actually work well, but given the huge amounts of investment that must have been involved in the development, the number and magnitude of flaws is downright perplexing. The long and short of it is that the combat system is very good, but pretty much everything else is bad (or worse). Given that this is a PS-Plus free download for the month of November (complete with “Dark Arisen” DLC pack), I’m assuming Capcom wants to take the risk that more people playing Dragon’s Dogma will allow enough critical mass support to go forward and develop a sequel. Given the raw materials are here for a good game, I’d like to see that.

Look and Feel

Dragon’s Dogma is obviously cast in the mold of Bioware’s 2009 release, Dragon Age: Origins. The comparisons, like similar loading screens, equipment menu layouts, menu selection sound effects, and the entirely-expressionless protagonist, are simply too numerous for it to be anything other than a coincidence. Dragon Age did some things really well, but ultimately I didn’t like the combat system that much and thought it felt flat. The free-roaming world has lush colors and wilderness detail, although it’s not up to the level of Skyrim.

The story and characters are certifiably terrible. Basically at the beginning of the game a big dragon shows up and attacks your village. In the ensuing battle your heart is stolen, but you miraculously survive. Despite the complete lack of emotion expressed by the main character, and the minimal concern that this has happened among your friends and fellow townsfolk, you’re supposed to pick up that your main purpose now is to enact revenge on the dragon. This theme would better be hashed out if your character wasn’t completely mute like a 90’s Squaresoft game though. The main character thus becomes, the “Arisen,” one of many in a cycle of recurring villains and heroes that reappear to threaten, and then respectively save the world. I’m not through the story completely yet, but that’s pretty much it. Story quests do little in answering questions as to why the world is the way it is, or what factions are at play. It’s a far-cry from the narrative conflict between the Stormcloaks and Imperials in Bethesda’s Skyrim, or the million and one ethical dilemmas of Dragon Age. There is no other backstory or pathos. There are no mythology books to pour over, nor a guide giving you any more than the meager bits of story incompetently fed to you by NPCs. Major love interests can be ignored entirely (I wouldn’t even know they existed if it wasn’t for online walkthroughs). To make matters worse, the rest of your party consists of literally soulless beings who offer combat advice, but no narrative content.

With the sheer amount of effort that went into creating a very lush adventure sandbox, and then how that effort was entirely wasted on the complete lack of interesting content. Most side-quests take the form of reading a bulletin board, which generally asks you to kill a certain amount of enemies. Well, you were probably going to do this anyways, as the encounters aren’t randomized and you’re forced to do a lot of walking. There is a fast travel system that is a not explained that well and a little frustrating (although from what I’ve read online, it was improved significantly through patches and upgrades). These aren’t really quests though. NPC quests on the other hand are poorly designed. More often than not, the solution to finding where a certain item is, or where a certain person is hiding comes down to dumb luck. Because there aren’t usually any usable clues on where to proceed next, progressing in a quest usually occurs by finding a random person with a blinking icon over their head. Why would some random guy in the market know what’s going on the castle? The clues don’t even logically follow each other. The “detective” or deductive reasoning aspects are thus reduced to just tedious time-wasters. Another dumb decision is the extreme number of doors you can’t enter. I get it, you didn’t want to have to put stuff in 500 houses. I’m cool with that. But when you go to one of these doors and try to open it, the message often reads “The door is closed.” Yeah, obviously it’s closed, now tell me why I can’t go in. What it should say is that you can’t enter. It’s a pain trying to figure out which ones you CAN actually enter, because that’s seemingly random. Outside combat, music is uninspiring. 

Another big NES-style boner comes from the beautiful, yet constant and frustrating progression between night and day (this could arguably be a criticism of real life if you think about it). This is a classic criticism 1987 game Castlevania II, Simon’s Quest. With 25 years, Capcom definitely had fair warning here. Night and day are a cool concept, and the difference in Dragon’s Dogma between the two is not insignificant. Monsters are usually more powerful at night, and certain NPCs, flora, and fauna will manifest itself at certain times. Also, it’s dark at night, and having a lantern with you is not an adequate substitute for natural daylight. Alright, so this is maybe like those old Ultima games, or like Skyrim or something. Sure. The big difference is that there is no option to wait, or camp until morning, other than going to an inn. There aren’t a lot of inns though, so you’re basically stuck waiting until it’s morning again. Please, Ultima figured out how to avoid this in the 80’s. Obvious fixes other than an option to camp; make the nights shorter, or make then less frequent.

One standout area for Dragon’s Dogma, however, is the character creation system. There is no choosing alternate races, but the choices you’re given are maybe more substantive, as there is some impact on how you perform in combat and what you can carry.

Combat

Dragon’s Dogma’s combat innovations dwarf it’s other flaws. In particular, the combat takes oft-repeated premises and recasts them into a more coherent form. In particular, for a third-person action-style RPG, Dragon’s Dogma has strategic elements that make the standard fighter, rogue, mage dynamic more interesting. Each class doesn’t just have different skills, the upgrade systems impact other aspects of mobility and durability. Getting ambushed in a canyon or having the high ground can be huge disadvantages or advantages respectively. Flanking makes sense and works well, which adds a layer of validity to the genre a lot of other games don’t have. It’s an RPG, but less reliant on using stats and numbers and replacing it with more free-form control.

One aspect that heightens this experience relates to the fact that each enemy you face has a high degree of interaction with your party. This isn’t just stun, but also how groups of enemies function together. For example, one aspect of having a fighter as a pawn is allowing it to grab and pin smaller enemies down in a hold. Airborn enemies are required to be shot out of the sky. In other words, rather than just having stats, a mage, fighter, or rogue all fundamentally offer different playing experiences.

I really like that Dragon’s Dogma took the approach that it wanted fewer enemies, with a very rich interaction possible, rather than having too many enemies. I’d like to see more enemies, but the content that is in here is rich. The contributions of the AI, or “pawn” party members also makes this memorable. The team members don’t just use enemy knowledge in combat to attack, they offer advice and observations to the main character as aid. It feels like real teamwork.

Probably the best thing about combat in Dragon’s Dogma though is the “bigness.” Dragon’s Dogma creates encounters with massive monsters that are exciting, but also unscripted. Action games frequently restrict gargantuan battles to being overly scripted and rote. The best example of this is the gold-standard in mythological brutality, God of War. Awesome acrobatic feats are reduced to cinematic gloss and memorized button combinations. Dragon’s Dogma lets you mount an Ogre or Cyclops and cling onto the arms while slicing it with a dagger. Attacking the weapon arm of a Cyclops can knock the club out of its hand, and, naturally, the snake tale of a Chimera can be severed, thus preventing it from poisoning the party. Hit the weak points, or, more importantly, don’t. You don’t really have to in order to win. There isn’t a single-way to beat theses enemies, just options. This freedom is what separates the large, boss-style encounters from other games. Again, this only can be supported by having great interactivity programmed. Critically, the combat experience is more satisfying when a huge monster isn’t just beaten, but is slowly worn down and weakened over the course of a long battle with a prepared party. 

The most unfortunate aspect about this is that the actual genius of the combat system isn’t revealed until you’re several hours into the endeavor. The combat in Dragon’s Dogma feels quite lame until you make it to Gran Soren, a key story location. After this though, the difficulty is raised significantly. If there were a point where I was ready to give up, it was right here.

Forced Sharing in an Online World

So many games have tried to take the MMORPG format and cast it back into a single-player format. I think the most notable of these is Final Fantasy XII, in which you took the drivers seat in creating an automated party based on a series of simple programming commands. Although FFXII worked well on paper, the system was too complex and ultimately frustrating to tweak. Dragon’s Dogma on the other hand has this aspect figured out pretty well.

Your own “pawn” serves as a customization member of your party. You can upgrade his skills and equipment accordingly. But you’re aided with two other random pawns as well. This is a novel approach, and I think it adds something unique and refreshing to the gameplay. Because two of the four “pawns” in your party aren’t your own, they is necessarily some forced interaction with the other Dragon’s Dogma community. You can either fill the remaining two slots with pawns you encounter in game, or enter an area known as the rift and use a more refined search technique. These pawns won’t level with you; they’ve been leveled and sculpted by other players.

The process is managed by restricting the level to which you can recruit certain pawns, making a rotation of supporting cast members necessary as you level and progress. It also creates party flexibility without having to start from scratch. A system is in place to force players to leave comments and rank pawns accordingly after they leave your party. I find this to be a perfect element of online gameplay.

Final Thoughts

A tutorial, particularly showing you some of the nuanced aspects of the game, like the NPC “affinity” system, or better battle guidance for beginners would be obvious improvements. But Dragon’s Dogma has the guts to be a winner. Now if only Capcom could hire some writers.

Civ 5: Brave New World

Brave New World Title

It’s a brave new world (but not for the Civilization franchise)!

Civ has always interested me because it’s such an anomaly.  I can’t think of any other series of games that is utterly disinterested in trying to do what everyone else is .  It’s refreshing in some ways, and maddeningly frustrating in others.  Civ V,and it’s recent expansion pack, Brave New World, continue the franchise’s weird Galapagos-esque evolution.  Although Civ V seems to be the best Civ yet, it also carries a legacy of problems along with it that aren’t addressed and haven’t been for over a decade.  That being said, a review of Civ V could easily double as a review of Civ 4 or Civ 3.  Strong points are consistently challenging and nuanced gameplay.

Graphics/Presentation

Civ V generally looks pretty good.  It also definitely doesn’t look great.  I would say the world map looks essentially the same as in Civilization 4, but unit animations have been cleaned up.  This is especially noticeable in combat.  The actual city centers feature all the buildings constructed, and on the borders wonders and other improvements.  Unfortunately, the rest of the map looks bare.  Without towns, or suburbs, the maps frequently look like the Midwest.  Maybe there needs to be a mall or subdivision improvement available in the modern era to fill in some of that farmland.

Some other fit and finish isn’t there.  Loading the game initially seems to take forever, and the load screen features a static picture, whereas in most games a slideshoe of several stock photos would be rotated in and out.  Fonts and menus are themed in an Art Deco type font that just seems out of place.  This isn’t BioShock and the styling choice doesn’t make any sense in the context.  Menus and option screens are often filled with an incoherent layout.  In some instances, such as conducting World Congress votes or founding a religion I was confused as to what I needed to do to select an option.  Menu location itself is somewhat haphazard.

The music isn’t bad, but is consistently underwhelming.  The one exception here is the title screen which gives some gravity to the game.  Because the pace of a Civ match is so plodding, it would really be a good idea for Firaxis to invest in some composition to increase the tempo.

The interaction with other civilization leaders has always been fun, and it still is in Civ 5, where the animated cultural avatars speak their native language and act with passion.  It functions largely the same as in Civ III or Civ IV.

Gameplay

What’s missing in Civ V is a lack of true innovation; the game suffers from exactly the same limitations as all of its prior installments.

Most critically, in order to make this game better, the turn-based system needs to be discarded in favor of something more responsive.  It’s made the franchise unwieldy and just isn’t defensible anymore.  Even under the fastest game settings, a single match takes 4 or 5 hours to complete.  It simply doesn’t work as something accessible to most players.  Turns move quickly at the start of the game due to the fact that most of the players don’t have much that can be done.  But the amount of decisions and actions that need to be made later in the game quickly becomes overwhelming.  Wars take a huge time investment because each unit needs to be moved one by one, and both sides need to move their units during their own specific turns.  This is also coupled with the fact that the computer will frequently gang up on you if you’re military is seen as weak.  The amount of time it takes to play spirals out of control, even on the accelerated settings.

The turns don’t even make sense.  It takes 50 years for a worker to walk 10 miles east of a city?  Another 50 years to build a farm?  A good fix might be to make the maps twice as big and let the worker move twice.  When at war, the middling pace of the game, and moving each soldier one tile at a time to advance in a line is excruciating.

I have never been into hardcore multiplayer games, but from experience, most matches take 20-40 minutes to play.  It’s such a massive deviation from the norm here, and it’s the same with Civ III and IV.  Civ 5 is too time consuming as a single player game, nevermind multiplayer.  I’m apparently not alone in being intimidated by an extended match online.  Note how the Steam post also mentions that there are not really any significant numbers of public matches at any given time.  If online is the future, not achieving a baseline critical mass means failure.

Other features of Civ V seem arbitrary.  The costs of connecting cities with roads is prohibitively expensive now.  That seems counter intuitive.  The game also for some reason doesn’t feature any type of upgrade for paving or constructing highways, which makes modern era cities look out of place when connected to each other with dirt roads.  The tech tree itself seems more nonsensical than ever.

The “happiness” metric is also problematic.  Happiness is necessary to generate a “golden age,” and also any sort of growth in major cities.  That seems fair, but what isn’t is the inability of the player to really do much to change this function.  Conceptually, the happiness measurement makes sense.  Cities which have been conquered and are being ruled by a foreign occupier would naturally be generating unhappiness.  That’s fine, although maybe after having Carthage Novo as part of my empire for 1500 some of those people protesting the occupation would have died.   My problem with the system is that occupying cities isn’t the source of most of the unhappiness that’s typically generated.  Most of the happiness in most civilizations seems to come from either large populations in cities, or unhappiness from the NUMBER of cities.  I can understand the first part, I am at a complete lost for the second.  High population means congestion, higher costs, traffic.  Ok, I get that those could be negative factors.  But I’ve never once thought to myself, “you know, this sure would be a much better country if we had less cities.”  There isn’t much that can be done to increase happiness either, as computer opponents are reluctant to trade luxury resources in almost any circumstance, and buildings that generate happiness never seem to generate enough.

Bright spots include the cultural and religious features.  Both of these are greatly modified from the based game in expansions (in the case of religion, it wasn’t in the base Civ V from what I understand).  The importance of these stats really is what separates Civ from an average empire building or RTS war game.  Given the time commitment it takes to even execute and plan for a war in Civ V make playing for other types of victories especially appealing.

Brave New World

I was only able to play Civ V, bundled with the first expansion, Gods and Kings, for about two weeks before I upgraded to Brave New World.  Brave New World introduces some new major concepts like a World Congress and trade routes.  These innovations expand and refine other aspects in the game, but primarily Brave New World feels like a patch.  I would say a pretty good patch though.  In particular, the expansion puts an emphasis is on economic development, which previously didn’t seem that significant.  The result is that it is much easier to accumulate enough gold to actually spend it on things.  It also adds flexibility to centralizing production or opening up trade with foreign civilizations or city states.  The trade route system implemented is relatively easy to understand and can add a good deal of options to expanding influence, either through trade or the spread of religion.

Final Thoughts

What Civ V has going for it is that it is strangely addictive, and has a punishing learning curve.  Even though you have plenty of time to make decisions, it doesn’t make Civ any easier.  I just wish I could get more out of the incredible amount of play time being invested.

I remember before Fallout 3 was released reading a lot of press about how Bethesda didn’t see any way to do a turn-based game, but still wanted to preserve the strategic aspects of the original series.  Some stinging comments from readers were dropped below those columns.  Die hard Fallout fans were pissed.  And, Fallout 3 is sort of a weird mix of strategy and skill that is pretty unusual for an FPS.  But it doesn’t feel like work to play Fallout 3.   It would not work if you had to wait 20 minutes during a firefight for a bunch of super mutants to all take their turns.

Granted, I understand the hesitancy to move to real time.  The risk is that Civilization, which is a game about expanding one culture globally through careful management with other societies would turn into Warcraft.  I can get why that is a bad thing.  But going RTS is the only thing that will make Civ manageable.

SimCity: Broader Implications

So I read this and it’s wrong.

First An Update

A month after launch SimCity is still broken.  Initially, frustrated users were unable to login, or were periodically booted out of the game.  Now a more malicious problem has appeared; cities aren’t saving.  SimCity is clearly not the first game to require a persistent internet connection, but the problem was that on EA’s side is where all the technical issues were occurring.  What is this 1995?

I can attest that this morning I logged in to discover I had lost approximately 2 hours worth of improvements in a city I was working on.  I decided to trudge ahead again and in about 25 minutes later, I received warning that the city was not syncing properly with the servers and I was given two choices; rollback the city to a stable save point, or abandon it altogether.  I selected rollback, but I have no idea what the implications of this are.  I just hope I don’t have another dead city in my region that won’t ever load again.

The extent and the severity of the technical issues is just baffling.  Progress in SimCity takes time, and crafting a city is always an iterative process.  Some sort of stability or baseline consistency is necessary for this to work.  What’s really crazy though is that there is absolutely no indication as to when the game is actually saving your work.  I though yesterday it was saving fine only to discover about two hours of work crafting and expanding were flushed down the drain.  There is no save button.  There are no save or sync options.  There is no indication when you logout that all your work might be gone.  It simply doesn’t work and there’s nothing you can do about it.  I have never seen this happen before.  And because it’s not on my hard drive  there is only one obvious party that I can blame here.  Upon login, a ticker on the bottom offers you to do some multiplayer activities.  “Join FUCKEA (this apparently is a pretty popular player created group) and play with others.”  Indeed.  Key point is that I don’t want to play this game anymore if I can’t get some sort of higher level of assurance I can actually progress.

Broader Implications

Anways, back to the Tech Dirt article.  The conclusion of the article couldn’t be more wrong.  This game is EXACTLY the reason gamers need a Bill of Rights; especially a Due Process Clause.

Granted, the issue here isn’t that I’m locked out of SimCity for being some sort of EULA deviant.  But I think not being able to access content raises the specter of who has the control here.  Even if I did own this content, I can’t possibly access it without EA.  The fact that we’re in a new world now is really starting to sink in.  The reason I’m so pissed off isn’t because I can’t login; it’s because I was able to build up a foundation for a bunch of great cities and now can’t access them.  I want MY city.  I want MY content.  It’s entirely too easy to say that if it’s a bad game, don’t buy it.  Sure, there is always a level of caveat emptor whenever you buy something new.  That’s a risk.  But after 100 hours of building cities and crafting an intricate region, does the metric change?  What about 10,000 hours over a decade accumulating loot in World of Warcraft?  You’re locked out of your account with no recourse?  At some point of user investment that can’t be the right answer.

And SimCity plans to foster more user investment.  Although modding is not available at launch, Maxis and EA have indicated it will be in the future.  I can remember downloading a user-created World Trade Center replica in SimCity 4 from the Maxis website.  Back in 2005 this was a more culturally significant event for me.  Who’s going to own this content?  It seems pretty clear the persistent online requirement isn’t so much about anti-piracy as control of the forum here.

For SimCity, the problem might actually be as simple as the Tech Dirt article states.  The press has been so bad with this game that I don’t think the hardcore super-users will want to stick around to start modding.  If things don’t improve soon I definitely won’t be trying to finish those great works.

Ultima: Synchronicity

Is the future of the Ultima franchise becoming less murky?

I don’t know how I missed this, because I’ve been Googling all sorts of Ultima stuff lately (I have a series of posts planned on Ultima 7 that I should be rolling out pretty soon).  But, wow, a BioWare Ultima game.  This might be what the Ultima series needs to get a reboot.  A good thing considering behind all the dated, clunky games there are really some conceptual gems.

Other research (happily) confirms it’s both free and also not an MMO.

Sign up for the beta. 

 

Syndicate [2012] (PS3) – SINGLE PLAYER CAMPAIGN

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 [2012] 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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqO4iQCm8sM

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 [2012] 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.

Story/Environment

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 [2012] 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.

Gameplay/Action

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 [2012] 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 [2012], 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.