Utopian Living or Hellish Existence?
The year: 2069. The world’s governments have disbanded. In their places, giant corporate conglomerates – the eponymous “Syndicates” – have taken over control of trade, dissemination of ideas and flow of goods, resources, and knowledge. Typical national boundaries have ceased to exist, replaced by populations and metropolises that have aligned themselves with one Syndicate or another, and areas are classified by corporate allegiance rather than ethnicity or nationality. Through the advent of advanced cyber-technologies, routine everyday functions – reading, writing, communication – have gone all-digital. The only way to fit in and keep up? Chip implants let everyone be online and connected to global networks, all the time. As a result, the typical tiered social structure has vanished, leaving behind a society segregated into two divisions: the chipped majority, and the unchipped subset.
This is the world you’ve been born into. This is the world of Syndicate, Starbreeze Studios’ and Electronic Arts’ FPS reboot of the 1993 classic tactical-RTS game. As elite agent Kilo, employed to protect and serve the interests of mega Syndicate Eurocorp, it is your job to infiltrate both hostile wartime territories as well as sterile office compounds to track, retrieve, or liquidate valuable assets for your Syndicate. Agents, essentially the equivalent of super-human corporate spies, exist as a hidden branch of the population, above the law but at the whims of corporate boardroom rulers. As such, you’re able to employ special abilities in the field, called “chip breaches”, which let you hack into a chipped human’s brain and execute certain commands such as Suicide or Persuade, and enjoy carte blanche status – you may use any means, no matter how inhuman or brutal – to reach your goal. It is in this morally bankrupted society, heavily influenced by such dystopian science fiction as Blade Runner or The Matrix, that Kilo blindly and unquestioningly follows his orders, and is unwittingly pulled into a plot to overthrow Syndicate rule and change the course of the world.
A Brave New World
The aspect of the game that may arguably have received the greatest amount of attention from Starbreeze is how wonderfully fleshed out and built up the in-game history of the world is; at various times this could be described as one of its biggest draws as well as one of its most sizable flaws. One can literally spend hours reading up on various political developments that have led to the future noir society that exists in 2069. The rise and development of warring Syndicates, the research conducted in the fields of weapons development or bio-chip technology, the socio-economic status of the various castes that make up society: it’s all been incorporated in massive backstory log entries, available to peruse or ignore at your leisure. You can even familiarize yourself with the names of the members of each Syndicate’s board of directors, if you so choose. For those looking for more than a simple run-and-gun first-person shooter, who really want to immerse themselves in a new world, Syndicate more than delivers.
Simultaneously, I found myself wanting more, feeling a little unfulfilled by what was on offer. As I progressed through the stages, I finally realized that what was missing was a more human element, some tangible evidence of “the way of things”. Let me explain. As one progresses through the first half of the game – polished hallways, sterilized gathering areas, glossily dull work spaces – a noticeable feeling of loneliness sets in. Where are the people, the interactions? Sure, there are other humans around; heck, it’s sometimes unavoidable to cause pile-ups of innocent bystanders during your gunfights with enemy troops. But, with the exception of one or two brief sections, there was just no incentive or opportunity to be a part of the world, and to explore it as a living, breathing entity. With all the attention paid to building up an engaging backstory, I wish the developers had given it some breathing room to unfold during gameplay, and let me live in it, rather than non-stop shoot my way through it at a breakneck pace.
This complaint is rectified for a brief time, when, later in the game, you trade in the sanitized eggshell whites and muted grays of uptown for the grimy reality of muddy ditches and slimy sewer pipes of lowtown. For a while, you get to see a human side to the gameplay, and appreciate the contrast, the conditions of two halves of society inescapably and violently divided by a veritable digital canyon. It is during these levels that the game truly shines, and it made me wish for the same type of connection to the rest of the game’s content. Inevitably though, the campaign is pulled along a very linear trajectory, ultimately heading towards an all too brief and cliched ending.
It’s hard to find any fault with the game’s aesthetics; the graphics look tremendous and are more than on par with what you’d expect to find in similar titles on the market. The environments are nicely detailed, with colorful advertisements, political propaganda, and intricate environmental vistas through every window you look out of. The sense of scale, the sense of advancement, and the sense of depersonalizing were visually apparent in every moment of gameplay. Admittedly, it was slightly annoying to occasionally find that, after taking cover behind a planter, a leaf from the flower would completely and utterly obscure my vision when trying to shoot over the top, and I’d have to actually break cover to find a different vantage elsewhere.
The graphics were spot-on in the realm of characters as well. The three main NPCs actually looked like their real-life voice-over counterparts, and could be easily picked out by their countenance before ever uttering a word. As much as this is a testament to the game’s graphical prowess, it also made the already cliched story that much more predictable – I mean, seriously, how often have you seen Brian Cox or Michael Wincott as protagonists? Rosario Dawson, a murderous traitor? Not that the game was incredibly subtle or nuanced about its story-telling approach, but most players could probably summarize the entire plot of the game after the first ten minutes of playtime.
Grab a Friend, or Two, or Three
In addition to the somewhat-on-the-short-side single-player campaign, Syndicate offers a completely independent co-op mode. Far from offering a split-screen or online two-player version of the campaign, the co-op mode places you in a team of up to 4 unique (meaning not found in the single-player campaign) agents, deployed on all-new missions around the globe. This is probably the closest call-back fans of the original RTS series will find, as those games also revolved around a team of four agents sent into the field to accomplish various objectives. Of course, the modern co-op mode is as much an FPS as the main campaign.
Many players will likely find this mode gives their game extended life after the short campaign run. Each of the unlockable co-op missions presents you and your teammates with a multitude of objectives, from Capture the Flag-style missions to escorts, and everything in between. Missions are lengthy, and encourage teamwork with challenging difficulty and the ability for agents to link up their breaching abilities to accomplish tasks more efficiently.
The Final Verdict
Syndicate is a bit of a study in the proverbial “carrot-on-a-stick” theme, offering players an incredibly detailed world to read about, but not giving a lot of opportunity to truly become a moving part within it. While the developers were likely worried about preserving the distinction between FPSs and RPGs, a little more of a genre crossover would have worked well in this case. With a great look, a star-studded cast of remarkable, effective voice talent (why don’t we see Michael Wincott in more games?!), and a by-the-numbers plot, the game’s robust and completely separate co-op mode comes in to make up for any other short-comings. Ultimately, Syndicate is a game that I had a lot of fun with, and could be the keystone to base a brand new series on.