For a game set in the future, EA's rebooted Syndicate is a game very much trapped by the past.
At an instinctive level, that's because it's an all-action first-person shooter reboot of a 1993 game that was all about top-down strategy. At times you can feel the game creaking as it tries to keep one foot in a world created almost 20 years ago and the other in the modern shooter space. But Syndicate is also a game hemmed in by the standards of the FPS genre, which are themselves showing considerable strain after years of overuse. With such ambitious exercises as Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness to its credit, Swedish studio Starbreeze would seem to be the perfect choice to inject some mutant DNA into the genre, but Syndicate is sadly the developer's most anonymous and generic work thus far.
Part of the problem is that, in accordance with accepted FPS thinking, the game has been cleaved down the middle and separated into single- and multiplayer chunks. It's a decision that leaves the former feeling predictable and perfunctory and the latter (a co-op campaign) frustratingly underdeveloped. Had the two been combined with the flair that Starbreeze has exhibited in the past, Syndicate could have been quite special. As it is, it's dependable enough, but hardly interesting.
The story mode is by far the weakest part of the package, sharing precious little with its vintage ancestor and relying on both narrative and gameplay clichés that fail to inspire.
You're playing as Kilo, a biochip-enhanced agent for the Eurocorp syndicate in a dystopian future where corporate influence has long since overruled outdated notions of nationality. These massive global businesses conduct what appears to be open warfare against each other, kidnapping scientists to get access to the latest cybernetic upgrades, sabotaging rival installations and assassinating key personnel. Those, not coincidentally, are the sort of mission objectives you receive at the start as you go about your business as a good little drone.
And business is good, at least where action is concerned. Gunplay is satisfyingly beefy, the enemy AI just smart enough to be reasonably challenging and the environments designed for both civilian form and violent function, channelling the action in enjoyable directions. Starbreeze knows how to deliver this stuff, and it does it with style.
Syndicate's point of difference comes from its cyberpunk setting and the fact you have a DART-6 computer chip in your head. A tap on the right bumper activates DART mode for a limited period, during which time moves more slowly, enemies are highlighted, shots hit harder and you become more resilient. Useful, certainly, but nothing we haven't seen explored in plenty of previous shooters.
More interesting is the way your chip allows you to remotely "breach" various technologies that you encounter by holding down the left bumper. Effects range from the old standby of hacking doors and servers to manipulating the behaviour of chipped enemies - and, as you progress through the story, you gradually earn three "apps" which can be used to wreak havoc on opposing forces.
Backfire causes weapons to, well, backfire, staggering the wielder and making them vulnerable to attack. Suicide causes an enemy to explode, causing radial damage to anyone nearby. Finally, Persuade - a nod to the Persuadertron of old - lets you brainwash an enemy into fighting on your side for a brief time before shooting themselves. Each ability can only be used once its gauge is full, and this can only be filled by performing feats such as headshots and perfect "breach spikes", releasing the left bumper in a sweet spot during a breach.
All the abilities are fun to use and absolutely vital to your survival. Try playing Syndicate as a vanilla run-and-gun shooter and you'll get creamed. You need to use your abilities intelligently, but the game itself is never varied enough to warrant any deeper strategy.
As well as its own cult history, Syndicate is a game standing in the shadow of last year's Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Both feature black-clad bionic agents operating in a cyberpunk future ruled by corporate skullduggery, and both define your journey by the upgrades you choose. The point of difference is that in Syndicate, the choices are always pointing to direct action, which in turn makes the game feel flat and one-note in its construction. There's not even a glimmer of stealth or subterfuge, and combat tactics often boil down to nothing more than wondering when to hack a fuel line and cause an explosion.
There's pleasure in a purebred shooter, of course, but Syndicate is a poor choice of vehicle for such base pleasures, leaving it stuck uncomfortably between the visceral thrill of wanton mayhem and the more measured appeal of a shooter with more depth. The concept and setting seem to suggest greater variety, but the game is only interested in slaughter.
The story doesn't do much to compensate for the feeling of untapped potential. A standard sci-fi yarn, its follows a well-trodden path as your bionic agent discovers that - gasp - his corporate overlords are not nice people. Given that there are only three characters in the story apart from your mute avatar, and that one of them is voiced by Brian Cox, it doesn't take a genius to work out where things are heading.
Even for such a generic premise, the execution is still thin, hurrying from one predictable plot point to another in a short campaign that only lasts a handful of hours, depending on how good you are at coping with its irritating boss fights (another feature that Syndicate shares with Deus Ex).
There's a story on the co-op side as well, though it's looser and has little to no crossover with the single-player campaign. More like a string of objective-led missions that follow on from one another, co-op is where Starbreeze finally finds Syndicate's pulse.
That's not only because the four-player squad echoes the rampaging quartets of agents from 1993, but because upgrades and auxiliary abilities really come into their own here. The same breach mechanism is used, but with four agents in play, the possibilities are more exciting.
You'll also find a wider variety of toys to play with. Basic weapons can be enhanced and upgraded by setting research targets, which fill up during gameplay, unlocking additional perks when you return from the field. The same is true of the DART-6 apps, which now offer shield and health buffs for nearby team-mates and other more communal functions. This way, progress is forever tied to performance, and there's always something new to look forward to.
It also frees you up from any class-based clutter. You can pack a powered-up sniper rifle as your secondary weapon and pick off enemies from afar while your allies tackle mission objectives, then you can get up close and play medic to the wounded, before grabbing a minigun, boosting your shield and becoming a tank. Downed comrades can also be "rebooted", the length of time required to get them back into action depending on whether they're staggering around looking for help or slumped at death's door.
Wherever you turn in the co-op game, there's something useful you can be doing to move towards victory, especially as there can be multiple objectives in play at any time. While some players will steam in and steal computer servers, there's a role for someone to hang back and defend your transport from attackers. Its battles are never as freeform as Battlefield 3's, obviously, but it's definitely more interesting than most co-op shooters.
Unlike the relentlessly linear progress of the story mode - where every door is locked except the one you need - there's more flow to the co-op maps as well. You can push and fall back, fortify the exit route and generally treat it as a dynamic environment rather than a corridor-style shooting range. Throughout, there's an instinctive sense of fluid teamwork, and by juggling the right apps with smart use of breaching, the game world becomes more alive, more compelling - and more like the Syndicate of old than the derivative single-player story suggests. You can even establish your own clan-style syndicate, and there are enough ways to evolve both your arsenal and agent that you can claim some ownership of the character you're playing.
The co-op section is so strong that it should really be the main thrust of the game, but even with its many strengths there's a limit to its scope. Scripted enemy encounters make repeat performances on each map more of a memory test than combat challenge, while checkpoints mean you can keep plugging away at a mission until you get through. The upgrades, too, will run dry sooner rather than later, leaving you with fully maxed-out agents and missions you know by heart.
Like too many shooters today, Syndicate is a game struggling to be all things to all people and underselling its strongest points in the process. The story is a perfunctory thing, worth playing once for the robust gunplay, but it fails to make Syndicate stand out from the cyberpunk herd.
If Starbreeze had snubbed convention and made a strategic co-op shooter with a global reach, it could have been amazing. As it is, it's the sort of almost-there effort that entertains for now but will likely be forgotten by Christmas. Pick it up for the highly enjoyable co-op, but just don't expect it to outlast its FPS rivals.