The secret to enjoying EA's new take on Syndicate might be to put aside all your hopes and dreams and cherished memories regarding the original, and think of it instead as, well, a new Starbreeze game. That's not a perfect solution for everyone, perhaps, but it's also not without its pleasures. Starbreeze is a studio that's constantly poised on the edge of greatness. It brought a sturdiness and a peculiarly grim invention to both Riddick and The Darkness. I think the team can do good things with Syndicate, too.
That's how I felt after dipping into both single- and multiplayer campaigns a few weeks back, anyway. Starbreeze is deeply committed to the concept of clever nastiness - a trait that should ensure it has little trouble bringing the series' near-future landscape with its warring corporate leviathans to life. It's also used to merging nice, heavy gunplay with gadgets and gimmicks: Riddick's melee combat, say, or Jackie Estacado's cackling tentacles.
As Syndicate's main campaign starts up, dispatched on a clandestine corporate raid, your AI partner fills you in on the backstory and deals out queasy office euphemism like "soft assets" while he casually shoots two receptionists waiting patiently in the lobby you've just crashed into. It gets things off to a wonderfully unpleasant start and ensures you're on your toes straight away.
Syndicate looks to be an augmented shooter - Deus Ex, if you want, with a much, much sharper focus on blowing people into chunks. It likes to throw in a few puzzles along with the action, too, and the first one I come to, on my way to extract an important chip from some poor corporate sucker's head, draws the player into the delights of breaching - a core series conceit.
Everybody in Syndicate has a chip in their head. It's a bit like the craze for those fifties' ad-men haircuts a year or two back: if you weren't in on it, you were nobody. Like those haircuts, though, chips bring their own dangers - in this case, rather than looking like a bovine hipster, you can be breached (hacked, essentially), and made to do things you don't want to do.
There are three breach abilities in Syndicate's campaign, and they're unlocked at key intervals as you progress. The first - and the most dastardly - is Suicide. Suicide is simple, rather than painless: select an unwitting victim - in this case, a guard performing an interrogation in a room hidden behind a two-way mirror - get the breach running, and then watch as they go loco in a violently entertaining manner, killing everyone around them, and then shooting themselves as an encore. This time, that last shot also blows open the mirror, allowing you to get deeper into the facility - but Suicide in the main is a tool rather than a mere key, and its use will rarely be so scripted.
Past the two-way mirror, there's a little light traversal to be had - gantries, ladders, and, of course, that towering lord of video game design, the vent - and then I'm onto the trail of the man who's got that chip I'm after. He'll need to be dead for me to get it, I suspect, and I'm happy to oblige. Once I've found him in his office and shot him to pieces, I get a little cut-scene in which I ram something that looks like a rather icky personal grooming tool into his ear. Chip extracted.
Chips and rival corporations' tech of any kind will allow you to upgrade your character. It's a system that seems very similar to Deus Ex's augs - amongst other perks, you can level up the damage you do, boost your recovery speed, and even gently evolve the ways that your breaches work. It's the kind of thing you need a longer hands-on session to truly get a feel for, and, to tell the truth, passive strategic choices are kind of lost within the gunfire in the current demo.
Yes: gunfire. Having shot one of the corporation's key employees, everyone's finally noticed I'm here, and if I was able to sneak in largely unmolested, getting out is going to be a bit trickier. Suddenly turrets are popping up, as are people lobbing grenades at me and sending bullets in my direction from cover.
No problem. Turrets can be breached to redirect their fire to your enemies, and grenades can be breached and defused as they land. If this sounds like a bit of a win button, it's worth remembering that there's a time component involved, as you highlight the target and then wait for a breach loading bar to fill.
With that taken care of, even those baddies behind cover aren't safe. Accessing the game's Dart Overlay gives you a kind of Detective Mode view of the landscape, highlighting foes even if they're hidden from view, and slowing time a little. Your Dart Overlay doesn't work for very long, but it recharges swiftly, and it provides just enough of an edge to allow you to thin the ranks.
On top of all that, I've picked up the Gauss gun - it now lets you lock onto a target and then effectively shoot around corners or over cover. (There's a puzzle later on in which you open a door you can't reach by shooting the handle off from the other side of a wall.)
I've got a new breach ability, too, Backfire, which causes other people's guns to explode in their faces with a perky little pop. (The final breach, incidentally, is called Persuade, and allows you, in classic Syndicate style, to temporarily bring the enemy AI over to your side. It then kills them, by the way, so you can't wade through the campaign with dozens of allies backing you up.)
Syndicate doesn't give you the kind of over-arching choices of Deus Ex, by the looks of it - you can't decide to stealth your way through the entire game instead of killing people, for example - but it revels in offering up moment-to-moment options: the choice to tackle a room with breaches or exotic weaponry, say, and the freedom to decide how you blend both breaches and exotic weaponry together in the first place.
By the end of the single-player demo, I'm outside, surrounded by the blinding light and canted architecture of this horrible future, and everything's starting to flow: the Gauss locks on to distant enemies, suicides take out the middle ground, while turrets have shields to bring down before they can be blown to pieces up close. You recharge your breach energy, of course, by chaining kills and building up adrenalin, so there's a little of that endlessly compulsive hunt for the arcade racing-line thrown in too.
After all that, multiplayer swaps out Deus Ex for decided overtones of Brink. Four-player co-op's the order of the day, and the game is composed of a series of objective-based maps, most of which involve heading onto rival corps' territory and stealing their most secret wares.
The New England level's the only one revealed so far, and it's powerful stuff, taking the same measured, tactical, pace of Splash Damage's shooter, and putting a similar premium on working together, watching your buddies' backs, and not running off and getting killed.
Your multiplayer characters are kept separate from the main campaign, and with good reason: breaches have been expanded from three to twelve flavours here, and, while half of them are still about giving the enemies a hard time, the other half are more concerned with providing your team-mates with perks like heals or group shields or damage boosters.
You'll need those extra options too, because New England turns out to be monstrously hard in places, a rooftop bloodbath where a wrong turn can see you separated from your friends and picked to pieces. Some enemies require a group effort to take them down as you target shields and then pile on the damage, and although the focus of the game has changed somewhat, it's still all about exploring a range of immediate options, before choosing the quickest, cleanest, and coolest way to finish off the task at hand.
After Deus Ex and Brink, the final point of contact is probably Mirror's Edge, in terms of aesthetics rather than mechanics, at any rate. Syndicate's world is constructed from chunks of sun-bleached concrete and stabs of rich, primary colour lighting that Faith would probably recognise instantly. If the original series drew on classic dystopias like Bladerunner, this is a far more contemporary spin on the future.
So no, it's not the squad-based tactical brand of sadism that you may want from Syndicate, but that's no reason to give up on this game just yet. Starbreeze is offering up its own, very appealing approach to corporate warfare - and I can't wait to see a bit more of it.
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