The new Syndicate game takes us inside West Meld Solutions headquarters, where two minimum-wage security guards interrogate a middle-aged man in a suit. They don't see the figure moving behind the one-way mirror. Suddenly, one of the guards begins to spasm and draws his weapon with trembling fingers. His mind reels in protest, but his body won't respond. BAM! His fellow security guard is dead. BAM! The man in the suit is dead. BAM! The force of the bullet driving up from under the guard's chin sends him flying back through the mirror.
Calm and collected, we move our agent over the dead body, through the broken window, and continue with our mission. This was our first hands-on session with Syndicate at the Electronic Arts inaugural Vegas Game Show.
Released back in 1993, the first Syndicate was an isometric, real-time strategy game from Bullfrog Productions (Populous). Now, roughly 18 years later, developers Electronic Arts and Starbreeze Studios (The Darkness) are finally bringing this cyberpunk series back, albeit in a controversial new form. Joining the ranks of XCOM and Fallout 3, the new Syndicate takes the form of a first-person shooter with role-playing elements.
"Business is war," explains the game's tagline. The harsh reality of the year 2069 is that, without proper government oversight, three massive corporations have grown to monopolize the entire planet. Well, almost the entire planet. The North American market is still up for grabs and has subsequently erupted into a corporate battlefield. But this war isn't fought with tanks and jets; instead, elite agents carry out assassinations and corporate espionage to help ensure their employer's dominance. Morality is outdated and "civilian causalities are a nonissue."
In the game, we took on the role of Miles Kilo, Eurocorp's latest prototype agent, on a mission to kill our way into a rival corporation. After influencing security guards, we set upon our mission of recovering a special computer chip implanted in the brain of West Meld executive Gary Chang. Of course, Chang wasn't about to give it up willingly; he even goes so far as to threaten blowing his own head off when confronted. We went ahead and saved him the trouble by putting a bullet in his chest. Producing what appeared to be a piece of demonic dental equipment, we drilled into the former executive's head and ripped the chip free.
Such a little thing had a big payoff. First, it let us purchase our first character upgrade from a list of 17 possible bonuses, ranging from weapon damage to reload speed improvements. Second, it let us access the backfire, persuade, and suicide abilities, called breach abilities. Breaching a target is similar in concept to hacking: You get inside and make it do something it doesn't want to do. Backfire causes an enemy's weapon to backfire in his hands, causing damage and knocking him back. Persuade forces an enemy to join your side as an ally for a brief time. And suicide, as you may recall, commands an enemy to take his own life, either with a bullet to the head or a grenade in the hand.
Breaching a target was as simple as looking at it and tapping a button. A bar over the target would then quickly fill up, though we could be interrupted if we took damage (thankfully, once you've spotted the target, breaching works through walls). The bar also had a small white section. If we tapped the same button again while the meter was in this section, we would be awarded some extra adrenaline, which was the currency that powered our breach abilities. Otherwise, we earned adrenaline by killing enemies.
And there were plenty of enemies to kill once we exited Chang's office. About a dozen security guards had piled into a medical testing room lined with CT scanners, as well as one ceiling-mounted machine-gun turret. Here, we learned that we could breach elements in the environment. While breaching a human mind costs adrenaline, doing it to a machine was free, though each breach had a fixed result. Breaching the scanners, for instance, caused them to retract and deny the enemy cover, while doing the same to the turret made it fire on our enemies.
After the firefight, we encountered a scientist testing a gun that could curve bullets midair. One quick snap of the scientist's neck later, and the gun was ours. Armed with this new weapon, we were presented with a puzzle that required us to use it in conjunction with breach. There were two locked doors separated by a transparent, bulletproof wall. To shoot the lock off of the far door, we first had to breach a nearby pipeline. This caused the pipe to spray a freezing solution all over the window. Weakened by the power of cold, the window easily broke under the force of our bullets as they twisted their way down to the door's lock.
Similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the gunplay felt heavy and deliberate. However, our character did not snap to cover; instead, he could crouch behind a crate or pillar and tilt his gun to the side or above to fire. While it had little application in the narrow hallways we explored, sprinting, sliding, and shin-kicking enemies was also an option. When asked about the viability of this technique, the developers hinted that future stages will be more open to accommodate greater mobility. While it may not be what we expected, there's some sick satisfaction to be had with the game's breach abilities.
Syndicate will be released on February 21, 2012 in North America and February 24 in Europe on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.