If you're a fan of 1993's beloved strategy game Syndicate, you might see the new series reboot as heresy. But if you've dismissed the new Syndicate because you think it sullies the franchise, you're doing yourself a disservice. That's because 2012's Syndicate is a really good first-person shooter with a palpable science-fiction vibe and rousing cooperative play. If you're looking for a first-class way to play an online game with three good friends, here's your destination. Just be sure you come to Syndicate for the co-op rather than the intermittently entertaining but messy single-player campaign, which prizes form over function.
But such form it is: Syndicate is slick, moody, and in total command of its near-future vision. You are a digitally enhanced agent of a megacorporation fighting for domination, and every aspect of the presentation reinforces this notion. In a rainy courtyard shoot-out under the rising skyscrapers of New York City, you're struck by the hazy blue lighting and how it contrasts with the craggy industrial pipes and pillars that surround you. Elsewhere, walls of text scroll down transparent green computer terminals, and countless objects are identified in your heads-up display. The atmosphere is both gorgeous and emotionally disconnected. This is the future, cool and indifferent, and Syndicate does an impressive job of transporting you there.
If only this attention to detail were applied to the rest of the campaign, which is characterized by momentary thrills broken up by pointless puzzle-solving and stretches of nothing that grind the pace to a halt. Consider this scenario: For narrative reasons, you find yourself strapped into a fancy machine--the kind that appears in so many science fiction games. Developer Starbreeze squeezes out as many minutes as it can out of this unskippable scene (not to mention, the ones leading up to it). You take drowsy steps into the device. You watch as straps bind your wrists in place. You look around as the machine ever-so-slowly rises into the air and then ever-so-slowly examines your innards. Every whirr and every click is belabored.
Such pace-killing moments are common. Syndicate moves forward in fits and starts, grinding to a halt just when it seems things might finally get awesome. Quiet moments can build tension in games that tell great stories or at least deliver effective payoffs, but Syndicate isn't such a game. You know that you are Miles Kilo, a EuroCorp agent with a special augmentation chip that gives you superhuman abilities. You meet comrades like Lily Drawl and Jack Denham, and you are told of EuroCorp and competing syndicates, but you are never given a reason to care. What does EuroCorp actually do? What makes it different from other corporations? What are the real stakes in this corporate war?
Syndicate does a poor job of answering such important questions. In place of true world development, it dumps thousands of words of text into an infobank, where you can read character profiles and various propaganda. The game doesn't tell a story so much as it shoves an encyclopedia at you and expects you to do the legwork. Compare this approach to last year's Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which used similar devices to expand its proper narrative, not to replace it. By the time Syndicate makes some last-ditch attempts to elicit emotion in this apathetic climate, it's too late. If a game never bothers to flesh out its characters, then you can't be expected to care about their pasts or futures.
Had Syndicate's campaign focused purely on the action, it would have made a much better impression. When things take off, they can really get your pulse pounding, though such moments don't last very long--at least, not until the final chapters. But when the shooting intensifies, the exciting single-player shooter hiding finally breaks free. Taking aim and shooting feels as satisfying as you'd like. A steady frame rate and sleek animations do their part to keep the action feeling fluid, and you feel a sense of weight when jumping or sliding into a cover spot. You might feel a bit of Killzone 3 in that feeling of heft. Perhaps not coincidentally, Syndicate employs a Killzone-esque first-person cover system. This is no cover shooter, however: persevering enemies approach from multiple angles and keep you moving. If you're used to predictable shooting galleries, in which foes enter from obvious entry points and seem content in their roles as bullet fodder, then Syndicate will represent a refreshing change.
Of course, as a future supersoldier, you don't just get guns: you get a few handy applications to keep the challenge from being overwhelming. It all starts with the suicide app. With the press of a button, your target is overcome by mental anguish before grabbing a grenade and expiring in particularly explosive fashion. Then there is the backfire app, which flings a merc to the ground, where he's temporarily vulnerable. The persuade application tops off your repertoire, turning your chosen enemy into an ally until he turns his gun on himself.
That all sounds deliciously gory, though in practice, you're not focused on the splattering of brains: you've already moved on to your next target. Some of those targets may require breaching, which is to say, hacking your target's chip. Powerful enemies require you to breach their armor before they can be harmed, which requires holding a button for several precious seconds. When such a foe is playing lone gunman, this isn't so bad. When he's accompanied by a few comrades, things get a lot more intense. If the action seems too much, you can activate your tactical overlay. Doing so slows down time and highlights every nearby enemy, even those behind walls. And with the right weapon, you can even snipe targets protected by cover.
Guns and apps together lead to rare but sublime glee. You grab a thermite gun from the ground and spray liquid death on nameless soldiers. When gunfire intensifies, you activate your overlay, slowing down the proceedings long enough to take down a pesky soldier with a gauss rifle. And when your tactical overlay expires, you recruit an enemy to your cause, who turns his pistol on his own kind. After all of this, a nearby grunt cries out in anguish, heeding your demand for his own suicide. Such moments make you feel extraordinarily powerful. On medium difficulty, Syndicate offers just the right amount of challenge: enemies can be tough, but your additional survival tools make you feel like a powerhouse of destruction. The final levels are an action-packed blast, betraying what Syndicate might have been had it not strayed so often.
But stray it does, lingering on pseudo-puzzles that only require you to jump around a bit or breach a few computer terminals. A lengthy midgame section removes two of your three applications and reduces the fun factor by doing so. Then there are those annoying little details, such as picky contextual button prompts and even the game's own lighting. Lens flare and screen grime are evocative effects, but Syndicate gets noticeably carried away with them, sometimes obscuring your vision during shoot-outs and even making it difficult to tell a window from an empty doorway. That's especially true in the PlayStation 3 version, which is generally blurry and seems to have been upscaled from a lower resolution.
You won't often be bothered by such visual quirks during Syndicate's thrilling cooperative missions, however. Four-player co-op is challenging and exciting, a fantastic mix of shooting and special abilities that requires actual cooperation and communication. In place of flaccid pacing and weak storytelling, you get barrages of bullets, as well as areas swarming with thick-skinned sergeants and hoverbots. The varied levels also require you to be conscious of what's above, behind, and below. The AI is tough and aggressive. Hardened soldiers trudge toward you with their miniguns and snipers pelt you with lead, all while you sprint to a security room so that you can disengage a nasty turret threatening to tear the entire team to shreds.
Co-op play requires you to think differently, starting with the healing of your teammates. You can heal teammates at anytime, providing you're in range, though it takes a few precious seconds. The importance of this mechanic can't be overstated because it changes the flow of the match considerably. Enemies approach from all angles, so you are constantly on the move. Yet, you must not only be aware of where you are in relation to your foes, but also where you are in relation to your friends. Your teammates can revive you should you fall, but doing so in the heat of battle isn't always easy--not when an entire horde is upon you. But with a full team, no challenge feels impossible. Co-op maintains a delicate balancing act, making you feel as if the odds are almost--but not quite--insurmountable. And that's what makes the action so explosive. Watching your three teammates fall powerless to the ground and then bringing them back after single-handedly cutting through the mob? It's pure adrenaline, and it's all but guaranteed to cause bouts of triumphant swagger.
The co-op scenarios recycle some of the same ideas: grabbing objects and returning them to a dropship or escorting a little bot as it rolls forward, for instance. But the level design prevents tedium from being a lengthy visitor. In a maze of walkways, a heavy may appear, zapping you with electric bolts and preventing you from moving and shooting. Elsewhere, you snipe teleporting agents from above while your buddies charge the expansive hangar below. The most powerful foes have chips to extract, which are used to enhance your performance, just like in the campaign. But that corpse--and his chip--won't last forever. You need to get to it quickly if you want to reap its benefits, which is a neat challenge in the later missions.
You need to be skillful with your gun, though rifles and pistols aren't your only tools of destruction. Not only can you customize your loadout with different weapons, but you can also customize it with different applications (special abilities). Team heals, damage buffs, shields--these skills and others--give you an edge when you most need one, but you can't exploit them: applications take time to refresh between uses. In time, you might even equip additional skills once you earn enough chip upgrades.
In fact, Syndicate sports a nice selection of enhancements and unlocks designed to keep you coming back. It won't take you as much time as you might think to fully improve your applications and weapons, but with so many weapons to grab off the ground after a heated battle and with three difficulty levels, returning to the cooperative missions is a temptation you'll fall for time and again. There are other considerations to keep you returning, too. You can create a syndicate--that is, a clan--and vie for leaderboard dominance as a group. You get credit for besting the performances of fellow syndicate members. It's a shame you can't physically customize your co-op character and that the maps don't scale based on how many players join you. (The missions are all designed for four players, though earlier missions are perfectly doable by two or three skilled gunners.)
Syndicate is a game of thrills and missed opportunities. And so it's important to know what you want from this shooter before you commit. Come to it for the thrills of joining a team and mowing down gunners like so many weeds in a Colorado research facility. Come to it for a chilly vision of the future, where the minds of meddlers can be altered with a simple computer program. There are numerous games better at providing single-player satisfaction, however, and this is where Syndicate falters. While it isn't entirely successful, the campaign still dares to be different. And while "different" isn't the same as "great," Syndicate reminds you that with a bit of creative effort, shooters don't have to play by Modern Warfare rules to be truly modern.