Surprises. Is there anything better than a pleasant surprise?
Well picture me in all my ignorance on the 18th of October 2011 when Syndicate came up during the EA Winter Showcase 2011.
Stifling a “whoop” I restrained myself through the rest of the presentations and games and made my way to the Starbreeze booth full haste. This happened to be right next to the Mass Effect 3 booth (another story, for another day methinks…), both of which were thus showing off their 4-player co-op talents.
Well, you are unlikely to know of my penchant for co-op, until now… Why fight against each other when you can join forces and triumph against the massed hordes the developer has readied for you? Two heads may be better than one, but four are twice as good!
Having had the enormous privilege to be allowed full access to the whole game thanks entirely to the very wonderful @EA_ActionMan, I leapt into it with great relish and have emerged victorious in the single player campaign and battle hardened from the 4-player co-op.
Before I get into real depth here I want to clarify a couple of things; Firstly, Syndicate (2012) is not in any way a “remake” or “update” of Syndicate (1993). It was not intended to be, it isn’t and that is a good thing (more on that later). Secondly its single-player and multi-player experiences are completely separate, as intended and again, a good thing (more on that in a bit too!).
Right, in we go. Let’s start at the beginning shall we? (Seems as good a place as any I suppose).
Syndicate (2012) is foremost a superb sci-fi future dystopian FPS sandbox, based on the 1993 game and sharing its sense of the aforementioned “future” and “dystopia” quite clearly whilst also working on an entirely different premise. As a huge Syndicate (1993) fan I felt keenly the connectedness of these games in spirit whilst also appreciating their different approaches to delivering quality game-play.
The “world” created by Starbreeze has an almost spooky resemblance to my memories of the original Syndicate, on occasion it was almost as if I could visualise the camera zooming down from Syndicate ’93 into my Syndicate ’12 point of view… now considering the quality of the visuals in the new game that is quite something.
Beyond simply the uncanny similarity of a number of visual elements (Glass & steel sky scrapers sir? Long black coats all round anyone?) in some places there are strong impressions of the original in its approach to both the “corporate” and “research” elements, the titular “Syndicates” are faithful to the original in both style and feel and research is surprisingly similar, if broken down to a more logical “agent” level.
Anyway, I run the risk of writing a few thousand words on a game which nears 20 years old, when you are likely here to read about this latest and greatest experience.
So, Syndicate 2012, is it any good?
Yes. Very. Not only that but I’m tempted to say it’s twice as good as most other games. Why? Well it’s actually two games for the price of one. And two very good games at that. Good times.
You recall I allude to a “sandbox” a little earlier in the piece; well this sandbox is incredibly well suited to its dual purpose of delivering high quality single and multi-player FPS experiences.
Syndicate 2012 “Alpha” is an excellent Single player FPS with real echoes of the latest Deus Ex (Human Revolution), combined with more than a little of the hugely under-rated Mirror’s Edge, a pinch of Bioshock and a big slice of Half-Life 2. Noticed the pattern? Yup, they’re all great games. Whilst there are many specific positives to highlight there is one area where Syndicate is not just a good game, where it elevates itself to greatness. Yes, the upgrade system is good, the visuals are very strong, the acting, sound and music are all impressive, but wait… what’s this… game-play? Yes, if Syndicate delivers in one area more than any other its game-play. And let’s face it they are called “games” for a reason; they really ought to play well.
Often in the recent past I’ve marvelled at a games visuals, or praised its score, or delighted in its character progression, lauded it’s plot or hyped the online features… but I don’t need to do this with Syndicate. Why? Because it just plays amazing. Don’t judge my deliberately terrible English in that sentence; instead ponder on what it’s really saying. Game-play is fantastic; Sliding into & firing from cover, leaping over obstacles, sprinting, melee, weapon dynamics, grenade tactics, sniping, close combat, flanking, enemy variety, bosses and sub-bosses, turrets, etc., etc. Oh and the AI will also take advantage of all this.
“Hard” difficulty will often find you being flanked, rushed and cornered as your ammo quickly dwindles. AI snipers take no prisoners and their shotgun soldiers will charge you if they think you’re not paying attention. Then, just when you’re feeling on top of the situation out come the riot shields, invisible spectres, grenadiers, heavy weapon specialists, flying and shielded defence bots and enemy dropping in from air support… tricky. But all the cunning AI in the world won’t return excitement to the player if your level design is poor. Thankfully Syndicate has this nailed down. With a great mix of open and enclosed, tight and branching, multi-level and flat, pillared halls and winding corridors, atria and station platforms, roof-top and underground, and so on…few games pack this level of variety and manage to include environmental puzzles into the mix without either feeling contrived. I applaud you Starbreeze.
But there is more!
Not content with an FPS experience that is up there with the very best, someone decided the genre needed something new… something fresh… yes developers have been dropping “skills” or “abilities” into their games, all be it slightly haphazardly, for years now, but Syndicate explodes this model right out of the 108th floor window. “Breaching” is its brand new take on bringing complexity and power to the player (and, of course, the AI). Whilst Breaching offers numerous avenues for hampering, disabling and killing your opposition (Backfire, Suicide, Persuade and more!) it’s not just this very laudable variety which is its ultimate selling point. You see for the first time, well… ever I guess, you are expected to shoot and breach at the same time.
Now I’ve explained all this in detail previously so I won’t break it down to basics totally for you, but suffice to say it feels revolutionary. One finger on the left trigger to zoom my gun sights, one finger on the right trigger as I head-shot that soldier, a third finger on the left bumper to breach a turret to disable it as I hit the right bumper to engage DART (more on that a little later). Four fingers in action, at exactly the same instant, and over multiple seconds each. It’s like quad-wielding, except way cooler; because you’re wielding a full on assault rifle on two buttons whilst two more buttons enable you to simultaneously rip the shields from your opponent as you engage your superior speed and defences…, exhilarating four-button stuff!
I am not going to spoil the plot for you, but I will say you get proper boss fights, that need a moment’s thought, and usually a couple of goes to get right. Breaching makes you powerful, but when it gets used against you it can be most uncomfortable! One of my highlights of the game was doing battle with a boss who was intent on breaching the environment to remove all the cover I was trying to use, forcing me into a chess-like battle for cover breaching supremacy as we circled each other from cover to cover, raising and lowering it in extended attempts to gain the tactical upper hand. A real thrill to experience and a huge sense of satisfaction when overcome.
So we’ve talked about the excellent world the game takes place in and how good the combat experience is, we’ve covered movement and breaching and touched on story and weaponry. Already this review is becoming uncomfortably long, but before I move on to the final area to review I want to mention “DART”. When added to the concept of breaching and when combined with various skills this is a superb further rung on the Syndicate gaming ladder. DART is a mode into which you can put yourself which has multiple, game changing, benefits. Ranging from increased damage output and defensive strength to slowed opponents and unmasking of hidden foes (and more) it’s a great feeling when you engage it and assume an almost super-human (OK, an even more super-human!) state, turning what looked like certain death into a bullet-ballet rout of your near helpless opposition.
OK, let’s take a breath here. My heart rate is up just discussing this stuff! Look at this nice picture while I get myself a glass of cold water…
Right, OK, so the Single player is pretty awesome. But what about the multi-player? Have they just thrown it on the end of their game? (Like at least one aforementioned game!).
No. Not only is Syndicate 2012 “Beta” a strong standalone experience for teams of 4, it’s also playable solo, or in pairs, or as a trio! Not only that but the range of “breaches” available is much, much increased (EMP blast? Group Heal?). But the differences don’t end there. With all story dispensed with in favour high speed action all the way, level design specifically for the game mode, weapon and breach application research trees (powered by experienced gained from each multi-player game / round). And here we come to the crux of why this is just such ridiculously good value for money. If I were marking just the single player experience out of our usual 5, we’d be talking 4+. If I were marking the 4-player co-op experience we’d be looking at 4+, so in a very honest sense I feel a bit like giving this something like 8 out of 5!
I’d LOVE to continue talking about the huge range of awesome stuff I’ve not had time to cover, everything from the fantastic “Form your own Syndicate” functionality to the leader boards and challenges, breach spiking and level scoring, chip-ripping and shield charging, intelligence and business card gathering and achievements which… gasp… actually add something to the experience rather than detract from it… but I’m getting perilously close to the 2,000 “write more than and your fired” limit so I’m cutting myself off.
As ever, grab me as Raxous on Xbox if you fancy a co-op session! I may be no good, but I will enjoy myself, so thank you in advance!
Graphics: 4/5 – Nothing wrong here, and a special nod to the environment team. Great work.
Sound: 4/5 – Might have been let down by poor voicing… Brian Cox, Rosario Dawson and Michael Wincott made sure this didn’t happen. Oh and the guns sound awesome…
Gameplay: 4.5/5 – Great single player, standout co-op. Fresh approaches and excellent variety.
Longevity: 4/5 – If the co-op were rubbish it’d get marked down here, but it isn’t, so a very solid 4!
Overall: 4 out of 5
If you love co-op it’s a must buy, if you like single player FPS it’s a must buy, if you like futuristic dystopias it’s a must buy… just buy it already. I’m tired. I was up all night on the co-op.