Syndicate (2012)

Syndicate (2012, PC)

By Alex Johnson / February 13, 2013

Syndicate is going to be remembered — if it is remembered — for two things: 1) being a first-person shooter, thereby pissing off fans of the original 1993 squad-level real-time tactics game, and 2) bloom.
   I can’t speak much to the former. I only played the original for a couple evenings back in the ‘90s, but even if I was more familiar with it, there wouldn’t be much to say in comparison to an FPS. The bloom, on the other hand, really is as bad as everyone has complained. Get too close to just about any light source and half your screen will be whited-out (or yellowed-out, or blued-out, or pinked-out) with the rest bathed in a soft glow. There are some rooms, such as a nightclub, where the entire screen will be covered by a lightly tinted, gauzy haze no matter where you look. Rather than looking like bright light, it looks more like the contrast settings are permanently screwed up on your monitor and the colors are washing out.

Shame, because underneath the bloom is a solid and often stylish game. I can’t think of many FPSes that attempt a cyberpunk theme like this. Deus Ex, of course, and a few levels of Perfect Dark maybe, but not much else comes to mind. Syndicate pulls off the look pretty well. Technically, I cannot think of a single thing impressive about it, but most of the futuristic styling (on displays and signage especially) is cool, equipment is slick and high-tech, menus are simple and clean, and the X-ray animations as you extract chips from the heads of enemy agents are fun to watch even if they’re basically the same every time. There’s a surprising amount of backstory for those who like to read — kiosks and collectable items provide pages and pages of corporate bios, news snippets, and weapon specs. I also really like how you get little “augmented reality” information popups on small items around you, as if you’re constantly scanning everything for RFID-style data tags.
   That’s exactly what’s supposed to be happening, actually, since the premise here is that everyone (and almost everything, I guess) is “chipped” with implants, some of which you can control. This “breaching” ability is Syndicate’s biggest addition to its otherwise standard FPS formula, and the basic idea is promising. At its best, the game mixes hackable elements in with combat, so you have a few things to track and juggle (such as shields you need to deactivate, blocks that can be raised to create cover, or grenades to defuse) while you’re dodging and shooting. The game is easy overall, with frequent checkpoints (even some mid-boss fights), but there were a few rooms and bosses where I still died 10-20 times before figuring out the right rhythm, which is more than I can say for most of the FPSes that have come out in the last 5 years.
   Less interesting is your slow-mo ability, similar to F.E.A.R., with the small difference that your slow-mo vision highlights enemies through walls. This combines nicely with the ability of some weapons to penetrate thin pieces of cover, so that’s kinda neat. The levels are about as linear as it gets, but occasionally you fight in largish rooms with lots of low walls and pillars to hide behind, and when the game is throwing enough enemies at you to keep the pressure on, the action’s pretty great. It mostly sounds great, too, with a meaty punch to the gunfire (though I swear it’s all slightly muffled, as if the higher frequencies have been cut), and the areas that are high-tech and expensive-looking are at least visually cool, even if you’re mostly winding through corridors.

Good moments aside, the main problem with Syndicate is one it shares with most contemporary FPSes, which is that the majority of the game is just too easy, straightforward, and simple to rise above mindless novelty. For example, all you have to do to breach things is point at them and hold down a single button. I don’t want to pause the action for a hacking mini-game or anything, but come on, maybe we could get some button combinations or a timing challenge, something that would require at least a little thought and keep me on my toes. Releasing the button at the right moment does result in a more effective breach, but this becomes second-nature after a short while and the difference isn’t significant anyway.
   And frankly, the hacking powers just aren’t very interesting. You can blow up guys’ weapons, make them shoot each other, or make them shoot themselves. These tricks can save you in a pinch so you don’t get overwhelmed, but there’s not much opportunity for tactics when your powers boil down to stunning enemies or free kills. Similarly, hacking objects in the environment usually just means turning them on or off, without much to mull over or figure out. As I was shuffling elevators around in an early level, trying to create a path to the next area, I kept thinking how Dark Forces had a better elevator puzzle in 1995 — and one that was more plausibly integrated into the design of the building, no less.
   Syndicate isn’t bad enough for me to call it completely wasted potential, but considering the elements in place, it could have been a lot more interesting. It rises slightly above its contemporaries thanks to its sleek style and occasional moments of intensity. But christ, I hope someone finds a way to get rid of all that bloom.

Please note that this review strictly evaluates the single-player campaign. If you have tried the separate, 4-player co-operative campaign, consider sharing your impressions of it with us in the forum.