Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Version Not Played: Xbox 360
Release Date: February 2012
Picture the scene: it’s 1993, Bill Clinton has just become President of the United States, Global Hypercolor t-shirts have finally gone out of fashion, and Bullfrog release their landmark, cyberpunk-themed murder-simulator, Syndicate. Gamers go wild for a real-time strategy game, whose primary distinction is that it features innocent civilians, who can either be incinerated with flamethrowers, or rallied to your cause. Such tricky moral dilemmas were relatively novel in computer games at the time, and it was massively popular as a result.
Jump forward to 2012 and a more desperate age. Franchise after franchise is being hauled, undignified, from its grave in order to wring a few more coppers from its dusty corpse. In this case, the unholy resurrectors are Sweden’s Starbreeze Studios. Syndicate lives again, albeit in first person shooter form, in what they are keen to stress is a reboot rather than a sequel. I’m not sure who decided these things should be called reboots, but given the cyberpunk genre’s reliance on the misappropriation of computing terminology, it seems appropriate here.
The switch from real-time strategy to FPS has been the cause of much butthurt amongst the self-obsessed, vitamin-D-deficient, troglodytes who inhabit the Internet’s gaming forums, many of whom seem to have taken the decision as a personal affront. But Starbreeze, having elected to disregard Plato’s maxim that getting too much of what you want will turn you into an arsehole, have declared that if first person shooters are what the people desire, then that’s what they are going to get.
As in the original, Syndicate is set in a bleak, dystopian, near-future, where mega-corporations rule the world, and all of the lights appear to have the dimmer switch stuck at halfway. Companies no longer settle their differences through long and costly legal battles, but rather through small scale, private, military actions against each other’s infrastructure. Also, everyone now has a computer chip, called the Dart 6, implanted in their head, which allows them direct access to the global computer network using only their brain. Basically, it’s never been easier to order something from Amazon, but the delivery driver will probably be assassinated by a Barnes & Noble death squad on his way back to the depot.
You play the part of EuroCorp agent Miles Kilo. Miles had a rather tragic entrance into the world. His mother was born an Imperial, but her heart belonged to a handsome young man of the Metric clan. Sadly, the two families had been warring for centuries and his parents’ love was scandalous and forbidden. While attempting to elope, they were ridden down and captured; his father slain and his mother exiled. A few months later she died in childbirth, but not before naming her child Miles Kilo, in memory of their ill-fated union.
Ok, I made up most of that last paragraph, but the protagonist really is called Miles Kilo. Seriously, why do people in the future have such unlikely names? In any case, Miles, along with his fellow agents Cynthia Download and Brian Herpes, are tasked with furthering their employer’s interests. In doing so, they embark upon an adventure of intrigue, revenge and corporate manslaughter; all the while dressed like it’s Goth Night at the Sci-Fi Club.
Like every FPS, the major themes of the story are expressed through the medium of bullets. Within the cutscenes Miles may be depicted as a conflicted individual, with emotions, hopes and dreams, but once in your hands he’s a dispassionate death factory.
Speaking of factories, I hope you’re a fan, because you’re going to be seeing an awful lot of them. This game is more industrial than that time Trent Reznor got a job on an oil rig. Factories, offices, chemical plants and corporate headquarters; as Miles Kilo you will calmly stroll through all of them, killing people whose only crime was that they liked to play Solitaire during their lunchbreak. Blue collar and white collar, male and female, clerk, scientist and security guard – Miles does not discriminate, being something of an equal-opportunities murderer.
As expected, you have a wide range of futuristic weapons with which to enact your business negotiations: future-pistol, future-shotgun, future-rifle and so on. There are also a number of more exotic firearms to be had, including a few nods to the original game in the minigun, gauss gun and others. My favourite launches what appears to be a swarm of angry, explosive bees, which are of course the best kind of bee, or the worst kind, if you happen to have pulled reception duty on the day Mr Kilo turns up for his quarterly review.
So far, so normal, but Syndicate does seek to innovate by providing you with a number of additional core competencies. Killing quickly and efficiently charges up an adrenaline bar, which allows you to activate special abilities, called Breach Applications, via the chip in your head. One of these is the privacy-invading Dart Vision, which lends you the powers of an airport full-body scanner, highlighting enemies as creepy, orange, skeletal silhouettes.
Build up enough charge on your murder-meter and you can breach the microchips implanted in other objects and people, bending them to your will. Gun turrets come under your control and enemy weapons can be forced to backfire. By breaching the chips in people you can persuade them to attack their colleagues or commit suicide.
As you may gather, it’s a harsh and unforgiving workplace in the near-future. I’m surprised they can get anyone to come in to work at all. It’s bad enough that you’ve got Executive Vice President, Chad Rimspace of Hatstand Industries, turning up in his black leather bathrobe, and randomly executing employees on his way to the staff canteen; but, in addition to that, you now have to put up with people seizing control of your brain.
“Hi honey, I’m home. It was a pretty quiet day at the office. Email in the morning, and then lunch at my desk. At the bi-monthly forecast meeting in the afternoon, Dan from Accounts went on an inexplicable killing spree taking out several members of the Environmental Efficiency Steering Group, before turning the gun on himself. You remember Dan don’t you? Dan and Elizabeth… two children and a dog… drives a Passat. Yea? Well, he’s dead now.”
Poor Dan. If only he’d got stuck in traffic that morning, things could have been so very different. Still, at least you get dental.
Syndicate attempts to push the envelope in other areas. Inspired by the research system in the original, there’s a comprehensive series of upgrades for your weapons and breach abilities. Upgrades are unlocked by ripping the microchips from the heads of defeated rivals using a special future-syringe. It’s a visceral affair that should appeal to anyone who entertains fantasies of being a psychotic nursing assistant.
There’s also a considerable cooperative multiplayer mode, where you, and three other friends, can form a homicidal enterprise of your own. Together you tackle a series of challenging business scenarios against a division of hardened executives controlled by the AI. The multiplayer brings a number of additional spells, sorry, Breach Applications, to your arsenal, and also requires you to heal or reboot your team members, should they think too far outside the box. Fending off the AI is no easy task, for they are an ambitious, young team of self-motivated go-getters, with everything to prove. It’s going to take a lot of joined-up thinking between you and your colleagues if you are to be successful.
Now the problem with this style of cooperative play is that it’s fine when you are playing with friends, but for those of us who don’t have any, and have to resort to playing with random unknowns, it’s a very different story. Call me negative, but there’s a real dearth of solution-oriented team-players out there on Xbox LIVE. Every match seems to end up with one asshat running around, gleefully firing his gun like he’s getting paid by the bullet, while everyone else is hobbling about, screaming for a reboot, and bent double like they’ve suddenly been stricken with searing bowel pain. It’s like an IT helpdesk technician’s Vietnam flashback.
A special mention must also go to the soothing tones of your AI handler, who whispers soothingly in your ear as you go about your bloody business. Somewhat inevitably, she’s played by the lady who voices all of the computers in the future. I don’t know who that woman is, but she should definitely consider being cryogenically frozen, because in 2100 she’s apparently going to be in very high demand.
Ignore all of the clichés however and Syndicate is an enjoyable affair. Yes, it’s indifferently violent at times, but so was the original, and I guess that’s the point. Starbreeze may not have brought a new paradigm, but with the Breach Abilities and upgrade system, they have succeeded in delivering something a bit different in a shooter and I guess that’s the best we can hope for.
Still, I can’t help but think that if Miles had only raised his issues with Human Resources first, then we could have avoided all of this unnecessary conflict. They could have lined him up with some counselling perhaps. Maybe a course on maintaining a healthy work/life balance. Oh well.