Features & News

Demo Impressions: Syndicate

February 3, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro

I’ve got Syndicate Wars on PS1 in a box under my bed. While many have regaled me with tales of its awesomeness, I’ve never really been that into it. The concept was fantastic; futuristic, rival corporations literally fighting for control of the world’s dwindling assets.

The execution, for me, was overcomplicated and boring. So when it was announced that the franchise was being reinvented as first-person shooter Syndicate by Starbreeze Studios (of The Darkness fame), I was intrigued rather than outraged. Much of the old guard may be staunchly against this switch from strategy to gunplay, but I can see how the move was necessary in these modern times of CoDs and Battlefields.

All that aside, the Syndicate demo has recently graced the interwebs and I gave it a go.

The demo is, surprisingly, 4-player co-op only. If you’re an anti-social weasel or just don’t have any mates that are interested, fear not as there appears to be a thriving community already bubbling away for you to jump right into. Putting out a co-op demo is a bold move, and shows just how much confidence Starbreeze have in the mode and how little they wont to give away of the main plot. As this is the only multiplayer the game will ship with, it’s nice to get an idea of what you’ll be letting yourself in for if lonesome gaming doesn’t do it for you.

Before you jump into a match there’s a plethora of stats, upgrades, loadouts and abilities to tinker with. As is now standard, you can customise up to three loadouts with a primary and secondary weapon and two Chip abilities, which range from squad-wide shields to a damaging personal shockwave. As there are no classes as such, the way you combine these elements dictates your role in battle and finding the right balance for you is essential. There’s also a skill tree-type upgrade system, allowing you to spend points received for ranking up on new abilities, physical improvements and hacking prowess.

Instead of unlocking new weapons and attachments as you level up, Syndicate uses a research system. You spend Research points to unlock specific blueprints for each weapon, then use that weapon in combat to research the upgrade. It’s a great way to make sure you get the upgrades you need and it’s reassuring to know that all that XP isn’t going towards unlocking something you won’t use. So, after tinkering with your template and choosing a generic character, it’s match time!

The demo offers only one mission, an assassination assignment against a Colonel at Caymen Global. As the experience differs depending on loadout and team-mates, I’m going to take you through one of my runs.

Lush and hectic. Just how I like it!

Beginning the assault in the back of an APC with my three comrades sitting around me really builds the atmosphere before I’m turfed out the door into a face-full of hot lead. The action starts immediately and barely lets up, making for a breathless, hectic and exciting game.

Each person has to act according to their loadout; shotgun-toting allies need to get in close while snipers need to hang back in cover and pick enemies off at a distance. As we round the first corner, an automated turret starts pounding our position. I sprint and slide to cover behind a convenient chest-high wall, popping up to blast holes in the enemy soldiers now rounding the turret. A shotgun-wielding ally makes a run for the turret and, as she hacks into it, the rest of us pound away at its shield and keep its attention.

Hacking is a major part of Syndicate and takes numerous forms, the most basic of which is ‘breaching’ various objects, terminals and even enemy grenades. The turret’s down but its killer is low on health, so I use my Breach to heal them quickly, another use for the handy ability. With the area clear, we all pile into a dual-gate system.

These ‘Staging Areas’ are present throughout the mission and allow us to replenish ammo, take stock and prepare for the next section. As the doors open we’re met with more enemy fire and I quickly get into cover. While Syndicate has no proper cover system my gun seems to aim around objects, similar to The Darkness, to allow me to fire without exposing myself. Bringing down guard after guard as they pour from overhead gantries, I hear an ally warn us there’s a Reactive on the field; the automatic squad speech adding an extra layer of immersion to an already absorbing experience.

Reactive enemies have impenetrable armour that must be hacked from close range to make them vulnerable. Their presence makes for a tense firefight as one of us tries to get behind while the others draw the fire. Again the shotgunner makes it up close and drops the Reactive’s armour, leaving him wide open. I pop a few shots into him but focus on keeping the troops from reaching ground level, leaving it to my two assault-rifle-bearing team-mates to pound away at the helpless Reactive.

Once he’s dealt with, the shotgunner jabs him in the neck and tears out his Chip. It’s these tiny microchips that make all this ‘remote hacking’ business possible, and leaving his intact gives Caymen goons a chance to revive him, so ripping it out is a necessity.

The next area is locked up tight, but our friendly A.I. helper tells us that we should use the skylights. Climbing ladders, we make it to the roof and reign hellfire down through the large, open gaps. Before long we lose the advantage, however, as troops file into the room and a ceiling-mounted turret is activated, peppering the area below with gunfire. I stay put, using my scope to take out enemies as my allies make do on the ground. It’s a perfect example of playing to your strengths when part of a team and it works fantastically.

There’s no order or marking system yet it’s very easy to see your place in each engagement and in my experience everyone seems keen to do their bit. Finally dropping to the ground, my HUD tells me there’s a hackable panel that deactivates the turret… behind the turret! It’s occupied with my team-mates on the other side of the room and I take my chance, sprinting underneath it and sliding into the tiny room where the panel sits.

Staying crouched, I breach it and the turret goes down. All the Breaching is done with a simple hold of LB and it’s immensely satisfying when you manage to bring down a turret or a Reactive’s armour. Room clear, we rush onward but my ammo is low. In fact, I only have one clip left for my sniper rifle. I decide to switch my sidearm for an enemy assault rifle and in the next area I’m shown I made the right choice.

As we run in we’re met by more guards, who are easily cut down in a hail of assault rifle fire. The tables quickly turn, though, as the roof opens up and troops with rocket launchers take positions on the far rim! Switching to my sniper rifle I know it’s all on me. As I drop the first goon I hear a rocket boom in front of me and two of my team cry out for a Reboot. When you take too much damage you shut down and need to be rebooted by a team-mate.

It’s Syndicate’s version of the archetypal ‘downed’ mechanic and it works fine, nicely woven into the world. I quickly bring down the other soldiers and rush to help my allies. We work the rest of the room, wiping out another few squads of Caymen guards before pushing on to the final area. It’s here our quarry waits, and where the experience goes one of two ways.

Seems one of the CEOs hired an Industrial Goth band...

The Colonel has Reactive armour, which makes close hacking a priority but he also carries a deadly mini-gun that can cut us down in seconds. Add to that the constant stream of goons and you’ve got one tricky fight. Half the time, the guards seem to be softer and less driven, preferring to hang back rather than charge in. In this case it’s easy to focus on the Colonel, working as a team to distract and disable him while dodging his lethal firearm.

My team’s most successful run had the shotgunner hiding out of sight while another team-mate distracted the Colonel and the third hacked his armour. Then the shotgunner emerged and pounded into him while I kept the troops off their backs from a distance. When it works, it’s glorious. It’s also amazing that there’s no actual communication going on; everyone is simply reacting to the situation and using their loadout as they see fit.

On the other hand, if you’re unlucky he’s impossible to bring down. Caymen soldiers immediately swarm the little room you start in, giving you no chance to focus on the Colonel. Before you know it he’s crossed the courtyard and is redecorating said room with your entrails. Trying to leave the room is foolish; the sheer amount of guards and their new-found aggressiveness makes it a suicide move. The only way I found to break this cycle is to keep losing until you get lucky. Not fun.

Overall I’m very impressed with Syndicate. What could have been a by-the-numbers, Deathmatch-based competitive multiplayer is instead an exciting and instantly playable co-op action romp. Some may think doing away with the usual online modes is a bad move but in fact it’s quite the opposite. By focussing solely on co-op, Syndicate has dodged the almost certain fatal bullet of going up against Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 for the attentions of the tea-bagging brigade. It stands out as a bold statement against leaderboards and K/D ratios and reminds us that first-person shooters don’t always have to be about maps and killstreaks.

Best of all, it does it brilliantly. The smooth and engaging combat is instantly familiar yet refreshingly original, the hacking mechanic opening up a wealth of new tactical options. The focus on loadouts rather than set classes allows you to customise your own play-style while maintaining a role in the team; something that’s very difficult to achieve. The game looks lush and futuristic, equal parts Deus Ex, Mass Effect and Blade Runner.

I for one am very excited about Syndicate. Whatever the old fans say, it’s showing itself to be a unique, tight and enthralling shooter that stands out from the crowd in todays sea of CoD-shaped cookies. What the single-player campaign will entail remains to be seen and for me it all hinges on that. If the solo experience can match, or surpass, the breathless co-op, then people might just start reaching for the credit card come February 24th. Give it a download and see for yourself; you won’t be disappointed.