Recreating a classic game in a new genre runs an overwhelming risk of failure. Not only must the product satiate fans of the original experience, the new game also needs to stand on its own with successful design choices and innovation. Oftentimes the redo reflects the exact standards and formulas of its new genre rather than marching boldly into new territory. Syndicate falls into this trap, telling a boring tale of swapping allegiances amidst flurries of gunfire. Yet it escapes the "just another shooter" label by executing an entertaining co-op mode, fun, manipulative gameplay, and good scoring ideas -- it just doesn't take them far enough to be great.
Giant corporations rule the world in Syndicate. Each employs deadly agents to fight over turf and technology. In this horrifying future, every citizen has a chip implanted in their head which the manufacturer can access. Eurocorp, the company employing Syndicate's protagonists, created top tier technology in the form of DART 6, a chip so powerful it allows its owner to slow down time using augmented vision and break into other's chips. This shooter draws inspiration and a few details from its 1993 PC origins, but sets itself up as a completely new experience. There's no isometric strategy here, Syndicate is all shooter.
The single-player plot tells the tale of Miles Kilo, a newly prepped agent who rediscovers his mysterious origin, and struggles with questions of why he fights and who he's fighting for. It's a generic story that cycles like an exercise in familiarity. Regardless of the player's choices at various junctures, Syndicate follows a singular route that doesn't reflect the player's behavior. While the lack of control is thematically congruent, all gameplay indicators point to a more open-ended conclusion which is frustrating. The co-op campaign takes a different route, opting for a "day in the life" approach rather than a story, which makes the missions more fun to fight through as they don't force plot into action.
Bluish hues dominate the journey through Syndicate's futuristic setting. While developer Starbreeze Studios paints blinding lights around almost every corner, the world maintains a clean and simple design, while also mixing styles with New York slums, Atlantic sea bases, and the alleyways of China. The settings, characters, and tech elements look really polished -- even if a train station in Los Angeles looks exactly like one in China. The DART overlay (the chip's analytical slow-motion view) paints a great sci-fi picture, and the onscreen reflection of damage marks a great pairing of visuals and context. When the screen scrambles like a loose HDMI cable, the full gravity of having a chip implant comes to life.
Manipulating the world using the DART chip is what sets Syndicate apart from other shooters. Under this shooter's skin, there's a puzzle game hiding amidst the gunfire -- one of Syndicate's best features. Using a hacking mechanic called breaching, players can enact horrors upon enemies' chips, making them kill themselves, shoot their comrades, or drop to the ground, stunned. By juggling these skills to destroy groups of enemies, there's a strategic sub-layer of action that goes beyond pulling the trigger.
Unfortunately, the trio of breach skills all perform in a similar manner, making them less useful than intended during the single-player campaign. Also, a bodycount-heavy portion of the campaign removes two of the powers entirely (due to malfunction), leaving the stun mechanic as the only available tool. Co-op shakes up the skills with additional features, favoring team-boosting powers like faster breaching and short-term damage boosters, but won't allow the powerful suicide and persuade skills into the mix. This creates a more complex balance that leans heavily on working together as a team.
High scores bolster this sense of a puzzle game, as each level posts comparative statistics looking at each mission attempt. Depending on the height of success, Syndicate assigns a corporate-speak ranking on your performance like Middle Management and CEO. It's too bad these arcade-style scores don't post to online leaderboards (in single-player, anyway); they're left as a striking reminder to oneself rather than the world, like a note taped to the bathroom mirror suggesting you pull off more headshots and pick up milk on the way home.
When deciding which enemy to blow up, and which to persuade to fight for you, a shootout reflects a rudimentary chess match where forethought leads to success. These moments highlight Syndicate's innovation, but they don't define the entire experience. Regardless of the ability to breach, every encounter ends in gunfire. To Syndicate's credit, the gunplay is fun and the weapons diverse enough to keep fights interesting, but the subtle influence of high scores and creative breaching mark the more memorable aspects of gameplay.
When the strategic approach breaks down and the guns come out, cover is as effective as a chain-link fence. No matter what stands between the agents and an enemy, bullets seem to find their mark -- that's without counting the lock-on bullets that curve around corners from one particular gun. A simplistic cover system lets you peer over barricades to fire on enemies, but because there's no stick mechanic, moving your reticule to the left or right forces the agent to move in that direction, leaving them vulnerable to attack because they're standing out in the open. It's difficult to thoughtfully breach through a large firefight when you're constantly taking on bullets because your agent drifted into a clearing.
The creative breach element also dies in the form of single-player boss fights. Where a standard skirmish relies on multiple means of success, boss fights stick to a single course of action that requires precise timing, patience, and a lot of luck. Standard breach skills don't work during boss fights, so DART's slow-motion capability is the only helpful power in the player's hand. But even at half-speed, boss fights quickly devolve into running around in circles, avoiding gunfire, and waiting for the right moment to start blasting away at the baddie. Frustrating bosses compounded by yawn-worthy jammed doors, sealed grates, and bad story make playing Syndicate alone forgettable.
But that's where co-op resuscitates the experience. By removing set pieces and forced plot, Syndicate dilutes into pure action -- and that's where it thrives. The scoring system, unlock tree with more options than the single-player campaign, and replayability elect co-op as the better half of Syndicate's package. Across nine missions, split between normal, hard, and the unlockable expert difficulty, Syndicate feels similar to Left 4 Dead, a classic in the co-op game space. Not only do safe rooms full of ammo stagger the action, but without working together there's no way to tackle the futuristic forces of evil. The challenge of these missions supersedes the unbalanced single-player campaign, making replays worthwhile and satisfying.