Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Syndicate

The Title Screen

GameViewSyndicate GameView

Introduction
Syndicate is a first person shooter developed by Starbreeze Studios, released in 2012 for Xbox, PlayStation and PC (Origin). A reboot of the series from the early 1990s, it is now a FPS rather than an isometric shooter. It features a single player campaign and separate cooperative missions. This review is on the single player.

Disclaimer: It is an adult game featuring strong psychological and physical violence. This review will not feature inappropriate content, but may make references to it.


The First Thing
From its menu and introduction cinematic, Syndicate presents a stylish first impression. The framework for the game is established from the start and leaves no confusion about the intended tone. Discovering fairly detailed options, including removing aim assist and mouse acceleration, was a nice sign that the PC market was taken seriously - putting to rest common fears PC gamers have about the console focused FPS genre.

Eurocorp, 2069

Plot & Devices
In the year 2069 corporate syndicates rule in place of governments. DART microchips are implanted in the minds of people to allow for unparalleled information accessibility; but also function as a means of control. Those who refuse the chip become left out by society and competition between the syndicates is war; with espionage conducted by technologically advanced Agents. Miles Kilo (you) is the latest Agent for Eurocorp, the first and largest syndicate. Created as the ultimate warrior, Kilo must discover who he is and what is worth fighting for.

The plot touches on all the standard themes found in a cyberpunk game: not too distant future, big corporations ruling society, a comfortable life for only a few, mixture of man and technology. Unfortunately, there is nothing complicated about Syndicate's story; character background is never really explored and no emotional attachment ever forms. The in-game journal features a surprisingly large amount of information on characters/weapons etc. but it is not intuitively tied to the gameplay.


The Game
The player has regenerating health and is limited to carrying two weapons. There are no 'cover mechanics' but taking cover is encouraged due to the high damage of the enemies. There are a total of 12 weapons and most come with a secondary (or special) fire. The mêlée attack functions as an execute, used to instantly kill non-armoured, or weakened enemies in close quarters with a quick animation.

A target suffering the 'Suicide' breach

Kilo can use his advanced DART microchip to 'breach' objects and people. Outside of combat, breaching is used to progress the level (i.e. open doors, move platforms, etc.) and towards the end of the game to solve a couple of puzzles. If used quickly it can also be used to deactivate live grenades. However, breaching enemies is a core part of combat, and Kilo has three abilities he can use:

  • Persuade : an enemy will be forced to attack their comrades for a limited time. If none are found, the persuaded target will shoot themselves. 
  • Suicide : the target will commit suicide by grenade (sometimes gun).
  • Backfire : make a target's weapon backfire, causing minor damage. The target will be knocked to the floor and will take increased damage for a few seconds. 

Human breaches require specific energy and this forces tactical decisions; the energy is slowly replenished by regular kills. An icon will appear above an object (or enemy) to indicate breach possibility and as long as the key is held, the player can carry out other actions whilst breaching. Occasionally weapons or DART chip functionality will be removed and the player will have to cope with the circumstances. Some enemies can not be breached.

The DART chip can also heighten Kilo's combat awareness with an visual overlay; allowing the player to slow events. The overlay also highlights enemies and shows them through walls in an 'x-ray' fashion. This vision has a unique, quickly depleting resource but regenerates automatically after a short while. The overlay can be improved with additional functionality from the upgrade system.

Upgrade system

Syndicate features a limited upgrade system and at fixed story intervals Kilo will be offered the chance to pick a new upgrade. There is no 'tree' system, but choosing adjacent upgrades will reward in additional minor benefits. It is not possible to obtain all talents in one playthrough. Upgrades are fairly generic and cover various aspects of the gameplay.

Wandering off the linear path is not possible and any level exploration is exceptionally brief. Occasionally the player will be required to repeatedly press the 'use' key to perform a scripted animation (opening a door or vent) but it is not a true quick-time event. It is not a long single player campaign, taking me just under 7 hours on normal difficulty.

The art style varies with location. The technologically advanced areas are pristine and white, and the non-corporation areas are dark and gloomy. By current standards, the graphics are not of high fidelity but there are certainly good looking levels. The graphics are consistent but the use of lighting effects is sometimes a little bizarre. In my opinion the interface is praiseworthy: clear and in keeping with the setting - but simple and elegant. Little touches such as background music slowing down when using the DART overlay add to an overall feeling of style and polish.

Combat perspective

The FOV is locked (even from .cfg files) and Syndicate has full keyboard and mouse support. I did have to manually set the over-sensitive mouse in the configuration files due to the menu not offering precise adjustments, but otherwise the controls performed fine. All keys are rebindable and testing is needed to find the right fit for the player - the default keyboard controls are a little unintuitive. Kilo can toggle sprint and crouch, and has a jump. He handles a little slower and clumsier than some other FPS games, but this never impedes gameplay.

I found the soundtrack suitable and of high quality. I felt the music complimented the gameplay well, rather than overpowering it. Of course music taste is subjective, but I thought the soundtrack fitted the game well thematically. The sound effects are solid giving the guns and actions weight. The screams of enemies forced to kill themselves, or the gentle cracking of bone during a DART chip removal may cause some to cringe. Professional actors are used for the character voices and are good, but there is limited interaction. 


Wrap Up & Negatives
The game is so linear that it becomes a negative - as it results in the 'proceeding without thinking' mentality. There are sequences where control of the character is removed for visual effect and although it does not happen much, it happens often enough to become irritating. The plot is shallow and the attempts to incite emotions fall flat, with not enough story engagement to distract from the linearity. 

The lighting effects in Syndicate are occasionally ridiculous. The bloom actually manages to get in the way of gameplay at times by obscuring objects and the interface. If it is a design choice, it is an incredibly poor one and I honestly wonder if it is really being used to disguise the graphics quality.

Blinded

Enemy AI does not react convincingly at times. Damage is very high but their actions are not intelligent and are occasionally easy to kill due to their odd decisions. This was cause for me to sometimes wonder if I my shots were accurate, since sometimes no reaction appeared to happen.

The boss fights feel completely separate from the game and may be considered a negative by some. They are quite unforgiving and mostly require specific tactics, with none of the choice the player normally has in combat. Some encounters in the game feel really well designed, and others feel a bit clunky.

The journal system is not worked well into the game. The information available is extensive but there is no encouragement to read it. It is good that it is not forced upon the player, but its bad incorporation results in an unread, detailed glossary.

This review has not mentioned the Rampage mechanic. In short, frequent kills is supposed to result in more breach energy, but this almost never happens. It is not a bad idea, it is just I never noticed it.

Future disclaimers

Personally
Did I enjoy it? Yes - but I had to get into it. What is disappointing is the pieces for a truly stellar game are all here...it just never comes together. It carries itself with so much style at times and certainly brings new flavour to the FPS genre. I felt there was a faint self-mocking sense of humour throughout the game which I enjoyed. Examples of the corporate theme include, mission statistics as 'audits' and 'performance evaluations', and hints as 'insider Trading'.

Interestingly, Syndicate starts to feel a bit different as it approaches the end. Puzzles start appearing and some great level ideas makes me feel that Starbreeze did not initially realise the full potential of their project. The game would have benefited from more of these moments from the start. This leads me to believe (hope...) that a fantastic sequel could be made if they take on board some of the criticisms.

In my opinion, the potential is definitely there.


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