Saturday, January 5, 2013

Syndicate Review

It's, like, the future of technology and stuff.

This. Is. Bloom lighting.
Coming off a handful of sandbox games, I decided I wanted to play something more straightforward to "cleanse" my system. Syndicate, developed by Starbreeze Studios, seemed like a reasonable choice since it was estimated at less than 10 hours to beat. It is definitely an interesting and fun game with some notable shortcomings, most notably its linearity. Ironic, I know.

The game takes place in the future (still this century) when global corporations have essentially taken over governments. What is left of bureaucratic society has become laden with manipulation that it's basically laughable. These syndicates maintain their control by offering the citizens in their purview computerized brain implants that keep them constantly connected to the internet and other communication methods. Because of this stranglehold, anyone who rejects having an implant is relegated to the "downzone," an area literally below the skycrapers where anarchy reigns, and people are cut off. Of course, no corporate-focused narrative is complete without corporate espionage, so the player controls, Kilo, an advanced agent working for Eurocorp, one of the biggest syndicates in the world. From there, the story takes you on a wild ride…to other syndicates.

Agents, of course, feature advanced brain implants, but theirs are designed to exert a level of control over other people and machines via a skill, called "breaching." The implant becomes an excuse for the HUD you see throughout the game but an effective one at that. While playing, you will see your internal computer display visual cues about the objects surrounding you, which is at its most useful when it indicates what you can breach. The fact that the designers felt the need to make the HUD extra futuristic by displaying little icons over literally every minor object is a bit distracting, though. When you start the game, and you're trying to filter what's important information from the chaff, it's a waste of time to pursue a coffee cup because there was a little icon over it.

The flow of the narrative in Syndicate shoves Kilo from firefight to firefight with relatively brief pauses in between to navigate corridors and platforms. As you progress, you gain three special breaching abilities to aid you along with the pretty decent arsenal you come across. Suicide turns any enemy into a human-sized bomb, who can take out other enemies. Persuade switches the allegiance of an enemy to your side, and when either all the enemies are gone or time runs out, he (yes, always a male) will shoot himself in the face. Finally, Backfire attacks the weapons themselves, making them explode a little and your enemies more vulnerable for a brief time. Your implant also features an overlay mode, which highlights the locations of sighted enemies even behind cover, slows down time for more effective killing, and simultaneously increases your damage output while lowering your own damage. Using the overlay mode depletes a small bar, which takes about 10 seconds to refresh, so it is meant to be used strategically to exploit weaknesses in the enemy ranks.

Battles also feature the occasional environmental object to breach, resulting in exploding gas tanks or re-targeted turrets, but these are so few and so obvious that there is almost no choice involved in using them – you're going to do so because the designers put them there to be used. The usual weapons are all there, from pistols to assault rifles to shotguns. However, it isn't long before the player can find more unique and futuristic guns, such as a rocket launcher that can paint three targets at a time or a two-handed heat laser rifle. These options actually do pop up often enough that finding one can be a delight as you mow down enemies for the next few rounds with relative ease. All of these features lead to some rather satisfying gunplay, and the breaching mechanics offer up the sadistically funny moments while you're dodging bullets.

I swear he was like that when I found him.
Despite how enjoyable Syndicate's battles can be, the whole game becomes rather routine. The three major breaching abilities are all it offers, and the only toss up is a handful of chapters where Suicide and Persuade are disabled (I won't ruin why). As you find and/or kill characters with special chips in their skulls, you are given the opportunity to upgrade Kilo, but the abilities offered are all passive buffs – useful, but none of them will make you feel really powerful or like anything significant has changed. The game is also basically one giant corridor, both literal and illusory, with open areas for shooting and being shot at. Some areas in the last few chapters become long and tedious gauntlets with little indication of when the last guy you murdered will indeed allow you to move on. These come off as lazy wrap-ups to the endgame. There are also no real setpiece moments to speak of, which is disappointing for an action game.

The only options off the beaten path are either large objects, behind which you can find business cards or scan subliminal advertising, the game's version of collectibles, or closet-sized rooms where you can do the same. Doors you can open are either slightly open already or feature blue lights, letting you know they'll open for you when you walk in front. There are also situations where Kilo will be able to charge through a broken wall or debris or break a grate on the floor to go below, but all of these are specific, and the game will tell you when you can do these things. The occasional environment puzzle is thrown in to challenge your ability to notice breaching cues, but none of these are challenging and only hamper the flow of the game. Considering the tactical strategy game pedigree this game came from, 1993's Syndicate, this game is stripped bare and vaguely resembles its namesake, which actually featured varied missions and goals with its gunplay, an R&D feature similar to last year's XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and territorial management.

At least the graphics are impressive. I found myself marveling at how flashy and beautiful some of the areas were. The designers really pushed the bloom lighting in Syndicate, which is a feature I often appreciate. My only critique would be that there are a few areas early on in the game where the bloom is literally blinding, something you'd imagine couldn't happen to a a guy with eyes controlled by a computer. Actual environment textures are typical of what game designers would have us believe are futuristic – simple, clean, practically uninhabited even in the downzone areas Kilo visits later on. To their credit, they don't get particularly muddy up close. I witnessed no notable graphical glitches, which should be expected of such a short, linear game.

Character models look pretty decent. Actually, [swoon].
Sound effects and music in the game are serviceable with the highlights being the infrequent use of the official remixes of the main theme. Otherwise, there was nothing too remarkable to be heard. In terms of technical execution, the game started freezing for brief moments, stuttering the last sound effect heard, but it would always come out of it and let me continue playing uninhibited. Quitting and restarting did not allay this annoying break, so I trudged through it because it did not affect progress at all, which is already effectively saved through very frequent checkpoints, and it did not happen too frequently.

I haven't touched on the story in a while, but it's not hard to guess that it's as linear as the rest of the game. This would not have bothered me, but the story ironically tries to focus on individuality and choice despite featuring only one futile binary choice during its 7-8 hour length. I'll avoid rhetoric, but I don't think you can have a narrative effectively examine the negatives of brainwashing and conforming when you lead the player from the beginning to the end with a single dangling carrot. To be frank, I felt like I was playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution sans the sidequests, tactical options (espionage is actually supposed to be silent), and other nuances that made it extremely successful as a player experience. I wanted to play a linear game, and I ended up playing one that had every reason not to be. So it goes.

All images taken by me through Steam running Origin running the game. This makes sense.