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In a market dominated by first-person shooting giants like Halo, Medal of Honor, and Call of Duty, it's hard for a new boy to edge his way into recognition without some kind of gimmick. Many have tried, but none have topped the perennial heavyweights — do you remember “Bulletstorm?” No?
That leads us to Syndicate, a new FPS that is actually a reboot of a 1993 strategy/shooter hybrid. However, the 2012 remix ditches its predecessor's layout — developer Starbreeze Studios opted for a straightforward shooting game, putting it straight in the line of fire of the aforementioned legends.
In Syndicate, you assume the role of Miles Kilo. Kilo is an agent of Eurocorp, one of the many corporations vying for power in a Machiavellian future. He is only a pawn, and spends the game on linear missions to secure a chip or kill a scientist. It all ends on a cliffhanger after Kilo “remembers” his past. The first person, silent perspective that Kilo provides is a good immersion tactic, but the total lack of character kills any empathy that a player could develop. If Syndicate was released before the first Call of Duty: Black Ops, this wouldn't be such a problem. But Black Ops' Alex Mason set the industry standard for me in 2010.
Syndicate does have some strengths, however. Syndicate's controls are simple to learn, and its HUD layout doesn't blaze a new trail. But don't fix what isn't broken — Starbreeze was obviously aware that other games have provided a pretty standard control layout already, and introducing a radically new setup would alienate FPS veterans. It's all very familiar.
And that is the problem with Syndicate — it all feels very familiar because, well, it is. If you've played any of the blockbuster FPS titles, you won't see anything here that will shock you. The weapons are what you'd expect for the most part — pistol, sniper rifle, submachine gun — with some interesting twists thrown in, like the laser homing gun. Or, as I call it, Syndicate's version of the “noob tube.” Keep in mind, I play FPS games with no aids, because the fun in them for me is accuracy and efficiency.
All of the weapons are designed to complement Syndicate's real draw, the DART system. When you activate it, the DART system conjures a vision of the “digital world,” allowing Kilo to see enemy positions among other things. In effect, it slows down your enemies and allows you to tear them apart more easily and use your DART “powers” (Backfire, Persuade, and Suicide) more frequently and effectively.
The first few times you get an enemy to take himself out of your way are amusing and slightly satisfying, but it gets to be a chore. Your other powers do too, possibly because there are only three and you get them all early on in the game. More problematic than that, however, is the DART system itself. While it is Syndicate's biggest draw, it's also one of its big flaws — you're encouraged to use the system so often because you need to. Kilo is painted as a one-man wrecking crew and you never have any backup or radar, so you are forced to rely on the DART system for info — it's a crutch. I wanted to say that it felt like I was cheating when I first played, but I don't think it's possible to get through Syndicate on even normal difficulty without leaning on DART constantly.
I'd be OK with that if the DART overlay powers weren't so clumsy to juggle through. Plus, they're painfully slow to recharge if you're not constantly in the thick of it.
To be fair, that's a criticism that could go either way — I tend to err on the side of caution in shooters. You'd get served pretty quickly if you tried the stupid things Syndicate encourages in other games, but Syndicate's system is designed to get you to to run through everything. And I like that, it reminds me of Mirror's Edge, one of my favorite games of the past five years.
Until you get to the boss battles. I wonder if a different team designed the boss battles, maybe Tecmo's Team Ninja (famous for Ninja Gaiden, the most difficult series I've ever played)? The boss battles confine you to set arenas, with no appreciable cover or ammunition caches. Difficulty spikes are to be expected, and can wake a player up, but Syndicate's boss fights are neither cleverly nor fairly constructed — the first boss fight, in an LA train station, pits you against a rival corporation's agent. He can teleport, has unlimited ammo, and continuously insults you.
Did I mention he multiplies? He's already hard enough to hit (thanks accelerated speed, that's always a fun attribute to give a boss), but his multiples increase as you damage the main version. Worse yet, all of his doppelgängers do damage, and they follow no pattern or formation. So you could be backing toward a corner, taking cover from the 4 of the copies who've fanned out in front of you. Suddenly, you're assaulted from your left flank by a copy you never saw coming. Even in the DART overlay, the boss slows only to normal speed.
Game over. Repeat 10 times. Replace the controller you've inevitably broken in frustration.
This is what kills Syndicate for me — there isn't a clever way to play. You can only succeed by rushing through it, with aids. There's nothing to pause and think about, even for five seconds. The key to Syndicate is bravado, a shotgun, and constant use of DART. It's worth a rental, but I'd wait until it comes down to the $25 mark to purchase.