Syndicate review: The price of progress

Syndicate is a smart, slick series of puzzles ... where the pieces are trying to kill you.

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win
Publisher Electronic Arts
Developer Starbreeze Studios
Release Date Feb 21, 2012

The Syndicate reboot had two strikes against it before most players even knew it existed.

It carries all the emotional duress inherent in a modern "re-imagining" of a classic title, to say nothing of a cult-hit PC classic like its namesake. It's also a cyber-punk opus in a post Deus Ex: Human Revolution world, a game that successfully reprocessed and repackaged the trappings of its subject matter into something fresh. How could Starbreeze, a developer known best for interesting but flawed titles like Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness, hope to overcome all that baggage?

Fortunately, Starbreeze seems to have deftly avoided any troublesome leftover luggage. Syndicate does justice to the original game's legacy, if not its basic gameplay mechanics, resulting in something much more interesting than expected.

Comparisons to last year's Deus Ex are inevitable, given the mutual influences, but Syndicate paints a decidedly different picture of a dystopian future. The revolution is over in Syndicate's 2069 – we lost. Powerful corporations have ascended to power over governments, engaging in low-grade war and espionage against each other, each treating the populace as a resource to be mined and exploited.

It's well worn subject matter from Cyberpunk 101. Bright lights with J.J. Abrams style lens flares, tight rubber and leather clothing, hyper-fashionable future style, it's all here. It's almost comforting, and should feel familiar to old-school Syndicate fans, if in spirit more than semblance. There's a Gibsonian acceptance of the way of things, rather than a lot of wide-eyed amazement at the future and elaboration of how things got that way. Fans of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash will notice a similar hint of the ridiculous at just how omnipresent the corporations are. It's a testament to how well Starbreeze has constructed Syndicate's world that the black humor doesn't turn to farce. Syndicate allows for a few chuckles, but it knows when to draw back to avoid an eye-roll.

Instead, Syndicate walks the line with grace, and quite a bit of style. Shy a few bizarre technical stutters here and there, Syndicate is stunning, and more importantly, it finds a visual identity and language and spends the game building and elaborating on it. It starts in hues of filtered blue but expands from there, giving each new area a particular sense of place. As seen through the eyes of Agent and player character Miles Kilo, it's a world filled with objectives and information – the people living in it exist on the periphery, just another target to breach (Syndicate's name for hacking).

Syndicate establishes a sense of history through allusion, rather than exposition

Syndicate's story starts with the status quo as you're tasked with industrial espionage against rival corporations that's anything but covert. But an early betrayal leads down a more complicated rabbit hole. Syndicate manages to avoid the tired "good man among evil men" cliches. Miles Kilo isn't a good person – he's barely human at all. But as the story unfolds, things are revealed as more complicated than they initially appeared, and no one gets to stay clean. Antiheroes are a cheap trope, but Syndicate handles that moral grey area well, possibly due to sci-fi author Richard Morgan's involvement with the script.

There's a clear effort at littering the world with enough information to build Syndicate's fiction in an organic way. It establishes a sense of history through allusion, rather than exposition. There are emails and databases with corporate secrets to hack with more hints to sketch the history of the future world Kilo operates in, and little details help here as well. But there's not much time to consider elements like the masked propaganda posters straight out of They Live, as Syndicate keeps you interacting with the world constantly. Sometimes, it's with the environment, though most often, it's by killing things.

Killing is almost always your goal in Syndicate. There are some bits of rudimentary puzzle solving involving the breach mechanic and environmental manipulation, but these seem present as a palate cleanser rather than anything meaningful. It's good then that combat in Syndicate demonstrates complexity and opportunity for experimentation.

The guns are powerful, but civilians aren't immune to their effect – assuming you care, that is.

The shooting is good enough to prop up Syndicate, with a multitude of useful, distinctive weapons. Almost all of them serve a particular purpose, and each supports a different style of play. But the Dart-6 overlay mode (a combination of bullet-time, x-ray vision, and more) and the three breaching abilities are what make Syndicate something more than just another first person shooter.

Backfire allows for aggressive play, knocking multiple enemies back for the player to close the gap for up close executions, while Suicide and Persuade each alters the tactical landscape in their own way. Later on, as new enemies appear that have better firewalls and immunity to your more lethal breach tactics, it becomes a game of finding the weak link in the enemy force and exploiting it. It's empowering turning an enemy against your enemies, knocking several others back, and wading in with the Dart-6 overlay active, mangling goons in slow motion. Each new encounter is a puzzle with well-armed pieces. Pieces that are shooting at you and screaming as you're killing their friends.

More importantly, Kilo's abilities and mayhem potential feel right. They fit the fiction Starbreeze has assumed from the original game. The Swedish developer has always had a knack for creating kinetic first-person experiences, and Syndicate continues that tradition. There's a weight and augmented athleticism to Kilo reminiscent of Mirror's Edge, and that's a very good thing.

All of that physicality helps to quietly establish what you can do as a player, though Starbreeze has more trouble explaining what you should be doing. Syndicate tries to communicate what it expects of the player in many ways, but it often feels most fluent in death. There are multiple points in the campaign where you'll probably be sent back to the last checkpoint more than once to find a workable strategy. The checkpoints tend to be fair, and failure never derails forward momentum for long. But Kilo's disconcerting fragility is enough to elicit some colorful language at deaths that seem overly cheap.

Each new encounter is a puzzle with well-armed pieces

Starbreeze have the good sense not to let Syndicate's single-player campaign wear out its welcome, and it just barely tiptoes into staying in one setting and a particular gameplay loop for too long towards the end of its six to seven hour length. Syndicate's campaign does a few things, and it does them well, but its focus is narrow.

Co-op does well to flesh out Syndicate from a fiction and breadth standpoint. Each cooperative mission is another Agent scenario involving day to day syndicate business – stealing tissue samples, hacking databases, and the like. Starbreeze has done well to take the unlock system and start everyone on support breach abilities. Working together in co-op is absolutely necessary for survival. Lone wolves won't just get themselves killed, they'll jeopardize their entire team, a team which should always be full, by the way. Syndicate's co-op missions don't scale based on player numbers, and the AI found in each mission isn't screwing around. Enemies are coordinated and weaponry designed to incapacitate unwary agents is ubiquitous. It's high-maintenance, but fun, assuming you can assemble a team who plays like one. But if you can't find the right partners (and perhaps start your own in-game syndicate), there's not much but frustration waiting for you.

For the love of your respective deity, find a reliable team for co-op, or be prepared to die.

Wrap Up:

Starbreeze has made a smart, slick, tactically engaging shooter

There are sure to be players who wont give Syndicate a chance based on the baggage it carries as a reboot to a cult hit. But Starbreeze has taken the fiction of the original and made a smart, slick, tactically engaging shooter, aided by a strong sense of presentation, great music, and good voice acting. It's not a radical evolution of the futuristic shooter, but Syndicate is an uncommonly well-assembled torch-bearer for the cyberpunk legacy that spawned it, and there are worse futures to look forward to.

Syndicate was reviewed using code provided by EA. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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