Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Syndicate Review (Xbox 360 / Single-player)

The inner sleeve art for the 'Executive Edition' of Syndicate

A little way into Starbreeze’s Syndicate, I happened upon Tycho’s dark words regarding its single-player campaign:

An earlier iteration of myself might have called the single player campaign “retarded.”

In 2012, an era of diplomacy and grace, I might call it concussed.  This is more robust, anyway: it describes a state of such profound head trauma that confusion and even unconsciousness are the result.

He goes on to reference last year’s Deus Ex Human Revolution and I mistakenly thought that his issue was that the game did not do enough to dig deep into the transhumanist, cyberpunk themes evoked by giant corporations and cybernetic chips that allow you to hack other people’s brains on the fly. At that point in the game, I hadn’t yet been exposed to the train wreck that is the end of the Syndicate campaign. I was just experiencing a fairly generic, pretty uninvolved story that mostly seemed to serve as a catalyst for shooting lots of dudes. I was not prepared.

Before that, though, I want to say that shooting dudes is fun. Starbreeze put out both The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (and its enhanced port/pseudo-sequel, Assault on Dark Athena) and the original The Darkness. Both games featured well-developed storylines,  excellent gunplay, a real sense of weight and movement to your first-person characters, and remarkably chatty protagonists with great voice acting. Syndicate at least meets the studio’s pedigree when it comes to gunplay.

A Kusanagi rifle, demonstrating the versatile dual sights. Switch between the two using the d-pad.
Pretty much every weapon feels weighty and useful, right down to the humble pistol (which has a fire-selector that switches it to burst mode). Many, if not all, of the weapons have a remarkable if slightly unbelievable habit of dismembering the bodies of the corporate goons thrown in your way, and apparently, the corporations of the future have a lot of goons. There’s a secondary or alternate fire on pretty much all of the weapons – I think the exceptions are the two revolvers, a beefy flamethrower, and the swarm-based rocket launcher – and some of them are a real treat. There’s a Modern Warfare 3-like secondary scope mounted at 45 degrees to the main scope on both the sniper rifle and its fully automatic cousin, giving both of them far more versatility than in most games. Another gun packs an underbarrel grenade launcher, the submachinegun can toggle a silencer on and off (though I wasn’t convinced that actually had any useful effect), and so on.
Rifle good, minigun better. Every time this beauty is in your hands it has unlimited ammo. Fair? No. Fun? Yes.
Then there’s the hacking, which through the power of the mighty left shoulder button allows you to persuade enemies to fight on your side, cause them to commit grenade-based suicide, triggers a misfire in their weapons that leaves them momentarily vulnerable, breaks down their advanced armour so they’re not invulnerable, breaches locked doors, steals data, drops the shields on drones, detonates EMP mines... literally every hack, deployed by the chip in your head, is activated by the same button press (though when it comes to the first three ‘special attack’ hacks you have to select which to use with the d-pad). Because it’s so simple, it means you can fire them off pretty much constantly, without worrying too much about using the right ability at the right time or messing about with menus – though having said that, utilising the special attacks tactically can be powerful. Most of the time, though, you can be blazing away with the minigun while using your hacking skills – called breaching in-game – to raise up cover, open doors in your way, drops the shields on your current opponents, and otherwise augment your attacks extremely naturally. Hacking also takes a central role in boss fights, with most bosses having some special ability that needs to be hacked on the fly in order to defeat them. In one fight you’re even unarmed, left to defend yourself with only your hacking skills and good timing.

Those two complementary gameplay mechanics – the gunplay and the hacking – are mostly excellent. There’s also a fairly arbitrary, but useful, bullet time analogue that allows you to see enemies through walls or behind cover, regenerate health, and do more damage. It’s actually kind of a shame that you’re so much more powerful when in this mode because the game is far more graphically impressive under normal circumstances. The architecture and ‘set dressing’ is particularly effective. Going back to that earlier reference to Human Revolution, Syndicate shares the former’s interest in augmented reality. Basically everything in the game, everything in the world, is tagged in some way by your chip. Not only does a weapon’s ammunition counter hover ethereally next to the weapon in your field of view, but enemies and civilians alike are tagged with little vital signs monitors, objects and doorways are marked, even pizza boxes and little pieces of scenery are recognised by the chip and highlighted with a little grey indicator and description. It’s mostly a fairly subtle effect – outside of things that affect gameplay, like the ammo counter – but it’s so ubiquitous and so probable that I found it more impressive than DX:HR’s orange outlines and floating waypoints.
The chip-enhanced overlay. The darker shading indicates a portion of the enemy obscured by cover.
Take all that – the gunplay, the hacking, the graphics – and you have a lot of potential. The co-operative demo, as I mentioned in my earlier round-up, seemed like it could go far. I haven’t had chance to play co-op in the full game yet, however, so what follows will focus solely on the single-player portion.

And boy, did they screw it up.

If not for the core gameplay itself, I wouldn’t believe it was a Starbreeze game. It doesn’t so much seem bad as perplexing. You play Miles Kilo (my girlfriend: “Ugh! Why does his name mix imperial and metric?”), agent of Eurocorp. He’s an utterly silent protagonist, which is a marked and unwelcome departure from Starbreeze’s previous games. As a corporate drone, your first few missions basically revolve around following Brian Cox’s orders and violently dealing with competitors, then flowing from that, into keeping a potential leak under surveillance. When that scientist is kidnapped by yet another rival corporation, the game really begins to get going, and the story really begins to unravel.

Normally when I review something I hesitate to spoil it. There are exceptions. I didn’t have many qualms about spoiling Deadspace: Martyr, for example, because I thought that only by warning someone how bad it was would they be sufficiently dissuaded from reading it. I don’t think Syndicate is that bad – at no point are you armed with a spoon and left to fight for your life, while villains cackle villainously and clink champagne -  but it is... bad. And confusing. Especially confusing. After spending more or less three quarters of the game as an amoral, personality-free drone, merrily fragging rival Syndicate employees (unarmed civilians and armed security alike) you’re suddenly thrown into a moral dilemma and assaulted with unexplained flashbacks about kidnapping children. Ironically, one of the in-game CEOs states “You can’t retrofit a morality”, which is precisely what the game attempts to do. You can’t spend so long with no commentary on your actions, and absolutely no character progression or ‘role-playing’, and then suddenly introduce that kind of personal narrative. What’s worse is that there’s a truly inexplicable moment where the story suddenly leaps from A to B and you’re then working towards a completely different goal. Given the nature of the story and setting, it’s a switcharoo that it would be almost criminal to call a “twist”, but it still manages to come out of nowhere and feel poorly implemented. From that moment on, right up until the final, trying-so-hard-to-be-profound closing line of dialogue, it’s a complete narrative mess.
L to R: Rosario Dawson as scientist Lily Drawl, Michael Wincott as Agent Merit, and Brian Cox as Eurocorp CEO Jack Denham
Tycho speculates that perhaps the single-player was tacked on after the fact, and the real game lies in the four-player co-op with its MMO trappings and myriad progression trees. Maybe so. It’s particularly surreal that this comes out so close to The Darkness II, a sequel Starbreeze were unavailable for due to working on Syndicate. That game carried on the first's single-player legacy with aplomb, and even threw in a four-player co-op mode with skill trees. The real irony here is that Digital Extremes, the people behind The Darkness II, had a terrible track record before it. Actually, their earlier Dark Sector was a game I kept getting mixed up with the original Darkness before it was released, and my lack of interest in it almost prevented me from playing The Darkness. To see Starbreeze struck low and Digital Extremes more or less hit it out of the park is a strange continuation of that saga indeed.

Campaign finished, I was dumbstruck with frustration. The final boss fight had left a sour taste in my mouth – a particularly irritating, unintuitive mechanic complicated what should have been an interesting fight – and that was followed by the nonsensical finale. Were it not for the potential offered by the co-op side of things, I think Syndicate would have been the first game in a long time that I traded in rather than keeping it in my collection – and I basically only sell on a game when I really, really dislike it. Scrolling back through my Live achievements, I can see the last game to fit that bill was the disastrous sequel to Mercenaries, way back in 2008 (though I can also see that I played Crysis 2 and didn’t sell or otherwise get rid of it, which I’m going to have to call an unfortunate oversight).

In co-op, as in the campaign, ripping chips out of enemies allows you to advance your character
There is one last stone left to overturn, of course; that elephant in the room that comes up whenever this 2012 edition of Syndicate is mentioned: the original. I mentioned in my demo review that I had a hard time seeing the fuss, though I don't think what has resulted here is going to sway anyone into thinking this remake, reboot, or re-imagining was a good idea. I'm really not sure how much cachet the original has with gamers now, and no matter how much it's said that the four-player co-op mode evokes the old isometric tactical game, it's hard to feel that this version is much more than an homage or a Syndicate skin wrapped around a Starbreeze shooter. I guess it's one of those particularly odd marketing choices where it seems like gamers old enough to remember the original are unlikely to be impressed by a pure shooter, and gamers young enough (I feel old) to have missed out on the original are unlikely to be impressed by references to a game developed before they were born. I find myself fortunate in that I had no attachment to the original, no legacy of memories for this game to destroy. I suppose it will be interesting to see how successfully this performs. Maybe, just maybe, a second chance - whether its Starbreeze at the helm, or some other studio - will inject the single-player with some more life and coherency, and actually make something of this resurrected franchise.

In closing, when I get around to the co-op mode, I’ll try and review that, too. In the meantime, Syndicate is going to leave me looking back on Starbreeze’s earlier work fondly and regretfully.

Developer: Starbreeze Studios / Publisher: EA
Played on Xbox 360. Solo campaign completed on normal difficulty. Achievement status: stingy.