When I first heard the Syndicate announcement I was filled with nostalgia harking back to the 90s. Those were the good old days of PC gaming. Before Windows became the centre of the universe, where running MS-DOS was the norm, and you needed to edit config.sys and autoexec.bat files just to make things work properly. When Peter Molyneux was still Bullfrog, before EA took over and he ran off to Microsoft. That being said, let’s find out what the new Syndicate game is all about.
The original 1994 Syndicate was a cyberpunk sci-fi marvel, employing a mixture of action and strategy game mechanics in a fixed isometric view system, like many games of the era. It was a time before manual camera movement became a reality, and 3D graphics were nothing but a pipe dream. It’s difficult to compare the old Syndicate to any modern game, as these simply don’t exist any more. It’s a whole lot of X-COM with some Lost Vikings thrown into the mix, but don’t quote me on that as my memory is failing and this was some 20 years ago. And also, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you probably missed out on the best era of PC gaming.
Sadly it would seem this new title has absolutely nothing in common with the original game, except of course for tarnishing my memories of what was one of the best games of its time. Somewhat understandably, the game changed style and became an FPS, yet I don’t see why it couldn’t have worked by sticking to its roots and remaining a top-down strategy game of sorts.
The problem isn’t that it became an FPS, but rather that it became a very uninspiring and generic FPS. Storytelling is non-existent for instance. Sure there’s a very badly encoded, poor quality intro video which is all of two minutes long and tells you absolutely nothing about the game world you are venturing into…and that’s it. You don’t ever see another cinematic until about 18 hours into the 23-hour long campaign. To make matters worse, you never actually see your own character until the very end of the game, meaning that you have absolutely no idea who or what you are playing with and can only make assumptions, leaving you with zero emotional attachment and completely disconnected from the experience.
So you can only assume, by proxy of the other characters you meet, that you are a cyborg, robot, augmented human, or possibly a crocodile with guns for teeth. At the end of each mission you are met by a deep, dark, black screen containing a single-sentence philosophical statement that has absolutely nothing to do with the sequence you just completed.
Before the diehards who have played the game start foaming at the mouth and sending hate mail, YES I am aware that there are a million codex documents to read in the game that flesh the story out. The problem is that if I wanted to read a book with shockingly small text in a horrendous font on my TV, I would much rather have done so than play Syndicate. Games are moving more and more towards interactive cinema, using both audio and visual presentation to promote emotional investment, something which fails utterly here.
Is it really that bad? Well, if you can get over the fact that the campaign is a lifeless, uninspiring disappointment, and put the nostalgia aside, forgetting your childhood memories for a moment, then no: it’s not all bad. The game plays really well, and throughout the entire experience, I can’t say that I wasn’t having fun, but there are bigger and better games out there that offer the same—or far superior—experiences. Enemies become simple modifications of each other after the first couple of hours, and the boss fights aren’t very imaginative; nothing more than bigger, stronger, or just simply more of the normal enemies, really.
The game also leads you by the hand with very linear environments, filled with endless amounts of fake doors pushing you in the one single direction that is available to you. Quick-time events are endless and silly, being nothing more than a waste of your time and breaking the flow of the game. It’s also always in tutorial mode, even twenty hours into the game, telling you how to do the most basic of tasks as if you were retarded [Ed: Let's face it, some of the gamers today actually...nah. Too easy].
Being a superhuman cyborg ninja crocodile in this cyberpunk world where everyone is implanted with chips that are connected to a central network, you have the unique ability to hack into people and devices. So, much like Bioshock, you can have security drones and turrets fight for you. Better yet, you can also force humanoid enemies to perform a variety of different tricks based on three abilities that you unlock during the game. Sadly, this hacking is also a simple QTE that relies on nothing more than pressing and holding a button, adding a minor bonus for getting the timing right.
Not that I have played Deus Ex: Invisible War, but anyone who was expecting these two titles to be much of the same can scrap that thought. Syndicate is very much an arcade title compared to Deus Ex which takes a deep, slow, and stealthy approach the same type of universe.
Another oddity that bothered me throughout was the ridiculous dirty video overlay, or as I like to call it: “The Jeremy Clarkson Vaseline Soft Focus Effect“. Unless I missed it, you aren’t actually wearing a helmet, nor are you viewing the world through a camera in this title, yet that’s exactly what it feels like. The amount of dirt on the edges of the screen combined with the over-the-top light blooms and lens flares not only appear ridiculous and steals your immersion experience, but also makes the game world seem completely colourless. I can only think that it’s a cheap trick to make the graphics appear better than they actually are, while in fact they appear perfectly adequate.
Then there’s the matter of the business jargon thrown in everywhere, because this is, after all, about the evil corporations that usurped all governments and now rule the world. You are ranked after each mission with a title such as CEO or some such worthless nonsense, making you feel more like a soulless advertising executive than the murdering freak you actually are. Throughout the game, they paint this picture of you being an “agent”, doing business deals and hostile takeovers as if you were an executive of the corporation, yet you shoot the very first person you meet in the game and are encouraged to kill anything and everything that moves after that. It just doesn’t make any sense.
The only thing that makes you feel like a business executive is the fact that you start each and every mission without a gun—yet another nonsensical design choice. So basically you stealth melee-kill the first enemy on every level to take their gun, and then you shoot the rest after that. The game just ignores the fact that you are a murder machine, and paints this lovely picture of playing Sim City while in the menus.
I was initially very impressed with the soundtrack, but over the duration of the game, this became less and less the case. Somewhere between killing someone and killing someone else—I can’t recall who because none of it really mattered anyway—the music became quite repetitive and irritating. [Ed: Much like the gameplay, then?] Raptr says my total game time was 23 hours. It didn’t feel like that long, but I do feel that is a little bit too long, considering that there’s nothing at all memorable about the title, other than the badly painted tinges of nostalgia around the edges.
A redeeming factor should be the addition of a co-op mode, which I haven’t played in the full retail version but did spend some time with in the demo. Sadly it doesn’t allow you to play the entire campaign with friends; instead, it uses special maps and different character classes. If anything, the strategy and teamwork required to play the co-op missions is more reminiscent of the original game than the single player, which makes me wonder if that wasn’t a quick draw by EA to use it as the demo for the game, misrepresenting the single player campaign entirely. If you are a fan of co-op with friends, this might be the one reason for you to still pick up the game and spend some quality time with it.
Overall I’m so disappointed with the poor effort made to produce this title that I can barely recommend it as a bargain-bin purchase unless you have a couple of friends to share the co-op experience with. Starbreeze Studios were capitalizing on the nostalgia of old gamers, and it’s abundantly clear that no one in lead design actually bothered to play the original games. Bullfrog’s brilliant game being reduced to a mere, sub-par FPS probably says something about the way the world works, but I’ll let you draw the analogies for yourselves.
Final score: 5 generic prawns out of 10
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Distributor: EA South Africa
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
RRP: R599 (PS3, 360), R399 (PC)
Release date: 24 February 2012
Age rating: 18+