Potential can be a horrible thing. Never underestimate the corrosive nature of the phrase “It could have….”.
It turns games that would otherwise be perfectly acceptable into something unpalatable. You look at something and you no longer see whats there but what could have been. And Syndicate is a victim of its own potential.
Syndicate could have been so many things. As a follow up to an isometric game, a straight-up shooter wasn’t the most likely of scenarios when you thought of a “sequel”. But then again considering the current state of the gaming industry that shouldn’t really be a surprise. What is surprising though is that it works. Quite well actually. Think BioShock except the combat is genuinely fun.
You play as Kilo, an agent working for a shady Syndicate (is there any other kind?) with a chip (called DART) implanted in his brain that gives him special abilities. The primary ability called DART overlay puts you in a mode where time slows down, all the enemies get highlighted and you can see them through walls. The other abilities consist of forcing enemy agents to commit suicide, turn on each other and stunning them and leaving them open to attack for a few seconds.
It might not sound like a lot but throw in some decent enemy AI and each encounter becomes unique and can end up playing out differently. It also allows you to mix and match your tactics to suit the situation on the fly. You can also upgrade some of your abilities to suit your style of play but make no mistake this is not an RPG. Or even an FPS with RPG elements. Its a straight up linear shooter with some “perks”.
Which, again, isn’t a bad thing. Like I said, the combat is very enjoyable. All the weapons feel great. The DART abilities add a new dimension to the gunfights. But there is always this nagging feeling that there is a missed opportunity here to be more than just a shooter. Take the setting for example, the game has that futuristic cyberpunk style that looks incredibly cool in screenshots but it just ends up being a background for the shooter bits to play out instead of actually being a part of the game itself. It never really adds anything to the game.
Then there is the story. Like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it could have been an intriguing look at a futuristic society where technology divides the human race but despite the intriguing opening set up it never really goes anywhere. There are betrayals and twists thrown in but without any characterisation or motives to relate to they just feel like random acts by people you barely know. On the other hand the voice acting is excellent. But then again, Brian Cox could read out a shopping list and I would still be enraptured by his voice.
And while the single-player is still very enjoyable its pretty. It took me about 6 hours to finish the campaign. To the game’s credit there isn’t a lot of filler in those six hours and the dynamic nature of the combat would add some replay value but I imagine most people wouldn’t really feel the need to dive into it more than once. There are the usual assortment of collectibles you can find but they don’t really add anything to the game (although admittedly the propaganda posters are a neat idea). Thankfully co-op comes to the rescue and adds a lot of value to the package.
I was fully expecting something tacked on and lacking any real depth but the co-op might well end up being the real attraction. There are different missions to play and there are multiple objectives to accomplish in each one of them. Working together is critical and you need teamwork to take down some boss characters. You also get abilities that affect your whole squad so teamwork is encouraged. Completing missions and objectives also lets you upgrade your weapons and abilities.
The upgrade options here are more varied than the small number present in the single-player campaign. You can upgrade weapons to increased damage, reduce recoil etc. You can also upgrade your abilities to make them more effective. Each game you finish gives you more experience to invest into those upgrades so there incentive to keep playing to get better.
It might lack the infinite replay value of something like Left 4 Dead but replaying missions is still fun. The one complaint I have though is that there are no bots to fill in the place of absent human players. And the game can be pretty tough on anything less than a full squad of 4 players. Unlike the demo there are no real lag issues and the online part plays out very smoothly. You can even create your own syndicate and invite people into it.
In spite of the excellent co-op, the game still feels like a missed opportunity to be something more relevant than the shooter it ends up being. However, if you are willing to discard the idea of what it could have been, what it ends up as is still worth looking into.