Game Review: Syndicate [Hard Drive Archive]

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Author’s note: I wrote this not-so-nice review back in early 2013 as a facebook note. The fact that I mention both Gamefly AND Block Buster in this same article probably dates this piece a considerable amount. Also, as a bit of an ironic twist, I ended up actually buying this game three years later for less than five bucks at a second hand shop, and I’ll still occasionally play it when I can’t bother to fish out my copy of Perfect Dark 64.

The Syndicate series is a bit obscure in the video game world, even by cyberpunk standards. Though most people, myself included, were barely out of their diapers when the first game came out in 1993, I did in fact manage to play their sequel Syndicate Wars on the PC. By the way, good luck finding a copy of either, unless you want to pay Ebay over one-hundred dollars and use DOS-box to run the damn things. And much like its two predecessors, the new game can be just as hard to find as a rental if you don’t have a GameFly account. I almost had to beg the only Block Buster store within fifty miles to reserve a copy for me. This massive inconvenience alone, no thanks to the (but largely enviable) burgeoning online mail-in rental industry could be a topic I could post an entirely separate thread about, but I digress.

Syndicate, the reboot to the 1990s cult favorite, tells the story of a corporate-dystopian future where — no surprise — corporations have become the new nation states. The game is a First-Person-Shooter, shown to you through the perspective of Miles Kilo (the surname, no doubt a clever reference to the Executive Producer’s favorite pastime). Kilo works for Eurocorp, one of the major conglomerates that control the world in this dark anarcho-capitalist future. Your protagonist at the start of the game has been implanted with a Dart 6 brain chip — the latest in corporate wet-ware — which allows the player to see the world in a digitally augmented reality state. This device also allows you to remotely hack terminals, as well as humans who you can then either control them in order to turn them against their allies or force them to commit suicide.

You’re then teamed up with the very sociopathic, Merit, whose pastimes include: shooting innocent civilians, blowing up buildings, and talking about how awesome the female scientists’ racks are. Another supporting character is the inventor of the Dart 6 chip, Lily Drawl, who is supposed to be Kilo’s moral compass throughout the story even though she has no qualms watching you put holes in the bodies of other people at close range.

The acting, as well as the story, seems phoned-in. Kilo, I’m sure for budget purposes, remains the silent protagonist who has to be strung along by the other characters otherwise he’d probably just sit there. Merit’s voice actor sounds crawling on lips drunk, which interestingly enough makes his stupid antics in the game almost plausible. Lily Drawl’s voice actress seems to be the most competent, but doesn’t give a whole lot of range for you to feel invested in her emotionally. Even the writer for this game, Richard Morgan, cyberpunk author of Altered Carbon and Market Forces, doesn’t seem to be trying.

The story itself is pretty basic: a lone man, who has worked for corporations his whole life, has a crisis of conscience after a job goes bad and is now being hunted by the very people who’ve worked with him his entire career. True to EA form, the game also has a conclusion that is open-ended enough to warrant a sequel, which is required by law nowadays in the video game biz, apparently. It’s a story-mode so paint-by-numbers predictable, it could’ve just been a list that Morgan had to check off as he wrote the script. Whether you’re a Chomsky-leftist or a hard line Ayn Rand acolyte, there’s very little intellectual-wank-material to be had here.

As far as the gameplay is concerned, you’re still getting a half-way decent shooter. However, if you were an old fan of the previous games RPG elements, you’ll be severely disappointed. Most of the squad-based tactics have been taken out and replaced with you working with an NPC to complete mission objectives. Even my favorite aspect of the series, which was the economic management of your corporate enclaves and the upkeep of R&D for your trench coat assassins has been completely tossed out. Though to make up for this, the player can earn cash or experience points that can be put towards augmentations that give you certain perks like X-ray vision, optical-camo or faster cool-down times in between using abilities. The guns are stylish, but nothing you haven’t seen before in any other FPS, with the exception of two: one that can shoot through walls and another whose bullets can track a target around corners. You won’t be able to travel to wherever you want to either like you did in the previous games, but will only be whisked away to exotic locals if the story permits it. The game is much more linear, shootier and turns the hacking mini-games into single-click, wait-’em-out-before-they-shoot-you-out time crunchers.

When I was playing this game however, there was one game that kept coming to mind whenever I attempted a cyber-brain hack or a corporate infiltration (which was able as subtle as a shotgun shell through a door and I’m not kidding about that), that game being Deus Ex 3 (or Deus Ex: Human Revolution if you insist on it). Syndicate not only was trying to make you forget all about the previous, much better versions that came before it, but also the fact that a much better cyberpunk game from last year was still on the market. It had all the aspects of a Deus Ex game, without the open-endedness of the story-line or gameplay. Though it might be fairer to state that Syndicate is probably the best sequel that Perfect Dark 64 never got, it doesn’t even have repertoire of choice in weapons and gadgets that justify the label. It was almost depressing playing this game as it tried to so hard to impress me. Trying so hard to awe me with its graphics, trying to so hard to pull my heartstrings with Kilo’s tragic past, trying to throw as many flashy explosions and sleek skylines at me as humanly possible. It was like a younger, less competent child, attempting to outdo their much older, smarter and beautiful sibling, and like any good parent I was going to validate Syndicate’s need to feel special. However, I could only bring to give it just enough attention so that it may feel just a little less hopeless about its disposition all the while giving Deus Ex the preferred treatment behind Syndicate’s back. I probably shouldn’t go into parenting.

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