They’d invited me because I was a words guy. To eat a piece of their new cake, and tell of its flavors to the masses. “Words guys,” I could imagine the powers-that-be saying behind closed doors, “are a pest. But they must be fed with an open hand. Let them have at our games, gorge themselves on playtime, and walk away spinning words of silver.”
At EA’s headquarters in Redwood Shores, I was only just stepping into the beast. I and a handful of other journalists were gently herded into an elevator of metal clean and clinical. My mind started to whizz. I was minutes away from entering Syndicate, a world in which nationalism has dwindled into a non-entity before an order where corporate clout reigns supreme.
But wasn’t this the very stuff of cyberpunk flare and deceit? A sweet invitation and a leading down the halls, where the snap of the host’s fingers can turn the full attention of robotic turrets onto newly-dubbed intruders?
I hope I haven’t lost you. It’s just that Syndicate – a game which, to be candid, you absolutely must start looking forward to – is very effective at putting you into the globalized dystopia of the year 2069; life is cheap, and the will to treat it as currency is a characteristic of the winners.
In the future, everyone has a chip in their head. These serve as passports of sorts, brain-dwelling tags referencing the syndicate you call home, be it Cayman Global, Aspari, or EuroCorp (that’s you in the single-player). Without a watchdog to monitor the nature of inter-corporate competition, tactical warfare is often the answer.
Hey, it’s easy to throw that kind of premise together: deciding to make a game with guns puts you only a step away from setting it in the future. Once you’re there, dystopia is just another small (and token) decision.
But you can tell that Starbreeze is fashioning that fiction into the heart of the game, not its skin. Syndicate‘s multiplayer component deploys you in one of nine missions and alongside up to three other agents, corporate pieces of property bred and upgraded for combat. Because of your elite technology, you’ll be privy to a virtually rendered replica of upcoming battle-grounds, informed by an ever-vocal AI of the threats expected in each successive room.
Our first mission took place in Western Europe (apparently, future technology does away with the need for precision). As soon as I hit the ground, I did all those usual things when first playing a shooter. I ran a bit, I aimed down the sights, I jumped. Starbreeze Studio’s proprietary engine runs like butter. Level design offers multiple vantage points for the enterprising scout, and the threat stays dynamic.
The HUD in Syndicate is quite the eyeful. I’ll tell you what each of the four characters has on hand before jumping into any class specifics. Across the top of the screen is each of your colleagues’ health, as well as their current score (you’ll want to compete for top marks as this sum is what unlocks all kinds of goodies. More on that later).
On the bottom left are your two active abilities, mapped to the D-pad and fueled my adrenaline (read: getting kills). Around your gun float all those good-to-know metrics: ammo left and firing setting: semi or auto. Finally, on the right resides your DART Overlay gauge.
A live action film buried in the game’s options menu calls DART “your gateway to ultimate consciousness.” Indeed. DART coats your environs in a topographic esthetic, outlining friends and foes through walls and other solid matter. Hitting an enemy while DART is on deals more damage – the (science) fictional explanation for this being that bullets bury themselves in the weak seams of enemy armor.
Perhaps what’s most beautiful about the HUD in Syndicate is that what you see as a player is what you would see as an agent. Two other features add to the impression.
The first is the “shaky camera” factor. You’re not a floating gun. Sprint and the HUD throbs in and out. Crouch from your run and your feet slide in front of you. Other games have done this, yes, but the amazing thing is that the developers didn’t so much as make a peep about it. It’s not a central tenet of the game; it’s just one more piece of polish to an already magnetic experience.
The second is that your gun (and arms, really) will adjust to what’s right in front of them. Tuck yourself behind a crate and your character will pop their barrel to one side. This allows you to keep up on your kill streak from cover, while marking the game as a graceful evolution from those clipping issues that might break immersion.
Let’s get back to Western Europe, shall we? Our corporate sponsors sent us to gun through Cayman Global’s defenses – which included footmen as well as shielded drones – before concluding our assassination of a key Cayman figure.
My identity was that of a young, mohawked cyberpunk. My role was support. Throughout my playtime I erred on the side of caution, preferring the luxury of high ground to direct confrontation. Every time I aimed through the scope of my sniper rifle I’d switch on my DART overlay, often finding foes that would otherwise have slipped my attention. Some of them (drones included) bore invulnerable shields only broken – breached – from short range. To make matters worse, these guys often combine shields with a mini-gun to make for a rounded threat.
Once picked off, you can excise the chip from your fallen foe’s brain with what amounts to a device that could double as an apple corer. Chips, in turn, can be invested into passive upgrades (+25% maximum DART gauge, faster onset of health regeneration, etc.). The leveling system also delves into guns and active abilities.
After a good few hours of playing Syndicate, I think it’s safe to associate its main appeal with what we get from playing Left 4 Dead. A quality shooting experience with three other players, punctuated by the occasional tougher foe.
I’m hopeful that players will have no reason to dismiss this shooter as run-of-the-mill when the demo hits Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network in late January. Yes, that does mean it’s time to clear up some hard drive space.
UPDATE: The demo for Syndicate releases on Xbox Live Marketplace and PlayStation Network on January 31st.