The original Syndicate launched 29 years ago. Still to this day it’s a highly cherished piece of entertainment software design. An isometric tactical action videogame, the original Syndicate – and its sequel – delivered the kind of unique experience that the 16-bit era has become renowned for. Titles built to provide something unique under the constraints of limited hardware. And so in 2012, when the systems upon which games are brought to market offered a staggering amount of processing power, what would a modern revision of Syndicate look like? An FPS, of course.
Syndicate’s Tactical Reboot
It’s very true that in the modern games industry the FPS is the dominant genre. But there’s a reason for that: FPS sells. There may still be a big enough market to warrant the development of tactical and strategy titles – the likes of Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution and Tropico 6 proving that there remains an audience willing to invest – but in order to reach the budget demanded for AAA production values on modern hardware, you have to appeal to the masses. And that’s exactly what Syndicate did. It took its cues from the original videogame, but delivered them in a mass market product.
The game casts the player as an operative actively engaging in the missions that 29 years ago they simply negotiated. The introduction to Syndicate’s campaign starts with the player in a dazed state, obviously influenced by the Robocop motion-picture series. After running through a dirty futuristic cityscape, killing enemies and bums, the player returns to EuroCorp. It’s here the story begins proper. Entering the shoes of one Kilo, a special agent employed by EuroCorp, the player is given Dart updates granting interesting abilities. Then, finally their first official assignment.
You Know, It Could’ve Been Worse…
Syndicate positively encourages players to experiment. A vast array of dual-function weaponry and special abilities are met by a variety of enemies. Each has variable intelligence and movement abilities. The combat of Syndicate is nothing if not open to interpretation. Much of this weaponry and repertoire of abilities has been inspired by the original Perfect Dark. Weapons with an automatic lock-on and bullets that can fire around corners. Single- or triple-fire pistols, x-ray vision and ammunition that can fire through walls. They may be typical science-fiction fodder in one regard, but their performance is too close to RARE’s FPS magnum opus to be coincidence.
Designed as a score run experience, Syndicate features only campaign and co-op gameplay modes. In a turn-up for the modern FPS rulebook, there is no competitive multiplayer at all. The co-operative maps have been tailored to having a group of four players. As such can feel as though some of the impact is missed when playing in a smaller group. The campaign, though mostly enjoyable, throws-up some oddly positioned boss fights that can be more than a little irritating. A series of attrition battles rather than precise planning and execution of tactics.
While the weaponry feels similar to Perfect Dark, the technical capabilities that can be earned almost make Syndicate feel like a campaign developed on the principles taught by the underrated Shadowrun, using similar rules for execution and engagement. The level design is perhaps closest to Bodycount – another underrated FPS adventure – suggesting that Syndicate is based on the best of the underdogs. This isn’t another Call of Duty clone, nor is it trying to be an aside. Syndicate may not be the obscure tactical experience it once was, but in the modern industry it is an obscure type of FPS.
From a technical standpoint Syndicate is very well presented. The visual design, though not exactly unique, is a balanced interpretation of well worn sci-fi tropes. The character design is less successful, with a plot that wears so thin that most will simply ignore it. But given the universe in which the game is based things could’ve been considerably worse. The sound design fares better. Arguably one of the finest aspects of the production is in the soundtrack, voice acting and ambience.
Steeping aside form the run-of-the-mill FPS title, Syndicate does offer something a bit different. It may not be as far off the beaten path as its source material, but it remains an entertaining alternative to the military escapades and subterfuge of most modern FPS titles. In single-player Syndicate is a game that you would play once and forget about, but in multiplayer it comes into its own. It’s a muddled take on a franchise that was often confusing it it’s own earnest. Clearly, it’s about time to reboot the reboot.