First-person-shooter Syndicate is nominally a remake of isometric action-strategy game Syndicate, as made by Peter Molyneux and his former studio back in 1993. Older, greyer, fatter PC gamers will be disappointed to hear that the similarities between the two don’t extend far beyond the name and the fictional theme - in the future, the world is essentially governed by mega-corporations, who are at war with each other.
So, it’s prudent to simply review Syndicate on its own terms, as a glossy 2012 shooter, rather than how well it recreates and builds upon its predecessor. For now, any official Syndicate remake remains as plausible as Poirot shaving off his moustache.
Syndicate 2012 is its own entity, a tale of the ridiculously-named Eurocorp Agent Miles Kilo and his cybernetically-enhanced battles against rival corporations. Primarily, he’s a dude with an assortment of big guns, very much in the traditional manner of videogame dudes with big guns. He runs into a room full of men, he kills them all, a door conveniently opens, he runs on to the next room.
Where it differs - slightly - from your average Call of Duty or whatnot is that Miles has access to ‘Breach’ powers via a computer chip in his head. These, of which there are just three in the singleplayer game, enable him to force an enemy to take his own life, to turn an enemy to Miles’ side for a short time, or to cause a minor explosion in the equipment of up to three foes, temporarily weakening them.
While the ability to perform Breaches at the same time as you’re spraying bullets does help to turn Miles into a doubly-effective killer, the trouble is that there’s no real tactics inherent in it. It’s simply a matter of using whichever Breach is charged up at any one time. The effects, meanwhile, are largely very similar - one or two enemies are eliminated safely. To add insult to slightly tedious injury, two of the Breach powers are taken away from Miles for a long stretch of the mid-to-late game.
At times, it hangs together well enough as an all-out action game/power trip, juggling some absurdly powerful weapons with the cool efficiency of the Breach powers. Then it’ll lumber you with ten minutes of making some lifts go up and down or following someone around with all your weapons taken away. Or, worse still, one of the miserable boss fights, which often involve a big difficulty spike and irritating dependence on the over-simplistic cover system.
And plot-wise, it’s a damp and predictable squib inhabited by deeply plain characters, despite the best vocal efforts of Brian Cox (the dour Scottish one, not the floppy-haired science one) and Rosario Dawson. All told, the on-rails singleplayer campaign is straight-up boring, with occasional flashes of agreeably overpowered superheroics. Never mind whether it’s a sympathetic reworking of the revered Syndicate - it’s just not a memorable game in its own right, and very much stands in the noisy but more liberating shadow of last week’s high concept shooter, The Darkness II.
A very real saving grace arrives for Syndicate in the form of its four-player online co-op mode, which expands enormously upon the Breach mechanics and, thanks to a fairly thoughtful unlock/ranking system, lends a sense of purpose that’s missing from singleplayer.
Embarking on a series of missions against rival corps’ AI-controlled armies, you pick your Agent’s powers and weapons and use him/him as a complementary part of a cyborg superteam. You might want to go all-out assault, for sniping or for medic duties, but as you level up increasingly you build a character spec that reflects your preferred play-style. New, more powerful Breach abilities are unlocked, and offer a far wider and more tactical range than the three of singleplayer.
As well as that, you can upgrade your favourite weapons and pick universal perks for your Agent. It’s very much in the vein of most any shooter multiplayer mode you care to mention from the last couple of years, but it feels meatier and, with the Breach powers, does offer a real twist upon the endless dance of online death.
Co-op doesn’t entirely redeem Syndicate’s many misfires, but it does transform it from a game best ignored into one that is at least worth considering if you’re aching for some multiplayer action with a touch of inventiveness, and free from the singular horror of being repeatedly trounced by other players.