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Which Console Did You Buy/Receive Over The Holidays?

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Game Profile
Xbox 360
EA Games
Starbreeze Studios
GENRE: First Person Shooter
February 21, 2012



 Written by Alex Roth  on February 28, 2012

Syndicate Xbox 360 Review: If this is the future I hope they invent time travel!

EA Games, why did you make Syndicate into a first-person shooter? Not that Bullfrog's gritty little sci-fi property was so dear to me, I didn't play the strategy game back in the nineties, but another shooter? Little ironic. Look at it this way, you're a giant electronics corporation making a game about giant electronics corporations conducting bloody warfare in the future. Pardon the accusation, but are you living out your dark twisted fantasies?

Oh EA, I'm just kidding. You're actually being really cool, you let this spunky co-op game out the door without an online pass and hired Starbreeze Studios to develop it. These are the guys that brought us the out-of-nowhere good Vin Diesel game, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and more recently The Darkness. Syndicate would totally be the Activision story anyway.

Syndicate- so cyber, so punk

In case you didn't know, Syndicate is a ?cyberpunk? game. By that I mean characters in Syndicate wear black, have computer chips in their brains, and shoot guns in slow motion. Thankfully, no one in Syndicate is ever referred to as a ?cyberpunk.? That would be awful. Personally, I can't stand the term because I'm not sure how to say it without feeling like I'm about to be laughed at. Basically, it's the future and the future sucks, Bladerunner style. There's also a lot of leather jackets, guns and cyber-ninjas, because The Matrix.

Fortunately for this new Syndicate, most of these cyber-cliches were in the original game, so it gets a pass on that front. Who would I be if I expected something original from an FPS, and a remake, no less? An optimist maybe?

Syndicate is just a very OK shooter. Visually it's bland, busy and occasionally painful, like when you look at any of the game's way-too-bright light sources, or see what they did to poor Rosario Dawson. Ouch Rosario, you look tired. Have you been sleeping in a box behind the motion capture studio? Call your agent. Call a new agent.

Rosario Dawson needs to consider a more responsible bedtime. Image via Kotaku

Everything in Syndicate is grey. I know it's the future and the future sucks big time, but enough with the monochrome. Were all the other colors wiped out in the great pigment wars? And can we put some of these future scientists to work on inventing new places to have shootouts? Syndicate is a never ending series of maintenance bays, corridors, lobbies and industrial facilities. If Syndicate were a movie it would be shot in two adjacent warehouses and the alley that connects them.

There's not much variety in the gameplay department either, just twitch shooting with lots of bullet time. It's Call of Duty-style aiming, Halo's health and shields, Crysis 2 augments and superpowers, and a very, very, stripped down take on Mass Effect 2's biotics, which the game calls ?breaching.?

Every light source in the game feels like staring at the sun after sitting in a dark room all day

To breach an enemy, you look at him and press LB. Depending on which of three breach moves you've selected, he'll explode, his gun will explode, or he'll kill a few of his friends and then explode. It's none too creative, and just adds an element of multitasking to the otherwise basic shooting (there are some more creative breach moves available in multiplayer. We'll get to that).

The hero can do this because he's one firmware update ahead of everyone, so future firewalls be damned. This is thanks to Rosario Dawson's character, the inventor/hacker/romantic interest/sidekick/comic relief/only female character in this game. She is basically Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2, if Alyx Vance had big dead eyes and unclear motivations.

Brian Cox, putting a down payment on a summer home. Somehow his character looks better than Ms. Dawson's

Syndicate has two other characters and they're familiar enough that they feel like they're right out of other sci-fi shooters. There's an unassmuing Dr. Breen type also from Half-Life 2 (portrayed by veteran character actor/voice-over check depositor Brian Cox) and Gunther Hermann from Deus Ex. They each have about one monologue apiece that sounds like it was written by an author who's read some ?cyberpunk,? and not an intern who skimmed the Wikipedia article and watched part of Johnny Mnemonic on Netflix. As far as dialogue goes, this is actually pretty good for a six hour campaign.

This game was ?written? by sci-fi author Richard K. Morgan. Hey, with that middle initial I could almost confuse him with Phillip K. Dick, the famous and over-adapted sci-fi writer who writes about similar cyber-themes. By ?written? I mean that I think they hired him to do some dialogue (the bits that aren't terrible) and spit-ball with the game designers about ?what is some gritty future stuff we can do?? He also ?wrote? Crysis 2, and several novels I haven't read, but their descriptions made them sound pretty good.

From the left to right: Alyx Vance, Gunther Hermann and Dr. Breen

Honestly though, the story is inconsequential for two reasons: 1) This a shooter that clearly cares most about online multiplayer and 2) your character has little involvement in the plot. The fancy word for this is agency, and it means that your character makes decisions and we see the consequences. Syndicate's story is more of a walking tour of other character's vague motives. The Dr. Breen knock-off is greedy and wants what all greedy people want, more of something. Rosario Vance is torn between her love of science and her love of not having her science used for evil. The Gunther Hermann look-alike will pretty much do whatever if it means someone will plug him in at night.

In Syndicate, it feels like your character is waiting for the chips to fall before he declares an allegiance. Yes, yes, he's a bit of an anti-hero, but this would be like Marcus Fenix watching all the battles in Gears of War with binoculars, waiting to see who wins. Sure he'll shoot at whoever shoots at him, but he's just waiting for the opportunity to buy the winning side their first round of drinks.

Gaze into the abyss, and the abyss blah blah blah

Overall, Syndicate's single player has a dumb plot that doesn't matter, a short run time with good pacing, and some interesting boss fights. It'll make a decent substitute for online play when your Internet goes down. Onto the multiplayer.

If your character in single player was some sort of Syndicate prototype, the multiplayer guys are your nine to five workaday grunts. No fancy Rosario treatment for them, just a basic healing ability until they choose some chip upgrades, which is what Syndicate calls perks.

Syndicate's unsung heroes, the co-op grunts

The perk system is good. Content unlocks quickly because the game gives bonus experience the first time you beat a map on a given difficulty. Playing each of them once will get you a well-defined character with room left to grow.

Remember, this is cooperative multiplayer, not death match or capture the flag. You and three other Internet yahoos will be shooting at the AI, not each other. Your choice of perks will define your role in combat, be it healer, shields, hacker, or captain shoot-all-the-things. Most people online seem to be leaning toward that last build, but there is team play going on. Players heal each other and are quick to provide life saving ?reboots,? so I'd wager the foundation of an online community is there.

Online, Syndicate's co-op is in-depth and exciting

There are nine maps. They're not visually varied, because nothing in Syndicate is, but like the single-player, they offer an acceptable variety of situations in which to shoot things. I like co-op, I generally find shooting things with others to be more fun than shooting things by myself. In some games this isn't the case, but with Syndicate it definitely is. If you have a steady set of co-op buddies, and you're bored with Left 4 Dead 2, Gears of War 3, and find the thought of Mass Effect 3 too story-driven and not first-person enough, Syndicate is a solid option.

I mention Mass Effect 3 because the breach abilities in Syndicate's multiplayer are much more nuanced than simply making people explode, as in single player. You get buffs, shields, viruses and group heals. It adds a lot of depth to conflicts and approaches something like Mass Effect's biotics.

The future of technology holds things far more intrusive than Facebook

I said ?approaches? because it's not that good or that RPG-inspired. Also, none of the maps are anywhere near as dynamic as something in a Left 4 Dead game. There's also no visual distinctions between players of different abilities, so there's no way to tell who's sunk all their points into healing short of just asking, and leaving things to mic chat is never a good idea.

Bottom Line
Syndicate is a decidedly mixed bag, but it's more good than not, just don't let it trick you into thinking it's anything but a meat and potatoes shooter. The rudimentary single-player needed some serious propping up and got no help from the weak visuals and flat plotting. Online it's a different story, a solid co-op outing with fun custom classes. If squad based multiplayer is your bag and you're sick of Gears and L4D, seriously consider Syndicate. But if you want some science with your fiction, as well as character, style and story, wait for Mass Effect 3.

Review based on an Xbox 360 copy of the game, provided by EA Games

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