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This future is a dark place.
Antitrust laws that kept corporations from running rampant were abolished, allowing business to hold more power than the governments themselves. Data chips installed in just over half of the world’s population allow for instant data transmissions the likes of which have never been seen before. Those without the chips, however, are basically forgotten, “out of sight, out of mind” as the game puts it. Morality is out the window, and it’s apparent throughout the entire game.
You will play as Miles Kilo, a man taken from his parents (who were then killed) by the syndicate Eurocorp and trained to be a new prototype “agent” used in espionage missions. This is no ordinary agent, however. Kilo has the ability to hack into opposing soldiers’ datachips and make them perform one of three actions: Suicide, Backfire, and Persuade. They’re all self-explanatory, though the Persuade feature ends with the soldier you hacked to fight for you also killing himself. Watching a soldier shoot himself in the face because you told him to is unsettling at first, but because the game practically forces you to utilize it, that discomfort will quickly dissipate. Aside from these hacking abilities, Syndicate plays like every other first-person shooter before it, and while the familiarity isn’t a bad thing, I just wish there was something more to keep me interested.
The single-player narrative of corporate war and espionage is a linear path from beginning to end. There’s no split storyline, no choices to be made, none of it. You’re thrown into the world, you do what it tells you to do, and you’re done. While that may sound boring, considering the overall themes of free will vs corporate influence and the lack of morality, the story’s linearity is actually fitting. Also, the scenes you’ll be playing and the firefights you’ll engage in are engaging, particularly the boss fights. Unlike Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s forced boss fights, these showdowns fit naturally into the fabric of the story. You won’t be wondering why you’re fighting this guy as I did a few times in Deus Ex, everything is clear.
There’s one element of this story, however, that would not leave my mind: the utter disdain for innocent human lives and how morally disturbing it can be. During your first mission, your partner Merit tells you that “civ casualties are a non-issue.” Alright, so if someone dies in my crossfire, I don’t have to feel too guilty about it, no big deal. However, I didn’t realize the gravity of what he was saying until later on, when we enter a passenger train filled with civilians and Merit shoots every last one right between the eyes. No provocation, no reason, and certainly no remorse. 20-25 people on the wrong train at the wrong time, eliminated basically because they were in the way. This is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” all over again, only instead of being in one mission, it’s a recurring theme throughout the game. If I’m feeling devious, I can walk up to a homeless man on the street and stomp his damn head in for no reason. I don’t want that option. The overall theme of “this could happen if businesses continue to rule the world” is hard to ignore. This is not a future I want to live in.
Syndicate’s co-op mode is everything a co-op mode should be: interesting missions, teamwork-based play, and deep customization possibilities. Missions consist of one of three tasks: eliminate all opposition, eliminate a crucial target (boss fight), or capture some objectives. Simple in theory, but holy hell can they be challenging in action. Enemies will come at you from everywhere: in front, behind, flank positions, everything. You’ll be surrounded more than once, but with four players it’s not impossible to win. Teamwork is essential in Syndicate’s co-op; there’s no way a team will be successful if they don’t work as a unit. Those who stay together win together.
Of course, a well-balanced team is also a must, and the character customization options will ensure that everyone can fit a certain role. Snipers can stay back and add support, tanks can man the front line and blast away, and the healer can make sure everyone stays alive. I spent a good 20-30 minutes making sure my tank was set up so I could fit into any team perfectly. Syndicate allows me to craft my co-op character however I wish, which in turn creates a deep and enjoyable overall experience.
As much as I wanted the Syndicate reboot to be a real-time strategy game faithful to the original, I am certainly not displeased with the FPS offering I got. The single-player game is a dark narrative with plenty of action and great story points, and the co-op campaign is one of the deepest FPS co-op offerings in quite some time. I know we’re only two full months into 2012 at this point, but Syndicate is an early candidate for sleeper hit of the year.