The original Syndicate launched nineteen years ago, and still to this day is 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 videogames are brought to market offer a staggering amount of processing power, what would a modern revision of Syndicate look like? A first-person shooter (FPS), of course.
It’s very true that in the modern videogames industry the FPS is the predominant 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 4 proving that there remains an audience willing to invest – but in order to reach the budget demanded for top tier production values on modern hardware, you have to appeal to the masses. And that’s exactly what Syndicate does: it takes its cues from the original videogame, but delivers them in a mass market product.
The videogame casts the player as an operative actively engaging in the missions that nineteen 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 titles. After running through a dirty futuristic cityscape, killing enemies and bums, leaning close combat and long range assaults, the player returns to EuroCorp, and begins the story proper. Entering the shoes of one Kilo, a special agent employed by EuroCorps, the player is given Dart updates, granting interesting abilities, and then given their first official assignment.
Syndicate positively encourages players to experiment. A vast array of dual-function weaponry and special abilities met by a wide variety of enemies of variable intelligence and movement, 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 taking to the battlefield simultaneously, and as such can feel as though some of the impact is missing 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 standalone tactical adventure 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 well balanced as an interpretation of well worm science-fiction 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 videogame is based things could’ve been considerably worse. The sound design is far superior, arguably one of the finest aspects of the production in 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 of 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 videogame that you would play once and forget about, but in multiplayer it comes into its own. As such, the onus on the question of whether or not Syndicate is a worthwhile purchase remains solely on the likelihood of finding three likeminded friends also keen to play the videogame.