Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)
Fans of the beloved 1993 strategy game "Syndicate" unleashed a nuclear moan when EA pronounced it had reborn as a first-person shooter, and developer Starbreeze responded with assurances that the heart and soul would return intact.
The finished product is a rare case of both sides being right. This most definitely is "Syndicate's" world, but fans of the strategy games most definitely have reason to howl anyway.
Mostly, it's because the one hopeful straw at which that crowd could grasp - a storyline that meaningfully takes the universe into a new chapter with the benefits of modern production values at its back - never really pans out.
Conceptually, the finer details of "Syndicate's" world are there, and outside of some needlessly tiny text and a bizarre case of light bloom so bright it occasionally washes out your view, it looks very good.
But it's mostly a tease. The concepts behind "Syndicate's" storyline - corporations battling for control governments once had, a power struggle where even the good guys (you included) have bloody hands, a bizarre technocracy where getting microchipped and connecting your mind directly to the Internet is a status symbol, source of power and grave risk all at once - are immensely fascinating, but the meat of it unfolds via audio logs and a library of text you can read in the menu screen (tiny text and all). The story that plays out in front of you alludes to everything, but it overwhelmingly focuses on you, the corporation for which you work and a select handful of allegiances that threaten its (and your) health.
Ultimately, as perhaps you feared, "Syndicate" boils down to another case of you against most of the world. Here's hoping you like shooting a whole ton of enemy soldiers as they rush at you from everywhere, because that, more than anything else, is what "Syndicate" is all about.
In fairness to Starbreeze, the shooter they've built is a fine one, with polished control, a powerful arsenal of guns, and enemy A.I. that flashes a strong combination of brains and teeth.
Your microchipped mind comes into play, too. A limited-use interface overlay can temporarily slow time and give away enemy positions, while special abilities let you hack enemies' minds in order to overload their circuits or brainwash them into sacrificing themselves or fighting on your side. Occasionally, you'll also hack other objects - sentry guns, elevators and so on - to operate in your favor. "Syndicate" never puts the hacking mechanic to use in the form of a truly clever puzzle, but it's prevalent enough to give an otherwise boilerplate shooter campaign the identity it needs.
Along with the single-player campaign, "Syndicate" offers a wholly separate co-op campaign (four players, online only) that puts you in the boots of a capable but less powerful corporate foot soldier.
The co-op campaign is even flatter in terms of storytelling, but if you come prepared to play - i.e., with three friends ready to work as a team - it's the better of the two modes. Your hacking deficiencies are compensated for when your three teammates hack alongside you, and being able to heal each other is a godsend. You're weaker, the enemies are stronger and bolder, and the campaign difficulty is an order of magnitude higher even on its lowest setting, so teamwork and communication are imperative. (The difficulty doesn't scale for fewer players, either, so find a quartet. You'll need it.)
For your trouble, "Syndicate" offers a persistent upgrade tree that's considerably more rewarding than the meager upgrades found in the single-player campaign. You get experience points for being a good teammate as well as marksman, and with time, the perks and weapons you unlock will make you a more formidable soldier than your single-player counterpart.