When was the last time you got lost in a first-person shooter? Not necessarily “nobody has to know I asked the Internet” lost, but even just having to retrace your steps? Most likely, it’s been a while. That’s because the practical difference between FPS titles and rail shooters has been shortening with each generation. Heck, it’s even possible to beat the first level of one of the biggest money-makers of all time without doing much of anything, and for its part, Syndicate is about as linear as the plot of Chicken Little: While there aren’t screaming yellow neon signs that read “THIS WAY, PLEASE,” there might as well be.
Which is why it’s interesting that issues of free will and personal agency play into the game’s story line. Your silent protagonist is no Gordon Freeman: At all times he (and you) are only following orders, completing the assignments given to you by a series of authority figures as you struggle towards mental freedom. The idea that even the player is not really in control of what is happening on screen is one of a few interesting notions that orbit on the outskirts of this game, which, unfortunately, is more often content amalgamating a bunch of popular FPS traits and tropes instead of striking out for something new.
Syndicate is the latest deep-cut reboot to be given the first-person treatment, updating and homogenizing Bullfrog’s 1993 isometric, Blade Runner-esque real-time game. The new edition keeps the basic concept of a future where governments are no longer necessary and the world has been apportioned out to enormous global enterprises. If you’re experiencing a sense of déjà vu, it’s probably because you’ve played a Deus Ex title recently. Syndicate also shares with that series the feature of augmenting your character as the game progresses, putting you on a quest for self-improvement which, if not helping you achieve inner peace, will at least allow you to better shoot people in the face.
You play as Miles Kilo, a super-soldier for EuroCorp and, based on his name, a man who can’t decide if he’s a fan of standard or metric measurement. Kilo is a special agent for capitalism run amok, the invisible and murderous hand of the free market, committing acts of industrial espionage that may include the deaths of a few dozen, hundred, or thousand rival employees. A chip has been implanted in your brain that gives you a variety of powers, the most instrumental of which being the DART overlay, a thermal vision enhancer that allows you to scope out nearby hostiles while simultaneously slowing down time so that you can better aim for their tender parts. You can upgrade your chip to acquire enhancements like greater health or more damage dealt by extracting chips from the heads of other characters scattered throughout the game. The extraction process is amusingly gruesome, even if I’m not exactly sure what the character does to absorb their power once he’s plucked them out through a convenient orifice. Man, I really hope he doesn’t eat them.
The fact that the heads of all the enemies you will encounter also have Intel Inside allows you to perform some helpful brain-invasion maneuvers. Using your ability to breach their chips via magic/technology/L2 button, you can deal damage, persuade an opponent to help you, and even force them to commit suicide. The first few times you do this, it’s shockingly dark and disturbing, but that feeling quickly goes away once the action forces you to employ it over and over. Which I guess is a bit of a general problem with the one-player story line: There’s a lot of interesting moral questions floating around, but the game is far too busy emulating the constant onslaught, duck-and-cover style of modern FPS titles to reach out and grab any of them. There’s an encyclopedia’s worth of world-building data you can pick up and add to your pause-screen codex, but only a small fraction of it is incorporated into the game itself. If you’re a fan of reading large blocks of dense, small-font text, then you’ll love it, but to me it’s like going to a movie and having the usher hand you a 40-page booklet of relevant backstory to peruse during the previews. You’re left wishing more had been done in-game to give you a sense that this isn’t just another boilerplate cyberpunk universe coming down the bio-mechanical conveyor belt. Some of the few times the gameplay really does distinguish itself, though, are the boss fights, which are as scriptedly singular, and enjoyably challenging, as the various big bads in the Metal Gear Solid series.
Online multiplayer options are well thought-out and since there is a plethora of upgrades and weapons available to earn, there’s decent replay value. The co-op mode also encourages teamwork, which is a welcome counterpoint to the one-man-army feel of single-player. And since it’s all through Origin, you get to experience the rich and frothy irony of being shown an opening cut scene about a dystopic future in which giant corporations invade your privacy by demanding you plug yourself into the system, and then being required to give EA your e-mail information and agree to a bunch of terms of service contracts. But then, I’m probably just being paranoid. I’m sure they won’t be sticking chips into our brain stems until at least a couple console generations from now. B-