A modern re-boot: Syndicate, and the move to FPS

Tuesday, 1 November 2011 09:01 GMT By Stace Harman

When Project Red Lime became Syndicate there was excitement; when Syndicate became an FPS there was befuddlement. Stace Harman goes hands on and speaks to EA to get some clarity.

Previously code-named ‘Project Red Lime, Syndicate is the third main title in the series following 1993’s original of the same name and 1996’s Syndicate Wars.

Created by Starbreeze, developers of other notable FPS titles The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick games.

Syndicate is intended as a “reimagining” of the series, “not a direct continuation” according to EA’s Ben O’Donnell.

Syndicate’s two main unique selling points are the DART chip and the ability to manipulate the digital environment, known as Breaching.

Published by EA, Syndicate is due out February 2012 for PC, PS3 and 360.

Nostalgia is a curious thing and preconceptions often warp our perception; all of these are informed by the bias of personal experience. Going hands-on with both a single and multiplayer mission from EA’s reimagining of 1990s cult classic Syndicate brings these concepts into stark relief.

Those gathered are split into three broad groups. Those that played the original isometric RTS see clear references here to classic iconography: the four-person team, the cybernetic enhancements, the conglomerate power struggles and the Gauss gun – though this last has changed drastically in function.

Others, who have recently immersed themselves in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, see blatant similarities to Eidos’ effort, with its cyberpunk overtones and the sinister disquiet of a narrative that offers glimpses of trading one’s humanity for augmented super-human abilities.

Finally, those with only a working knowledge of the FPS genre see squad-based gunplay, recharging shields, and weapon influences borrowed from other franchises, not least of all that afore-mentioned Gauss, which functions like the tag’em and bag’em homing gun from the Resistance series.

This mix of differing perceptions, tinged with nostalgia for some, may both help and hinder EA’s reboot of Syndicate as it looks to draw on the fiction of the original franchise but update it for a 2012 FPS. This is not something that either EA or Starbreeze seem overly concerned about, though.

“The actual number of people that played the original game and who will be playing this game is relatively small,” postulates EA Partners producer Ben O’Donnell.

“We talk about it a lot in these press situations – where we’re more likely to come across people that remember the original – but the majority of consumers who will be playing this game will probably never have played the original.

“First and foremost we’re just trying to make the best game we can. The legacy that we can draw on is a useful tool because it’s a cool fiction and a cool world and we’re aiming to please the fans of the original by taking some of those weapons from it, but if people don’t recognise those weapons as being in Syndicate then that doesn’t really matter because we’re aiming ultimately to make the weapons fun to use.”

In practise, it’s not the weapons that provide the most fun during our session – although using the homing ability of the re-purposed Gauss to solve a basic environmental puzzle does raise a smile. Instead, it’s Syndicate’s headline features that prove to be most entertaining and that look likely to be the factor that distinguish it from other shooters: the DART and Breaching.

Co-op gameplay trailer.

Through the DART bio-chip you can perceive the digital elements of the world, highlight enemies and slow time. Combat recharges this ability and it’s one that you’ll likely use frequently. Breaching is more unique, enabling you to modify the digital components of your environment on the fly: hack, run ‘n’ gun, if you will.

All of this is made possible by a military-grade version of the consumer chips that the world’s population have implanted for lifestyle and convenience reasons. Doors, retractable cover and even the chips of lower-level security forces can be breached using this upgradable ability, thus causing some reaction that is usually desirable for you and undesirable for your adversaries.

As O’Donnell sums up “There are lots of shooters out there and unless you’ve got some cool hook or something that’s going to interest people, you may as well not bother.”

During our single-player level, this manifests itself in the breaching of a laboratory console to add or remove makeshift cover and turning a security turret against its creators. However, breaching is at its most amusing, not to mention most intrinsically useful from a gameplay perspective, when it’s used against your assailants.

The ability to cause a weapon to backfire can jolt security forces out of cover, and being able to hijack an enemy’s neural implant can cause them to fight with you against their erstwhile colleagues – like a one-on-one version of the Persuadatron, another of Syndicate’s legacy weapons. Finally, the most brutal and sadistic use of breaching that we see is in indiscriminately overloading an adversary’s chip, causing the victim to put their gun against their head and pull the trigger.

Mr Chips
“A huge part of [the game] is building up your character,” says O’Donnell. “This is achieved primarily by obtaining other people’s chips and researching the tech that they have in order to upgrade your own, it’s like downloading their software and it gives you a point to spend to upgrade.”

Ripping these chips from the heads of rival agents who act as mid-level bosses furnishes you with points to spend on your own progress, a process that can be managed during a mission in single-player, but must be saved until the end of a level during multiplayer.

Single-player gameplay trailer.

There will be nine of these multiplayer levels, with an overarching narrative and mission objectives that sit outside of the single-player game. The multiplayer level that we see is a mixed bag. On the one hand, a great deal of fun is to be had from four players causing havoc by breaching both the environment and enemy forces.

However, with the demo level locked on easy difficulty there’s little need for squad tactics and each of the four players is free to play in as gung-ho a manner as they like, paying no mind to covering fire, ranged-weapon support or safety in numbers, safe in the knowledge that they’ll likely be revived by a fellow team member in the unlikely event that they are downed. Another play-through on a higher difficulty would be necessary to ascertain if there’s a requirement for a more thoughtful approach.

Overall, through this relatively brief hands-on and a conversation with O’Donnell, I’m left wondering why the decision has been made to base this FPS on the Syndicate IP. From a business perspective, using the rich fiction of Syndicate carries less inherent risk than creating an entirely new IP but I’ve simply not had long enough with the game to judge whether there are enough familiar elements for this to be considered a legitimate entry in the Syndicate canon.

The global domination element of the original games has been streamlined, with O’Donell explaining that “we weren’t trying to create a game of Risk where you take over the globe one step at a time”. Moving the focus to a single-agent experience effectively drops the team-management angle of the original and by changing the view from isometric to first-person Syndicate as been robbed of the at-a-glance familiarity that the series has always enjoyed.

Of course, as O’Donnell points out, the majority of players of 2012’s Syndicate may not be players of 1993’s Syndicate, so provided the game is an enjoyable and well made FPS the majority of its players will be happy. However, long-term fans of the series will have to decide if Starbreeze has done enough to make this more than just a FPS sparsely dressed in the trappings of their beloved franchise, and more a title worthy of the moniker of ‘Syndicate for the 21st century’.

Syndicate is due out in February 2012 on PS3, 360 and PC.

Latest