Stace Harman grabs a final hands-on with Syndicate’s four-player co-op ahead of its February launch and speaks to lead co-op programmer Lars Magnus Lang about the game’s evolution since 2008.
History repeats itself; except for when it’s re-imagined as a first-person shooter with HD visuals - then it’s blasphemy. At least, that’s what some outraged Syndicate fans would have you believe.
That Starbreeze Studios would give one of the most famously isometric games a first-person makeover should have surprised absolutely nobody. The Swedish company has won plaudits for its FPS endeavours over the past eight years with games based on The Chronicles of Riddick IP and the original title in The Darkness franchise.
But while nostalgic gamers may have balked to see Syndicate give up its iconic viewpoint in favour of a more commercially viable one, what they perhaps don’t know is just how much more they might have had to bellyache about.
“Back at the start [of development] we didn’t have a multiplayer co-op mode at all and, in early iterations of the game, the cyberpunk theme took a back seat,” admits Syndicate lead co-op programmer Lars Magnus Lang, who would presumably sport a very different job title had the game continued along its initial track.
“At some point, we had to acknowledge that it didn’t ring true for the franchise and that we needed to bring both these things more to the forefront. Plus, the Breaching mechanic wasn’t there from the start, either. It really has evolved quite a bit.”
Bridge over troubled water
While fans of the nearly-two-decades-old Syndicate take a moment to rein in their apoplectic indignation at the thought of a Syndicate with neither four operatives nor cyberpunk trappings, let’s consider the catalyst for the evolution of which Lang talks.
Since its announcement at the beginning of 2008, both Project RedLime - as it was called before EA finally confirmed what everyone already knew - and developer Starbreeze Studios have weathered some turbulent times.
Key Starbreeze staff members left to form MachineGames, with sources citing a far from harmonious relationship with Syndicate publisher EA as a contributing factor.
Then, former CEO Johan Kristiansson left Starbreeze the beginning of 2011, before later moving out of the games industry entirely to take up a role as marketing director for Scandinavian Airlines.
Meanwhile, EA was said to have embedded its own producers within the development team; either as a stabilising influence or to salvage a project that had gone very much awry.
“Back at the start [of development] we didn’t have a multiplayer co-op mode at all and, in early iterations of the game, the cyberpunk theme took a back seat. At some point, we had to acknowledge that it didn’t ring true for the franchise and that we needed to bring both these things more to the forefront.”
So, in the face of such adversity, just how much prescription medication does Lang require to help him to get a peaceful night’s sleep?
“The morale over the last year has actually been given a big boost,” he asserts, smiling. “The team really feel like they want to prove to everyone that they can do this; that they can ship this game.”
A positive attitude is commendable, but it was not always evident: early on in the project the team wasn’t at all convinced that it was technically capable of creating a satisfying multiplayer co-op experience.
“In the past, we’ve tried to make multiplayer elements to games and not really been satisfied with them,” Lang concedes. “But we decided to really push it here and, actually, we prototyped it very quickly; in around a month. Everyone in the office liked the prototype and so we built on it from there.”
The multiplayer build on offer at EA’s recent preview day proves two things: that despite the team’s initial concerns, it appears to have produced a co-op experience that adheres to the canonical fiction of the Syndicate franchise and, more importantly, it’s one that provides a genuine team-based experience.
The levels we played through work especially well with two players taking point and bearing the brunt of a frontal-assault, with another hanging back to pick-off AI ensconced on roofs or behind cover and a fourth member playing a support role; healing and reviving team members and disarming incoming grenades via the Breach mechanic.
Furthermore, the multiplayer experience is very challenging indeed. Much more so than the build shown back in October of last year and it seems likely that there has been some tweaking of the difficulty level since then.
Where previously it was possible to stand in plain sight, absorbing significant damage but ultimately overwhelming mid-level bosses with force of numbers, such tactics are now suicidal - even on the tamest difficulty setting.
“One star [difficulty] is challenging, two stars is for if you’re super-good at shooters and three stars...,” Lang trails off. “Well, the three star difficulty we’d like one day to be able to complete in the office; three stars is for those that want to go nuts.”
The glint in Lang’s eye makes it unclear whether he means that figuratively, or if he’s genuinely warning that it may drive players insane.
A little help from my friends
The key to Syndicate’s team-based co-op focus is not just its difficulty, but also the way in which the Breaching mechanic has been incorporated into the game world.
While it’s possible that players will eventually be able to emulate the lone maverick antics occasionally witnessed in other team-based shooters such as Left 4 Dead, everything from reviving a teammate to hacking a sentry gun to disabling a toughened enemy’s shields via the Breach feature is achieved more quickly the greater the number of team members contributing to the effort.
“Certainly, if you go at co-op as a straight-up shooter you’re going to have a really tough time playing that way, the Breaching really adds a lot,” states Lang.
Given the talk so far of evolution, it’s no surprise that the Breaching mechanic has also undergone a number of changes since its inception.
“Initially, we tried a mini-game concept, and that worked well for some parts of the game but it really slowed down the rest of game a lot,” explains Lang. “It required too much divided focus when a lot of other stuff was going on.”
A mini-game would have likely split Syndicate’s player-base, much as the hacking mini-game in the original Bioshock did. But where Irrational’s choice gelled with the more deliberately paced excursion through Rapture’s purposefully archaic architecture, Starbreeze is targeting a faster, more immediate shot in the arm delivered on-the-fly by 21st century nano-technology. On current evidence, this decision is the correct one for Syndicate’s intended audience.
Late last year, EA producer Jeff Gamon suggested that there is scope to remake Syndicate in its original form and those too bloody-minded to acknowledge the potential merits of this FPS reimagining are welcome to hold out for that while indulging their nostalgia.
However, those unconcerned by the lack of slavish obsequiousness to Syndicate’s 19 year-old roots should grab the recent demo of this effort by Starbreeze, bypass the histrionics and make up their own minds.
That way, Syndicate can remain a world that revolves around chips implanted in heads, not those carried on shoulders.