Review by Christopher Rubin (Email) March 3rd 2012
Remaking a property long after its popularity has vanished can be a delicate ordeal. Using the name means the designers are looking to recapture the audience once had by a license while simultaneously making it accessible to new players, generally in a video game climate very different from when the original was launched. Starbreeze's handling of Bullfrog's Syndicate makes for a very mixed attempt at such a thing, succeeding beautifully in some ways while coming across as completely out of touch in others.
The primary flaw here is in the manner that the single-player is handled. The first two games in the series present the player as the CEO of a company in a standard dystopian cyberpunk future, a role in which he will need to be ruthless and willing to take any steps necessary in order to gain control. The agents are kidnapped civilians, brainwashed and subjugated to follow a corporation's desire, and are sent on missions to win the favor of countries from other corporations so as to gain financial dominance in the world.
This reboot, however, shoves all of that into the background and makes the player an individual agent who ends up trying to break free of his mind control and become a liberated man again. Such a switch almost completely removes the entire atmosphere created in the previous games, as it moves the player from a role usually reserved for the bad guy (and, unsurprisingly, exactly that in this game) into someone that was previously considered disposable cannon fodder that could be replaced. While that's not a bad thing in and of itself, that's also the basic story of nearly every single cyberpunk game ever released. Syndicate was an interesting twist on the matter and that handling of the concept becomes sorely missed in the single-player portion of this reboot.
Not helping matters is the poor man's level design, trading wide open city areas for consistently convenient air ducts and maintenance passages. What makes such a decision extremely puzzling is that Starbreeze's most well-known efforts are The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness, both of which are games that utilize a large city area and have story missions that branch naturally away from the main hub. Such a design could have worked for the Syndicate reboot, especially since the developers abandoned the world-travelling aspect anyway. Instead, we're left with a generic corridor shooter, stripping away the somewhat open nature of the series while leaning heavily on a layout that could be cut-and-pasted into nearly any other title with no detriment.
However, what is strikingly odd about this situation is how amazingly spot-on the multiplayer co-op is. It makes me want to say that Starbreeze sat down and made the co-op as a labor of love to the original games, but then feared the game would be ostracized as the multiplayer-only Shadowrun game was and hastily slapped on a single-player portion. The flaw in that line of thinking is that there is clearly a large amount of effort and work put into the initial campaign, and when it does work it's pretty great. Many of the boss fights and a few scattered situations are exciting, visceral affairs that present a wonderful atmosphere and some unique tactics. I am reminded of a moment when I crested some stairs to see an elevator opening up with guards running out, and so I hacked the elevator controls, slammed the doors shut and cutting the guards in half. Unfortunately, there aren't nearly enough of those to keep the whole campaign buoyant, and the floundering of blandness often lasts for multiple levels at a time.
But that multiplayer! For starters, it's the beautiful marriage of the older entry's design with modern game mechanics that is so sought after. Each mission is a standalone assignment that drops the player and up to three other buddies into a situation where the end goal will give their corporation a slight dominance increase over the others. Objectives include stealing computer servers (which will limit the player to using a handgun while carrying with the other hand), assassinating certain people, bringing down a group of enemy agents (who have the same abilities as the players, including being able to resurrect each other), and so on. It's far more varied than the single-player, offers more room to move around in, has multiple paths, captures the team aspect that is completely absent in the campaign, and makes the player part of a larger syndicate that is ranked against others in online leaderboards.
The co-op also has more abilities and upgrades, which at first appear as something of a grind but actually go by fairly quickly. The only thing missing to make it the "real" campaign is the lack of cohesiveness to winning the various levels - when they're over, the team is simply dumped back to the set-up screen to pick a level as in any other multiplayer game. If they had removed the single-player campaign, applied those efforts to furthering what they already had for co-op, and then applied team AI reminiscent of something like Star Wars: Republic Commando, this reboot would have been a complete winner.
In the end, stripping away the could-have-beens leaves a single-player that is fairly solid if forgettable. It's the greatly successful multiplayer which fulfills not only everything the single-player lacked but is also by its very nature something lacking in most games: a cooperative experience that is more than just fighting against endless waves of enemies. If considered more as a game along the lines of Left 4 Dead and PayDay: The Heist with a bonus side story, Syndicate is a great experience for both newly introduced players and the nostalgic crowd. Just be aware of what to expect when going into the game, as heading right for the single-player campaign could lead you to end up wondering what this game has to do with Syndicate, why it's so bland, or both.