A Parable of Ambition: Syndicate

The fragmented font might represent the fragmented state of the protagonist's mind, had the game given it a moment's thought.

The opening screen. Which I actually like.

The other day I had a realization: I’ve been talking about so many smart but rough-looking indies here on Space-Biff! that I’ve totally neglected to write about something good-looking but dumb. I recently finished my second playthrough of Syndicate from Starbreeze Studios and EA, and so it feels like the time is right to talk about why I think it’s an excellent but forgettable shooter.

Pic courtesy of my friend Adam. One thing I will say to this game's credit: when playing, the shooting is so smooth that it's hard to remember to grab screens.

This is what the game is about. I mean, shooting.

There’s one problem with me reviewing Syndicate, though. All my qualms are spoilers, and I’ve heard there are people who don’t take kindly to those. So I’m breaking this review into two segments. The first part is completely spoiler-free, while part two is for people who suspect they won’t play the game anyway, or who have already played it and are now cruising the internet to see if anyone agrees/disagrees with their take. If you feel that this makes this review a bit superfluous, well, I’m sure that opinion is superfluous too.

Part One: No Spoilers

It has some great shooting, with cool special abilities. The story is dumb like ox, but if your response to that is “whatevahs,” then the final score is that Syndicate received a 7.5 out of 10 from IGN and a 7 of 10 from Eurogamer. There you go: the one time you’ll see an out-of-ten score on Space-Biff! Fine, two out-of-ten scores. The only two.

The spoiler is that you're on a floating city. If you moused over and saw this, it's your own fault.

Even this screenshot is a light spoiler. But you'd need other spoilers to decode it, so don't fret if you only wanted to read part one and you scrolled down too far.

Part Two: Spoilers

So it’s the distant future of 2069, and it’s one of those futures in which Walmart got uppity and now controls everything sans a few dirty people who they keep in check with such subtle methods as armored thugs. These corporations exhibit their authority by filling everyone’s home with austere self-assembly furniture and their heads with chips that govern their very perception of reality (ostensibly making the chairs look padded). Since corporations aren’t in the business of getting along, they have armies and agents, both of which are inhumanely augmented to be better than your average Joe. To let you see the difference for yourself, here’s a pic:

Kids, if you see a Cayman-Global liquid-crystal soldier, don't confront him on your own. Find an adult!

A Cayman-Global soldier with crystal liquid armor (or something) menaces a civilian. A bit later he shoots him. With a shotgun. From the hip.

You play as an agent of Eurocorp. Your name is Miles Kilo, a name that’s so awful that I hesitate to put it in this review, and it makes me contemplate worming my way onto the editing team at Starbreeze. Anyway, the game begins on Miles’ first day as a real agent. Walls of text in the pause menu inform you that the armies that defend the corporations are blunt instruments, so agents are trained/developed for such niceties as infiltration, sabotage, and covert ops. Throughout the game you’ll take place in some of these covert ops:

"It counts as covert if you can silence your gun, right? Then let's go ahead and give one of the game's fifteen guns a silencer. Does that work?" —actual transcript from a Starbreeze storyboard meeting.

A hallway after a successful covert op.

Which is to say, you’re “covert” for all of twenty minutes, and those are spread out over multiple scenes. The rest of the time you’ll be massacring corporate goons with aplomb. You have a few extra abilities that help expedite the slaughter. These abilities are explained as hacking programs run from the chip in your head to breach the chips in the heads of goons. You can make their guns backfire, make them commit suicide, or briefly swap their allegiance to transform them into happy helpers. The game never bothers to explain why lesser corporations don’t just create a security force of un-chipped goons with un-chipped weapons (or why anti-corporate rebels don’t just make simple guns that won’t explode in their faces). Instead, your enemies eventually spend lots of money to deploy signal jammers that must be destroyed before you can use your breaching applications. These are, of course, infinitely annoying.

I think I saw something like this on YouTube.

You even get to use a skyscraper-high zipline!

While the shooting and breaching are good fun, it’s best not to think too hard about the scenery, lest such distractions as thoughts enter your head. Even a momentary lapse in discipline might lead to hard questions that Syndicate doesn’t want answered. If these corporations control everything, why bother with money at all? Or do they still need to trade resources when they aren’t busy undermining one another? Why bother with the illusion of a nice society when their civilians have chips burrowed deep in their brain stems? Why not make them think their factory-slave exhaustion is the aftermath of constant hard nights of going to raves and slamming oxy a quarter-pound at a time?

I can’t decide if this was a brilliant maneuver on the part of Starbreeze—effectively turning us into the same unthinking agents we’re playing as, unwilling to see the society around us as unsustainable—or just the natural consequence of them not really wanting to fuss about with story.

As seen through a camera that you were hacking. This covert segment lasts about 90 seconds.

A Cayman-Global agent kidnaps Dr. Lily Drawl, who is very important.

Okay, back to the story. So there’s this scientist named Lily Drawl. The other agent, Jules Merit, drops references to her attractiveness, which establishes him as kind of a perv. As a covert mission to an unrecognizable Los Angeles goes haywire (read: not covert), you and Merit discover that Drawl is a traitor. Your orders are to spy on her for a bit, but she gets kidnapped by a rival corporation that wears white uniforms rather than black. You pursue her captors to a floating city, kill a bunch of people including an agent with better tech than you (jet-boots!), and bring Lily back to New York. She betrays you to some anti-corporation rebels who prove shockingly inept, letting you kill them despite most of your fun breach powers being disabled. Along the way, nothing hints that you’re anything other than an unfeeling terminator, except maybe some graffiti:

Of course, you're presented a series of complex moral choices that... oh.

Spray-painted philosophy causes Miles Kilo to regret everything he's done and become a philanthropist. After killing everything.

After gleefully trimming the anti-corporation weeds, Miles snuffs the resistance leader and catches up to Lily. He holds a gun to her head. His orders are to terminate her, because hey, she’s a traitor. And she tried to have him killed. And her choice of allies was so thickheaded that evolution demands she be removed from the gene pool.

It's like that one really tough Fable quest: stomp the puppy to death, or lead it out of the necromancer's tower? Either choice deprives the lich of food. Only you can decide.

Difficult choice: kill an unarmed woman, or don't? The shades of grey, the intense ambiguities, and the moral complexity here are staggering.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Miles Kilo doesn’t kill Doctor Drawl. If he doesn’t shoot, great. If he tries to, the obnoxious AI in his head stops him (Was this a plot point? you wonder briefly before Starbreeze’s conditioning shuts down your moment of freedom). This leads to your mutual capture. Then you escape, save Lily, and wipe out your former employer and coworkers. In the final scene, Lily says something about how you now have your freedom. Fade to black.

I don’t like to compare games. Syndicate is its own thing, and it’s a good game (if a bit daft). But it’s impossible to not feel like Syndicate is Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s stunted little brother. Both of their protagonists are more than merely human, and are employees of powerful men. Both games are about the possible dangers of human augmentation and the manipulation of corporations. Both are about free will, about the struggle of their protagonists against invisible strings. And both are parables of ambition, of the highs and lows that humanity is capable of in the name of self-improvement. Sadly, DX:HR has about twenty times as much to say on all of these subjects.

The elevation in this scene confuses me. Weren't you up in a skyscraper?

The game often touches on poignant themes: The pinnacles of human achievement, the depths of its excess. Unfortunately, it doesn't dwell on them.

I know that Starbreeze is capable of so much more. They made the incredible Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, which was ahead of its time in terms of story and interactivity. There were moments when Syndicate reminded me of Starbreeze’s older, more ambitious self. But those moments were fleeting, and then we were back to some brain-hacking and -shooting. In a way, the game itself is a sort of ambition parable, and the punchline is that it’s being wasted. Is it a form of irony for a game about corporate disappointment to be a prime example of corporate disappointment? This is a game that could have been more than it is, given less concern about bottom lines and mass appeal, and more concern for crafting something great. The skeleton is there, yearning for muscle and skin.

So my final score is summed up by this screenshot:

I also considered saying: It's nice, but you can't escape the fact that there's a dead dude on the floor. Feel free to vote on the better final score.

The final score: 7 of 10. Jokes!

Syndicate is beautiful and perhaps poignant, but it’s a fleeting poignancy, the kind that will be forgotten tomorrow.

Posted on April 9, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. digitalpariah76

    I’m Distance Weight, and this is my favourite Syndicate write-up on Space-Biff.

  2. If DX:HR has twenty times more to say then Syndicate then Syndicate must be like an Unreal game without the story :). Maybe that’s just me being angry about everyone in DX:HR not actually talking about augmentation and then mind controlling everyone to kill each other.

  3. This whole human augmentation thing is fascinating. I think video games is a great way to have the discussion too. I am working my way through the DX series right now for that very reason.

    • I’m jealous. I’d love to play DX for the first time again.

      DX and DX:HR are two games that I’ve wanted to spend time writing on, but I worry SB! would become a DX blog.

  4. Wooden Leg Named 'Smith'

    This article is freaking hilarious. ‘Difficult choice: kill an unarmed woman, or don’t? The shades of grey, the intense ambiguities, and the moral complexity here are staggering.’ Rotflmao

    • Yeah, fun review. I’ll confess I laughed a bit when I saw the 7 out of 10 (the last one).

      So what about the multi? Did you have any fun with that?

      • I liked the multi a lot, actually. So much that I’ve considered doing a second review for it. Due to laziness, I probably won’t though.

        It’s been described as Left 4 Dead in the future with cyber-soldiers rather than zombies, and that strikes me as pretty accurate. Problem is, there are about 10 maps (Nine? Eight? I can’t remember exactly), and while you can play them on one of three difficulty levels, there isn’t anything like the AI Director from L4D to make them play differently each time. So once you’ve seen everything one time on each difficulty level, you’ve seen it all.

        Still, it was super fun for a while. I loved it in comparison to Mass Effect 3’s ultra-dull arena multi and slot-machine item unlocks. It just could have used some more variety and maybe some kind of versus mode to give it longevity. 8/10 or something.

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