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