This week, Zero Punctuation review Syndicate.

Transcript Edit

A dark, dystopian world run by sinister corporations, where love, ethics, and human dignity all take second place to the emotionless pursuit of profit at all costs. Only in a world as morally blank as this would anyone consider remaking Syndicate as a first-person shooter. Do you see what I did there?

In all seriousness, for those of you who were still tucked up all safe and warm in your dad's left bollock in 1993, Syndicate was a game by Peter Molyneux in the pre-Black & White days when he still had someone nail his feet to the ground before every planning meeting. It was an isometric tactical/management game in which you supervised a bunch of cyberagents on infiltration, assassination, and kidnap missions, micromanaging their individual equipment and weapons like you're their mum and it's their first day at cyberschool, between missions engaging in research and territory management until your sinister megaglobal corporation is the sinisterist and megaglobalist of them all.

And someone said: "If only modern games could take that example and evolve beyond shooting at things behind walls. Let's remake it and make it entirely about shooting at things behind walls."

So it's the cyberpunk dystopian future blah blah blah blah blah blah, all world governments have collapsed like soufflé in the bath, and the sinister megaglobal corporations have taken over. So now espionage and murder are part and parcel of everyday office life alongside data entry and bringing in a cake for Mavis's birthday. You play an augmented superagent called Adam Jensen - I mean Miles Kilo, presumably named after how much smack you need to get through the day, problem-solver and hatchet man for EuroCorp, a syndicate run by Brian Cox doing his best Rip Torn impression.

You may be thinking the first part of this review might have shown my hand a wee bit early, but I do actually think Syndicate has some pretty solid writing. Yes, admittedly, your cartoonishly evil rival agent friend might as well spell out the words "I'm going to be a boss fight later" with the sulfurous black smoke coming out of his arse, but there are some nice character moments and the in-game glossary you assemble builds quite a rich and detailed world, setting the stage for an epic cyberpunk adventure. Unfortunately, the epic cyberpunk adventure doesn't end up happening. Instead, nothing much happens at all.

A once fairly minor background problem with mainstream games these days, all things considered, is fast turning into the trumpeting, tuberculotic elephant in the room. It's what I've termed "sightseeing tour syndrome," in which the single-player campaign seems to prioritize shoving big fancy landscapes in our face over trying to engage on any level of gameplay or storytelling. So you end up with the world's prettiest skyboxes looming over gameplay environments laid out like school classrooms full of boring tossers doing conspicuous amounts of nothing.

The uncomfortable thing about Syndicate 's plot is that you're barely involved in it. You pursue a kidnapped scientist through a rival syndicate H.Q., and they've already rescued themselves by the time you reach them. You hunt down an assassination target through the city slums, and it turns out you can't kill them because they can stop your brain chip with a cyber rolled-up newspaper. Then you head into another office building to wreck up the place, but another syndicate starts wrecking it up first. All Kilo ever seems to do is look at nice scenery and shoot a whole bunch of dudes in reassuringly ethical face-obscuring helmets. And if he'd called in sick to watch Perry Mason repeats all day, then very little would have changed.

So the majority of gameplay is pointing at the nasty men and making bullets go at the nasty men and then the nasty men fall over. But there are some gimmicks hanging off it like lamprey eels. You can hack things using a complicated and technical process called "mashing the left trigger," which functionally is pretty much just a long-distance "Use" button. And there are three open-quotes "strategies" that can be applied by hacking into enemies: you can flood their iPod headsets with Nickelback songs until they commit suicide; you can convince someone that all his nearby friends are suffering from facial tumors that can only be cured by a salvo of healing acupuncture bullets; or just make their guns blow up if you're waiting for the other two to recharge.

Thing is, though, this is all fringe gameplay, minor variations on the theme of making bullets go at the nasty men. And so many nasty men get spawned in each linear shootout playground, the hack powers do little more than take the edge off. Apart from the shooting, the game strangely attempts to flirt with platforming here and there, not to any great degree. It's the nervous flirtation of a heavily made-up college freshman who's going to run away in tears to call her dad the moment you put a hand on her thigh. And it hardly livens things up.

But wait! There's also co-op multiplayer, in which you play as one of four dowdy miseryguts who remind me of Clive Barker's Jericho because they look like the four biggest loners in high school got ostracized so hard they got blown through a leather goods shop. The gameplay is reminiscent of Left 4 Dead's, and if the four of you don't learn to work together then you'll end up like the Beatles: either shot dead or narrating Thomas the Tank Engine.

If you're old enough to run for president, you'll probably be wanting to hear that the co-op mode is the aspect of Syndicate that most resembles the gameplay of Syndicate from the nineties, since it's four characters, mission based, and you research weapons and character upgrades in between them, but really this is like saying the pickle is the part of the McDonald's cheeseburger that most closely resembles vegetarian cuisine. I'm pretty sure the original Syndicate allowed for tactics, rather than putting every member of the team in the hands of a different laboratory monkey who gets rewarded with a banana every time he gets shot at from nine different directions while standing in front of me. I suppose if you do need some visually uninteresting repetitive task to stave off Alzheimer's disease, then you could do worse than the co-op, but it's a bland little experience standing on the shoulders of a bland little story campaign trying to sneak into the grown-up movie theater.

If Syndicate literally was a sight-seeing tour, I'd probably demand my money back, because a competent driver would have shown us something other than blue-gray office buildings and shiny, geometric corridors I could hardly see through the bloom. I can't sympathize with the agendas of any of the characters. The syndicates all talk about human beings the way they talk about how many sandwiches they've got left in the cafeteria, but the rebels don't seem to have a plan beyond smashing up the towers where the big meanieheads live. And then what, rebels? Whip out the brooms?

Mostly, though, the agenda I sympathize with the least is the publisher's. What is the point of slapping a nineties tactical shooter's name recognition on a generic modern shooter if most people who like generic modern shooters won't remember the name and the people who do remember the name will want to set your office on fire? You won't endear yourself offering to rape my mum for fifty bucks.


Hacks the Gibson like three times a night: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw

I think what this game's saying is that if you work for McDonalds you deserve to be shot in the head

Don't knock data entry it made me who I am today


Syndicate 3

Espionage and murder are part and parcel of everyday office life

Syndicate 4

The trumpeting tuberculotic elephant in the room

Syndicate 6


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