ColumnSecond Look

Syndicate Is Cyberpunk FPS Bliss and Frustratingly, Criminally Underrated

2012 Syndicate Starbreeze Studios EA criminally underrated cyberpunk co-op action and sound design

What if I told you that you could play a game that combines Wolfenstein, Mirror’s Edge, and Deus Ex, with a rock-solid campaign and co-op? That sounds like a pretty damn sweet combo, right? And I haven’t gotten into the details yet — because even on a base level, Syndicate is amazing.

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A sort of prequel/reboot to the original Bullfrog games in the ‘90s of the same name, Syndicate centers on a near-future dystopia where corporations have superseded governments, with players settling into the black leather boots of their agent enforcers. Put together by the FPS virtuosos at Starbreeze, Syndicate has every ounce of polish and precision the studio was known for with Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness. It might just be their best work, offering an impossibly smooth, ruthlessly brutal, neon-infused display of game dev wizardry.

It’s very clear that EA wanted Syndicate to be its next marquee FPS series. They hired Richard K. Morgan of Altered Carbon fame to pen the single-player campaign’s script, centering on the mysterious new agent Miles Kilo of Eurocorp. He’s not alone either, with Rosario Dawson, Michael Wincott, and Brian Cox co-starring as the angel and devils on Kilo’s shoulders. They all take their jobs seriously, chewing the pulpy tale of betrayal and revenge with charm. Wincott in particular is perfect as your partner and fellow agent Jules Merit, carrying a twisted mirth through every shootout.

2012 Syndicate Starbreeze Studios EA criminally underrated cyberpunk co-op action and sound design

What’s particularly stunning is how much of their performances comes through. Merit’s intentionally cold, but Rosario Dawson and Brian Cox look life-like by the animation standards of their day. You just don’t see eyes or faces brought to life this vividly in most seventh-generation games, and it sells the otherwise fairly standard script. It’s not that the writing itself is bad, but a lot of the conspiracy and dystopian elements get pushed to the background in text logs. A shame to be sure, but hey, if Uncharted can get away with boilerplate scripts for its presentation, then that same rule applies to Syndicate.

There is the more divisive aspect that Syndicate likes to layer on bloom and other graphical effects, but it works. Syndicate uses them like Killzone 3, adding to the atmosphere rather than distracting you from the action. Your HUD jostles and shakes, guns projecting their ammo count and firing mode for you to see. Sprinting, mantling, and sliding are superb at tricking your brain into feeling the momentum. Though nothing compares to Syndicate’s strongest element: sound design.

Starbreeze has always been known for great sound. Not simply the score, though there’s a marvelous medley of dubstep and electronic rock. Syndicate has guns that verge on Black levels of empowerment. Reloading your gun feels as good as nailing a headshot in Call of Duty. Unloading your shotgun sounds like you’re pounding each enemy with the thunder of a god. The sniper rifle sounds like it’s piercing the damn fabric of reality as it splits your target in half with a well-placed shot. Breaching an enemy to infect their suit with a virus evokes ‘90s dial-up but somehow, through doubtless some arcane ritual, sends a satisfying snap and crackle to your ear.

2012 Syndicate Starbreeze Studios EA criminally underrated cyberpunk co-op action and sound design

I know it sounds like I’m being hyperbolic here, but I’m not. Syndicate has a grasp on game feel that makes even modern FPS titles pale in comparison. It shows that most of the team behind this game went on to produce Wolfenstein: The New Order, because just like that game, Syndicate is unrelentingly over the top in the best way possible.

The A.I. verges on F.E.A.R. levels of aggressiveness, flanking and ambushing you as you unleash hell upon them. The controls are effortless on console and PC, even though players have three special abilities to juggle on top of a bullet time “Dart” mode, dynamic cover system, and an arsenal of weapons with secondary functions. Dart layers new effects and prompts over enemies as you fight, like you’re the kriffing Terminator. Gore and bullets span levels as you fight through a relentless gauntlet of corporate lackeys and rival agents.

It’s crammed full of classic and modern FPS design sensibilities, from action-packed linear set pieces to arena boss battles. Every time a new weapon, ability, or enemy starts to get stale in either the campaign or co-op, Syndicate has something new up its sleeve to turn up the heat. One minute you’re diving through air ducts to chase an elevator while blasting unmanned drones, and the next you’re hacking the targeting systems of missiles pointed right at you.

What’s truly stunning though is that, however brilliant the campaign may be, it’s in co-op that Syndicate shines brightest. In a team of up to four agents, you relive nine classic missions of the original Syndicate campaign, reimagined in a first-person view. Mission layouts and objectives are pulled straight from the original game, but with a twist – there are actually more missions than first appears.

2012 Syndicate Starbreeze Studios EA criminally underrated cyberpunk co-op action and sound design

You see, Syndicate has what may be my favorite difficulty setting modifier for any co-op game ever. Upping from Normal to Hard or Expert doesn’t make enemies deal more damage or take away your health. Rather, the enemy spawns change. Normal is generous, giving you room to breathe and only throwing maybe one or two heavy-weapon toting mini-bosses at you. Hard might add in some snipers, rearrange a few squads, and give the final boss of a stage more of a chance. And Expert? Expert throws a mini-boss at you for the second area in the easiest level of the game, along with a gauntlet of foes armed to the teeth.

While upgrading your agent through Syndicate‘s brilliant progression system will give you a bit more of an edge, the game is built around the principle that if you want it done right — skill tops everything.

It might not boast the zombie hordes of Left 4 Dead, but Syndicate‘s co-op is an absolute blast whether played with friends or alone. You do want to be sure to unlock the group-heal ability for solo play so you can heal yourself freely, but co-op partners by default can heal each other when playing together.

That interplay with teammates is a beautiful thing, since character builds are extremely flexible. Every loadout weapon and skill has multiple uses or functions, letting snipers turn into close-range ambushers and shotgun aficionados into agile supports. A slew of new hacking abilities are available only in co-op, ranging from support buffs to devastating attacks that can reach enemies even when behind cover. Every facet just kicks ass.

This all sounds spectacular, right? A total blast. Well, when Syndicate released, the best most people could give it was: “Eh. It’s generic.”

2012 was a year of notable games to be sure, but Syndicate hit in February, back before most other notables had hit the market. It busted the doors of 2012 open in style, only to be met with mostly silence. EA didn’t even require an online pass to play co-op, something unheard of at the time. They got top-tier musicians to remix the Syndicate theme and gave that soundtrack out for free. A full demo of the first co-op mission was made available before release. There were livestreams, candid interviews – they did everything to promote this game. I don’t get how it didn’t make a splash.

A lot of the games I cover here deserved better, but Syndicate is a particular sticking point for me. During a time where most FPS games were content to sit back and copy Call of Duty, Syndicate boldly reached for something memorable and fresh. There’s not been a game like it since, which is a damn shame. I’m thankful that most of the team behind this gem went on to craft my favorite Wolfenstein game, but there’s so much potential for more in this series, especially now with a new generation of hardware. I doubt we’ll see EA revisit it, but so long as the servers are active, I’ll keep diving back in.

About the author

Elijah Beahm
Elijah’s your Guy Friday for all things strange and awesome in gaming. You can catch his latest discoveries on Twitter @UnabridgedGamer, Boss Level Gamer, Unwinnable, and his YouTube channel The Unabridged Gamer.