This article originally appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 233.
Syndicate – like its top-down, squadbased predecessor – imagines a future war between merciless corporations, fought by hypertrained and utterly amoral killers. These corporations are sinister and faceless business octopi, with tentacles in every industrial pie. They’re the world’s largest and most influential companies. Were this real life, the player would be working for a 2069 version of Apple.
Instead, Syndicate’s main character, Miles Kilo, works for the worryingly blandsounding Eurocorp Syndicate. The game’s developers, Starbreeze, haven’t said what Eurocorp sell yet, but the company puts its name on guns. Any business happy to plaster their name on the barrel of a rifle isn’t going to be too altruistic.
Miles has a suite of abilities suited to murdering people. He can use his employees’ guns to insert bullets into their heads, of course, but that’s the boring approach. He’s got a better option already jammed inside his own skull. The Dart 6 chip is standard issue for the wealthy half of Earth’s population, and serves as a tiny PC inside the user’s head. Sounds ideal, I know, but that chip’s not just there to let you play Minecraft on the train: it actively informs buying habits and creates consumers.
The corporations control the stream of information flowing into chipped-up heads, and Eurocorp want to wrest majority control away from their competitors to make people buy more of their socks (or whatever it is they sell).
Miles Kilo’s Dart 6 chip is weapons-grade, and a step above the chips of 2069’s anti-Eurocorpers. Point at an enemy, activate your chip, and you get to see Syndicate’s trump card: ‘breaching’. Kilo can hack into his opponent’s chip and, once secreted inside their brain, he has a number of gruesome options.
Select the ‘suicide’ option, and you can enjoy the grisly spectacle of your chosen foe putting his weapon in his mouth and blasting his brains all over a back wall. Select ‘backfire’, and you’ll overload his weapon, toasting his fingers and sending his nearby chums to the floor with the resultant explosion. Go for ‘allegiance’, and you can make a temporary mind-pact with your target, forcing him to focus his gun on his once-friends before, yet again, shooting himself in the head.
Somewhat fortunately for the sake of our humanity, players can’t just run around suggesting that people kill themselves and cackling as they do. Dart powers take time to recharge, but can also be upgraded. How? In typically grisly Syndicate style: by reaching into the gooey heads of your fallen foes, pulling out their implanted circuitry, and jamming it into your own ear.
Your Dart chip’s power over the world extends to inanimate objects. Get your timing right and you can hack grenades as they sail towards you, leaving them to clatter harmlessly onto the floor like sad potatoes. Hacking becomes necessary on some of the tougher enemies: Starbreeze talk of Kilo stripping the armour from a souped-up tank-man with his chip, before riddling him with holes from his gun. Which, it should be noted, can fire round corners. It is the future, after all.
Getting the timing right when completing breaches and hacks peppers firefights with small moments of challenge, which pay out in ‘IPA points’. These points power a slow-motion ability called Dart Vision that makes singling out incoming grenades and defusing them a little simpler, and lets you analyse firefights more easily.
Selecting your breach target is as easy as lining them up in your crosshairs and activating the ability, but timing it right – like taking a swing in a golf sim – will reap more IPA points. It’s a system that tacitly rewards stylish play, wheedling players into perfecting timings and using their abilities to get the maximum rewards.
But how does Kilo cope when he can’t just crawl inside the cranial cavities of his victims and rewire their frontal lobes? Not everyone in Syndicate’s future can afford a Dart 6 chip and, strangely, that can make them more dangerous. Society is split into ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ Zones, and the denizens of Down areas are less likely to have the cash necessary for a chip. But they’re still ferocious fighters, and all of Kilo’s technical woo-hoo won’t make a dent on their fully organic brainpans. Lucky, then, that he can fall back on old-fashioned combat tactics: put bullet in face to win.
Syndicate’s combat looks advanced. Enemies aren’t glued to crates, doomed to poke their heads above a parapet until they’re popped off by an opportunistic player. They switch cover, and their bullets are as painful to you as yours are to them.
The switch from top-down squad management makes more sense for Syndicate than it does for XCOM. Those who pine for the return of the series do so not for the squad-management mechanics and clunky combat, but for that game’s dark dystopia and humour. In this reboot, it looks like they’ll be able to see the same thing at a much closer vantage point.