My agents kept getting shot. The midi-music was ominous, and the beeps from the radar warned me of unforeseen dangers. I quickly changed the CD-ROM with another title from my newly purchased Game Blaster-bundle, and tried to forget all about the difficult game.
A couple of weeks later I gave Syndicate another chance, and suddenly everything made sense. I put all my skills into conquering the isometric world of tomorrow, and on the way learned how to produce everything from Uzis to healing packs. The world of the game was dark, fascinating and the challenge highly addictive.
Since the sequel Syndicate Wars, fans have been clamouring for a true sequel, a modern vision of how the series would look more than ten years after it made it's debut. In the spring of 2009 we heard the first rumblings: Swedish developer Starbreeeze was working on Project Redlime, which most presumed was a codename for Syndicate, a game set to be published by EA.
Anonymous tips started becoming a daily thing at the Gamereactor offices, part of the script of the game was leaked online, and the project became reality. One year later I find myself sitting in Starbreeze's Uppsala office, with a Syndicate login screen in front of me. A demo of the game is starting up, ready to be shown for a non-EA or Starbreeze member of staff for the first time.
The year is 2069 and "business is war". In this consumption occupied, tightly-controlled future most people has had a chip mounted into their skull; a component controlled by a handful of enormously powerful syndicates. This is a vision of the future where current phenomenons like social media, personal commercials and constant access to the net has been taken to the extreme, and literally gives the inhabitants a new vision of the world. Loyal customers are awarded, while the chipless "downzoners" are regarded as pariahs. The syndicates are in a constant struggle against each other for the loyalty of the customers, and there is no longer talk of a universe - this instead is the dataverse.
A chip is also installed in the head of agent Miles Kilo. His Dart 6-model is far more advanced, but also highly experimental and therefore not installed in anyone who isn't ready to play the fearless guinea pig. In the first playable sequence that we are shown, we see the power of the Dart 6-chip. We are thrown into a black/white simulation of the world, where enemies are made up of faceless beings, and where a bottomless darkness stretches itself beneath the feet of Kilo. A tutorial where we find ourselves guided by the cold, female voice of the Dart-chip. We are about to learn how to hack.
Each enemy also find themselves installed with a chip, and Miles has the opportunity to hack these at a distance, which can affect the enemy in deadly ways. The "Suicide-hack" is the first we are shown, and we see how Miles approaches a VR-enemy, before selecting the Suicide-hack with the d-pad. After a few seconds the enemy buries its face in its hands, pulls a gun and shoots itself. Dart 6 congratulates Miles, who gets to advance to the next training mission: Backfire.
Weapons too are hackable, and the Backfire-hack makes the gun of an enemy explode in its hands, which can neutralise both the targeted enemy and anyone who might be in the vicinity. Another painful death ensues.
Allegiance is the name of the third hack, and everyone who remembers the old Persuadertron-pistol from the original game should know what this does. With this hack you have the opportunity to get enemies to fight along with you, and if used properly this can be an extremely effective way to turn a fight in your favour. In the simulator this is all shown beautifully: Miles get's the first enemy to betray his colleague, and finishes off the first enemy with a well-timed Suicide-hack.
A common denominator for all these hacks is that they drain an IPA-meter, which is located at the top right corner of the screen. Because of this you have to contemplate when to use your abilities, and fighting smart is rewarded with a recharge of your skills. Hacking is a central part of the game's action sequences, and requires you to both use tactics and maintain an overview at all times. This is also a part of the game that clearly makes it stand out from other FPS-titles, which becomes even more obvious as Miles leaves the secure world of simulation and accepts a proper mission.
In the next sequence Miles has gone to La Bellena, a combination of city and luxury liner, controlled by the syndicate of Cayman Global. La Bellena is full of palm trees, commercial districts and luxury spa resorts, and has been designed to entice the consumers to join the syndicate. In contrast to a lot of other visions of the future, this is not a bleak vision of the world of tomorrow, but rather a treacherously appealing world with a design I personally find much more appealing than a grey world of doom and despair. Behind the blissful exterior of La Ballena conflict rears it's ugly head though, and in this mission it involves a female scientist who has been kidnapped. By using a stolen digital identity Miles has to save her.
"Right before this scene you get to experience the quiet, holiday-soaked part of La Ballena. You get a sensation of how it is to be a consumer in the world of Syndicate" says Rickard Johansson, lead game designer on the game, before he boots up the level.
Any mention of a quiet holiday feeling is quickly destroyed as Miles has his cover destroyed and hell breaks loose. Even though this is a meant as a holiday resort it apparently still comes with its own army, and any chance of finding the missing scientist suddenly has to be achieved through combat. To watch Miles switch between the use of guns and hacks is a completely different experience than what I witnessed in the simulator, and suddenly the combination of the two makes much more sense.
When hunted by the darkly coloured enemies, Miles is required to use both weapons and hacks. In an open space in front of one of La Ballenas shiny buildings, Miles hurls himself behind a pillar of concrete, while shots pepper the air around him. By using the so-called "IPA Overlay" we are able to see the position of the enemies who are marked as red dots, allowing us to plan out a counterattack.
"You have to choose how you want to use the IPA Overlay, as it is not available all the time. It can save your life, and is a resource you have to exploit. We want the player to see the beautiful world that we have built," says Viljar Sommerbakk, lead game designer.
An intensive fight where the surroundings, weapons and the Allegiance-hack is used frequently ends when Miles has cleaned out the area of any opposition. A mini-boss in the form of a rocket launcher-wielding heavyweight with insane amounts of armour, is next. This time around it is the ability to hack the rocket launcher than in the end secures victory. An added bonus of the fight is that Miles can actually pick up the weapon and use it to violently open secured doors.
Several types of enemies appear on our way through Le Ballena. At one point Miles has to destroy a mob of flying robotic-drones, resulting in a unique collection of sounds in the background, with the humming of the robots, the screams from the seagulls and the hypnotic sounds of the waves hitting the shore. In a room marked with a "UAV Control" sign our hero finds a switch that turns the drones into scrap metal. A group of persistent enemy agents disables his hacking skills, and have to be taken down with the use of weapons. The demo ends with a huge firefight, and the fate of the kidnapped scientist remains a cliff-hanger for the foreseeable future.
I am excited by the world I just caught a snapshot of, and even though I have not been allowed to grab the controller myself the action sequences already look enticing. Starbreeze and EA both make sure to point out that they have no intention of delivering the kind of action game where enemies constantly run toward you in perfect alliance with the players crosshair. In Syndicate you will get flanked, you will have to master your hacks and it is expected that you will die several times before completing a level. Syndicate is not meant to be an easy game, but not an unfair one either, and if the developers are able to achieve that balance this could be a really something special in the FPS market.
It's easy to be drawn to Syndicate, both in taking into account Starbreeze's history and based on what I have seen today. Those expecting an updated version of the original game will probably be disappointed though, and everyone should expect something different. This is a FPS that has primarily borrowed the mood and world of the original game, but not the gameplay.
Starbreeze has taken something old, something appreciated and transformed it. They have made it into their own, and so far that is looking like a good decision.