I wasn’t sure what to expect from Syndicate when I arrived at Electronic Arts’ Redwood Shores campus. Like many gamers, I remember Syndicate as a PC standout of the early 1990s that combined slick cyberpunk atmospherics with an isometric perspective to create an addictive real-time strategy experience. In rebooting the franchise, however, EA and developer Starbreeze Studios have abandoned both the original’s genre and perspective, crafting a first-person shooter that’s already angered many of those who have fond memories of the RTS version. Of course, that may not ultimately matter, as enough time has passed that the new Syndicate will have a whole new audience to draw in, many of whom may not even realize that this isn’t a brand-new IP. While I was initially unsure of what was in store for me before I started playing, a bit of time playing Syndicate’s wildly fun co-op offering has me sold on all of the changes.
It definitely wasn’t an instant sell, as Syndicate’s co-op mode requires more teamwork and coordination than many of its competitors. This may not be a real-time strategy game in the true sense of the term, but there’s an awful lot of strategy to be found here. Much of it revolves around the weaponized chip found in each agent’s brain that allows them to exert hands-free control over the world around them. While you and your squadmates could conceivably just shoot your way through a group of enemies, it might make more sense to hack a console that deploys barricades which can be used for cover or one that opens up a second route with fewer enemies. All of the hackable (or, in the game’s vernacular, breachable) terminals are highlighted via a screen layover, making them easy to find. The tricky part is finding a way to get close enough to them to make the connection, then surviving long enough to complete it.
Standalone terminals are only one part of the equation, as your chip abilities can also be used on both friendly targets and enemies as well. You can heal your partners at any time using your chip, but if one of your squadmates falls in combat (which, trust me, will happen a lot thanks to some brutally efficient enemy AI), you can reboot them by getting close and holding down what I like to call the chip button. Having every chip power mapped to a single button makes it very easy to use it often, something you’ll most certainly need to do to be successful. It took many of us a little while to realize it, but players also have the ability to fire their weapons while employing their chip powers, meaning there is a lot to manage simultaneously.
As I mentioned above, your chip powers can also be used against enemies, though getting close enough to use them poses quite a challenge. While there were a few easy ones, such as the floating turrets that just needed to quickly have their shields knocked down, the majority of shielded enemies were very tough and required a concerted, coordinated effort from multiple players to take down. Again, it became a bit easier once we realized that we only had to get up close and personal to start the hacking process before falling back to safety while completing it. There is a lot going on at any given moment, making solid teamwork and constant communication absolutely essential to survival.
Once we finished the map, we were able to upgrade and improve everything from our weapons to our chips through various types of research. Fans of the original game will likely remember that research played a huge role, so the developers were careful to not only leave it in, but to improve on it in some ways. The sheer amount of options is impressive, so much so that we barely had time to delve deeply into them before moving on to the next map. Chip upgrades are laid out via a skill tree that will instantly be familiar to longtime gamers. In order to unlock better upgrades, you’ll need to spend points on lesser upgrades first. I was particularly intrigued by the upgradeable Applications, which are essentially offensive or defensive powers that can be switched between via the D-pad when you’re not breaching terminals or rebooting your squadmates. For example, Backfire will deal damage to a nearby enemy and knock him back, but it can be upgraded to harm multiple enemies simultaneously. Squad Heal, on the other hand, allows you to heal more than one teammate at once. These all add another new strategic wrinkle to a game that’s already heavy on the strategy.
Although Syndicate will feature nine different co-op maps, I’m only able to talk about one of them right now: Western Europe. Taking place in a mercenary camp, the Western Europe map features a rainy, nighttime environment that made the action a bit more challenging since the enemies were tougher to spot. Western Europe features a lot of chances to use all of your various chip powers and abilities, making it the perfect map to be unveiled to the public. At the end of the event, EA’s reps announced that this is exactly what they planned to do at the end of January, when players will finally get a chance to go hands-on with Syndicate’s online-only co-op mode in a downloadable demo. I may have had my doubts heading into the event, but I already can’t wait to play more. Keep an eye out for more info on Syndicate’s co-op mode in the coming weeks.