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Starbreeze turns a classic isometric strategy game into a tactical first-person shooter...
On first sights, it's hard to prise apart Syndicate from a certain FPSRPG that was released earlier this year. A cynic would instantly pounce on Starbreeze Studios' FPS reboot of Peter Molyneux's classic strategy series for being a Deus Ex clone; another unimaginative 'me too' attempt with little originality but plenty of budget. Those comments would be cheap though – cynicism for the sake of self-importance rather than a well reasoned opinion on the game. EA holds the company line that Syndicate was in production before Eidos Montreal even announced Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but then they would say that, wouldn't they? It's certainly more than a little fishy that Syndicate was officially announced a mere fortnight after Human Revolution was released. Nonetheless, what's more important than any of this is whether the game is any good. After all, even if Starbreeze is using Deus Ex gameplay as a jumping off point, we're talking about one of the great game series of all time and a genre that's remained relatively untapped compared to standard FPS fare. More of the same isn't necessarily bad, particularly if that thing is good and there isn't much of it around anyway.
Once you remove the Blade Runner-esque, dystopian sci-fi aesthetic and the ability to modify your character with bio-augmentations though, Syndicate is anything but Deus Ex. The demo we played through (see for yourself in the walkthrough trailer below) had no stealth in it, the level structure was linear with no noticeable alternate routes, we didn't come across any RPG-style dialogue choice, and EA assured us that Syndicate will not be taking on any branching narratives. That pretty much takes away all of the things about Deus Ex that make it great, then, so what does it have instead? Well, Syndicate's take on gameplay choice appears to focus on different types of assault. The theme is corporate espionage, much as it was with Human Revolution, but the method is all-out guns blazing and furious fire-fights – there certainly won't be any Achievement for playing through this game without killing anybody. A peek at Syndicate's bio-augmentation upgrade tree confirms this for the game's later stages: 'chip' upgrades resemble Modern Warfare perks much of the time, from armour upgrades to speedier reload times and a 'near-death' health boost.
So far, so run-of-the-mill. Where Syndicate starts to add a little colour, though, is with its Breach Applications. These are essentially upgradeable powers that allow you to mess with the chips in enemy's heads [note on the story: in Syndicate's future imperfect, military personnel are bio-augs with chips installed in their brains that modify their combat abilities]. Using Breach powers, protagonist Miles Kilo [note on the name: isn't that a bit like calling a character centimetre foot, or fluid ounce millilitre?] can manipulate his enemies, getting them to turn on their own side or, indeed, themselves. A Suicide Breach prompts your adversary to go berserk, shoot all his comrades before unceremoniously topping himself, Persuade breaches are similar in nature without the gory end for the host, and Backfire breaches cause an adversary's gun to miss-fire back on itself and kill them. Upgrades then make for more powerful Backfires, for example, that can also take out other enemy's in the vicinity.
While Breaches are undoubtedly the most novel of Syndicate's gameplay pillars, it does have one or two other tricks up its sleeve as well. These include a Dart Overlay that slows the game world down into bullet-time and places a filter over the action that illuminates enemies in red and the rest of the environment as a kind of greyish grid. This can be a touch awkward when trying to tell whether your adversary is behind cover or not, but overall it's a solid dynamic (if a little clichéd). We also played through one section that exhibited signs of puzzle solving life (again, you can check it out in the walkthrough trailer). Freezing a sheet of bullet-proof glass to smash it may not be rocket science, but it demands a little more thought than most FPS games these days. And finally, we did enjoy one of the weapons from the demo: bendy bullets is no new feature, but Starbreeze has executed it better than most previous attempts – the gun actually plays a lot like Halo's Needler.
Judging from the short demo we've played through, Syndicate may not have come across as particularly original and it certainly wasn't Deus Ex (although for entirely different reasons). What it was, however, was quite good fun. Not exactly fangasmic fun, but moderate fun nonetheless. It's just one level demo though, and Starbreeze at least has the feature set and production quality to pull something genuinely engaging out of the bag here.
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