Syndicate Demo Impressions

In Video Games on February 2, 2012 at 2:53 pm

My brother and I spent the better part of last night being impressed with the newly-released Syndicate demo, enjoying ourselves fully in its rather full-featured co-op gameplay.

Co-op games and gameplay has a storied history. In most cases, what’s offered is simply the ability to play the same game with friends. Rarely seen is co-op specific content, to say little of gameplay changes or additions designed specifically for co-op play (beyond reviving downed teammates). Co-op play is usually just single player with two people instead of one.

Sometimes, this makes sense; when you start partitioning your game into co-op and single player segments, you can rest assured that more people are going to experience single player than the co-op. So, if the question comes up as to which part of the game to invest more time in it’s easy to imagine co-op losing out.

That hasn’t stopped the errant game here and there from making a meal of its co-op presentation. Splinter Cell quite uniquely presented its co-op as a marriage of co-operative gameplay and a competitive multiplayer campaign, offering gameplay that included both co-op maneuvers not seen in single player as well as first-person shooter gameplay unique to the entire game — all taking place in custom maps and scenarios designed solely for multiplayer.

That the latest game, Conviction, acts as a major departure from this varied gameplay is worth mentioning. It’s still a fun game to play, owing to Conviction’s overall streamlined stealth action, but you simply aren’t working with your teammate like you did in previous games, just backing each other up in a very simple way, as though two Sam Fishers are mucking about, passing like two stealthy murderous ships in the night. All the same, they apparently found that it wasn’t worth it to dedicate that much development time to the co-op experience (though the game does feature its own co-op campaign, so this might have just been more streamlining). To me, the departure from what they’d done in the past represents an overall shift in how game developers view co-op content.

What strikes me the most is that some of the most bro-tastic co-op games out there today, Gears of War, lacks any form of true co-op function. You simply play with your friends — worthwhile in this day and age, doubly so for the third game which allows up to four friends to bro it through the campaign, but it lacks even Army of Two’s rudimentary co-op maneuvers. That was a game that let you do a number of simple things, like start an in-game countdown for coordinated headshots, drag downed buddies around while they use their sidearm to cover you, mock surrenders, everything solidified your in-game relationship with your partner. Yet Gears co-op is just Gears of War with more players tossed into the mix.

The point in all of this is, co-op is fun, but to actually play with and support your partners is even better. And this is what made Syndicate into a lost night for my brother and I — and this is just the demo. It’s this that makes the game much greater than the sum of its parts.

On paper, the demo is good but fairly standard first-person shooter fare. Each area in the demo is more or less treated as an endurance run where enemies seem to keep attacking for a set amount of time or number of reinforcements. The environments themselves work well for this, providing a number of opportunities to use the game’s vanilla selection of weaponry, from cover to duck behind with assault rifles, to flanking opportunities for shotgunners, to wide vantage points for the sniper in all of us. Aesthetically, this level seemed to match pace with a marriage of the cyberpunk glows of Deus Ex with the clean color palette and geometry of Mirror’s Edge. While it works for the rain-soaked setting it’s easy to complain that we’ve replaced bloom and brown with grey and rain for a level describes as being in China yet with nothing aesthetically Chinese in its execution.

What is unique and well-done here is the mature dystopian cyberpunk setting that doesn’t stray into the heroic post-cyberpunk territory adored by most such games. You are an agent working to advance your syndicate, working and killing high above the huddled delusional masses. Something about that appeals to me, in that these levels take place in clean corporate environments while the huddled masses toil about in Bladerunner-esque streets.

Part of what brings this above the standard fare is shared with the single player campaign: DART-6 and breaching. The DART overlay shows you the world of a cheater’s dream, with objects of interest and enemies highlighted in easily-recognizable orange, even though walls. With this, you can easily keep tabs on the fairly smart enemy A.I. as it tries to flank, ambush and generally out-maneuver you. Rush forward or treat this like a standard FPS and they’ll efficiently end your co-op experience; use the amazing amount of data from your DART overlay and you’ll begin to truly feel like the badass super cyber soldier you’re supposed to be as you effortlessly counter their strategies.

Breaching is the game’s “use” button but, in keeping with the setting, you can “use” breachable objects from a distance and while doing any number of other things, while being forced to keep your breach button pressed still keeps you connected to what you’re doing. In the demo, this is represented by opening shortcuts and flanking turrets so you can get close enough to use your breaching software — fun stuff when you’re still fighting off hordes of enemies. This comes in doubly handy when it comes to “rebooting” downed teammates, as it allows you to do so from a minor distance while allowing you to dodge and shoot to defend yourself.

After this are your applications, what might be in other games your spells or other quasi-magical abilities. These can be used to support you and your co-op partners both, through providing damage shields that soak up a noticeable amount of hurt, to damage buffs that add an intimidating red glow to your weaponry as it cuts the amount of ammo needed to down a target by half. Later unlockable abilities include group heals and group ability rechargers, among others. Adding these to the basic ability to heal your teammate (by “breaching” them) at any time as well as the rebooting of downed allies, and my brother and I both really felt like we were contributing to each other’s success.

In addition to that, the game does score everything you do and ties mission completion and “chip-ripping” specific enemies to a fairly complex RPG-like progression; through this, you get basic points that level up your character and unlock new DART upgrades, as well as weapon and application blueprints (for new guns and apps) and upgrade tokens. In-mission the scoring is trotted out as a minor competitive element among players through score comparison, and the end-mission summary lets you know which challenges (kill streaks, team support goals, etc.) that you’ve completed. The whole effect grants both a meaty progression system and a meaty look at your specific progression, which again makes the co-op campaign seemingly more than what is presented, and something you’ll enjoy playing through multiple times to get all of the unlocks.

Overall it’s my impression of the demo that Syndicate provides a slick package with tactical co-op gameplay and plenty of stats to keep yourself busy with. From discussions around the internet, the demo mission is apparently one of the weaker missions at that, so we’re both definitely looking forward to the full nine mission demo campaign (to say nothing of the fun promised by single player). There’s little things to tweak about too, like the very excellent electronica / dubstep soundtrack, comprised of professional DJ remixes of the original games’ tracks, some very fun voice acting at the hands of the four archetypical yet well-designed co-op agents and the variety of online features (like making your own Syndicate, probably like a clan but I’m fuzzy on the details).

Just for fun, I’m going to list a few things that we had to find out the hard way, as the demo does lack a tutorial or a full-fledged “How-To” screen:

  • Access grenades by holding the weapon switch button (Y on Xbox).
  • Grenades aren’t refilled at ammo boxes; rather, you need to breach (defuse) thrown enemy grenades and pick them up.
  • “Boss” weapons don’t get refills at ammo boxes either.
  • Tap the DART Overlay button (RB on Xbox) to turn it on; tap again to turn it off. Otherwise, press and hold to keep it on until released.
  • Pressing “down” on the d-pad accesses alternate firing modes for some weapons.
  • Pressing crouch (B on Xbox) does many things; it slides when you’re running and puts you into cover if you’re near a chest-high wall. It also crouches!
  • You can pop out from cover by entering aiming mode (LT on Xbox), or by “walking” at the cover, which pops your character and their gun out for some quick firing.
  • Jumping while sprinting (LS on Xbox) offers a unique “long jump” maneuver and animation.
  • Jumping over obstacles results in a Mirror’s Edge-esque “vaulting” maneuver.
  • Melee (RS) doesn’t do anything unless you’re near an enemy, in which case you perform an “execution.”
  • Once you unlock weapon and application upgrades, you need to “research” them to take advantage of the upgrades; they level up just like you do: by performing well in co-op.
  • Just as in the full game, there is one “agent” per “account” (gamertag), with no respeccing. Choose those upgrades and researches wisely!

  1. Besides the super crash we experienced the demo was quite fun. I really like how easy it was to simply pick up the game and get into it. It’s been awhile since I found a game that was just fun from the get go. Maybe as far back as Painkiller, though I would in no way rate Syndicate as good as Painkiller.

    The weapon physics were also quite nice, feeling meaty and effective. I’ve always mocked Halo because even the strongest of guns feel like plastic airsoft rifles. Here, they feel pretty good with nice accompanying sounds. I was cutting people in half with my shotgun, and it felt good.

    I’m still just a bit annoyed at only four characters available for co-op, but again game play trumps aesthetics. That said, i’m super excited about this game, even after only two co-op runs. I really hope they put out expansion pack DLCs to support co-op.

  2. From reviews around the tubes and my own impressions, the co-op offerings are at least as substantial, if not more compelling (with the unlocks and levelling up), than the single player. While you’re not getting as strong a story (or much of one at all) they do toss nice references in the co-op campaign to what’s happening in single-player, which is nice. But between nine missions that visually differentiate themselves with some good, varied level design, and the fun of supporting your co-op partners and levelling up your apps and upgrading your guns …fun stuff. You can even create your own “syndicate” though the co-op characters work for Wulf Western. My bro and I are part of my “Chernobyl” syndicate with a neat golden gas mask logo. Fun times.

  3. Once I get my refund check i’m totally buying this so i can game with ya.

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