Syndicate means business. Regardless of your opinion on whether this cherished 90s series should have been reborn as an FPS in 2012, its world of all-consuming corporations and always-connected citizens feels more relevant than ever. We live in a constantly-online world, pledging allegiance to the superbrands of mammoth companies with soothing thumbs-up buttons and forced hashtags, all while our politicians roll over to accommodate these corporate giants. Companies like Apple and Microsoft prop up economies and post profits that seem more like GDP's, and in our current world Syndicate's vision of corporations replacing governments in the future seems eerily plausible.
That's the context Swedish developer Starbreeze has inherited, but one it fails to engage with outside of a few half-hearted sentiments on the value and meaning of its tech-obsessed society. This is a world that demands deeper exploration than a few misty-eyed monologues and some collectible propaganda posters littered around the environment you can scan, but that's sadly all you're going to get.
As Syndicate's intriguingly dysfunctional campaign starts, you're joined by your gleefully detached EuroCorp sidekick Meritt on a clandestine raid of an opposing syndicate. He shoots the breeze while indiscriminately gunning down office staff - creepily dubbed "soft assets" - as they desperately attempt to flee the carnage. You're immediately drawn into this miserable world, and compelled into this vision of being a vile corporate superweapon of the future. Let's hope they don't muck it up by having its cardboard cut-out characters spew daft sentiment abou-- oh.
Syndicate's biggest failing is perhaps a complete inability to realise the appeal of Bullfrog's original dystopian vision. Half-heartedly wedging in some basic dramatic structure only serves to highlight how Starbreeze doesn't know what it's doing with this game, and an awkward endgame (in a brief 20 chapter campaign) that focuses on morals and truth simply doesn't work in a game where everyone's a villain.
But it's got moments. Your character's whizzy newfangled brain chip, the DART 6, gives you an augmented reality overlay that highlights almost all the items in the environment - civilians, buckets, computer terminals, cash machines, etc - which affords Syndicate a unique and distinct look. The use of office jargon to represent violence and confrontation in the script is a nice little touch, too, adding a spin to a story where a 'hostile takeover' becomes an all-out war between corporate nations.
This is a world with promise, and one that exists when you close your eyes - though that's partially because Starbreeze rips so copiously from other media you can fill in its environmental blanks yourself. It's a sci-fi environment the developer leaves almost completely unexplored, however, instead rushing you through its tiny campaign and focusing more on its uninteresting supporting cast rather than its fascinating world. This is a game that, for all its pretend posturing, casts a beautiful woman (you know she's attractive because the script goes to great lengths to point this out) as sympathetic genius doctor Lily Drawl, the exact kind of thing you'd expect in a C-tier Jason Statham action movie, possibly played by Denise Richards.
It's a good job the shooting is actually quite clever, then, because the storytelling is a bit thick. The mute and lifeless player character, Miles Kilo, comes pre-installed with three whizzy apps, giving him the ability to make guns backfire and people commit suicide, or fight for you for a bit and then commit suicide. I'd have just settled for a copy of Angry Birds and an Arnold Schwarzenegger soundboard, but I guess that's not how they roll in 2069.
Each of your applications requires you to hold the button for a few seconds before they're unleashed, and letting go as the on-screen counter hits the sweet spot confers additional bonuses. Like Gears of War's active reload, this adds a nice element of risk and reward to even the simplest of mechanics.