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The bloody corporate future of Syndicate


Starbreeze's Syndicate is everything a particular group of PC gamers fears it is.

It's not isometric. It's not particularly focused on slow, methodical strategy. And you have direct control over your character, a departure from the CEO-using-mindless-drones-as-chess-pieces schtick of the original game. So for some of you, the fight's already lost. You can stop reading now.

For everyone else, you'll definitely want to keep reading. Because the new Syndicate is pretty cool.

Gallery: Syndicate (9/29/11) | 7 Photos

Syndicate takes place in 2069 amidst a world ruled by the whims of corporations, not governments. These corporations are at war, both in secret and in public, and they struggle for control and the next big breakthrough. Syndicate casts you in the role of Miles Kilo, an agent of Eurocorp, and a prototype of sorts for the company's more military whims.

In the previous Syndicate incarnations, the player acted as a CEO who had direct control of characters that were essentially devoid of free will. The chips in their head rendered them remote-controlled meat, for all intents and purposes. It was a humorously macabre take on the idea of corporate control.

The new Syndicate is a little less humorous and a lot more macabre. Agent Kilo is one of the first of a new breed of agents with a modicum of free will, able to make his own calls about how to go about the missions he's assigned. As the owner of a new, prototype chip, Miles has the ability to directly hack, or breach, the chips of other people. Maybe you'll make them a friend for a few moments. Or maybe you'll make them put a gun to their head -- after they kill a partner or two.

The other edge of that sword: Milo may have free will, but Eurocorp has access to his chip, meaning he can be made to suffer if he disobeys orders. And by suffering, I really mean persuasion-through-threats-of-death. As always, the Corporation is the one in control.

Your chip does other things, of course. Aside from projecting a pretty sweet-looking augmented reality interface over everything (it looks an awful lot like the Ikea sequence from Fight Club), you're also shown points of interest that you can affect with your breaching abilities.

Here's the thing, though: Syndicate is a shooter. It might bear similarities in appearance and premise to a game like Deus Ex, and its lineage is more tactical, but Syndicate seems very much about shooting things, or hitting them in the face (or kicking their head in on the ground -- it's really, really violent). This extends to your breaching possibilities as well. If you're not breaching an enemy's chip for an immediate effect on combat, then you'll be breaching a door to open it or some mildly puzzle-like variation of that. Or, you might hack a medical pod, which can retract and leave some enemies exposed. The point is, almost everything more complicated than "figure out how to get through that door" comes down to making your killing more efficient.

It makes sense in the world you're in, and in Miles' job in the demo, titled "Executive Search." While your partner goes off to make sure you can do your job, you're tasked with securing a new chip prototype from one of a rival corporation's top scientists. After finding him and killing him (or letting him kill himself, since he knows why you're there), you steal the chip from his brain with a self-drilling tool. If I hadn't known what kind of game Syndicate was before, it was certainly driven home as I cradled a man's head and let the drill do its work.

The violence in Syndicate is brutal, but treated casually at times. Miles' partner is non-chalant as doors in the corporate complex open and he executes any employee he comes across. Thankfully, I had the option to refrain from murdering civilians, but the "execute" prompt always appeared over them.

It's not that the violence doesn't have a place. It fits the story and the setting, and it matches the original Syndicate in that respect, which was graphic in its own way. The story is also being written by Richard K. Morgan, who penned the modern future-noir novel Altered Carbon and a semi-apocalyptic take of his own on a corporate controlled future with Market Forces, so I know that the story won't necessarily be exploitative. But the potential for violence outside of combat made me uneasy. Maybe that was the point. Maybe that is Syndicate's point.

In the meantime, we don't have that long to wait. EA and Starbreeze are targeting next February for launch, and I believe it. Syndicate looks and sounds great, with a distinctive style, some great character faces, and some fun weapons (like that bullet-bending, target-seeking rifle from the original game). Syndicate isn't the game its predecessor was. Starbreeze admits it. And maybe that's going to be okay anyway.

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