There have been many different types of simulation games over the years. Flight sims, life sims, even baby sims, but there’s never been a biologically engineered psychopath sim. That is, until now. Syndicate fills that niche quite nicely, offering you a world full of psychotic people, and the biggest psycho of them all? You.
I was a good two hours into Syndicate before I realised. I had watched in horror as my mate shot random civilians in their stupid innocent heads for no apparent reason. I kept hoping he’d die somehow, but I never stopped to think what I was doing. Soon after, I caught myself using the Suicide ability to force an enemy to kill himself with a grenade while he was surrounded by civilians. I had become a psychopath without even realising it.
Syndicate breeds psychopathic behaviour to be honest. You jam a pizza cutter or similar object into people’s ears or eyes to steal the chips inside their heads, allowing you to upgrade your own. The character does this in a fashion that resembles a man calmly using a whisk, possibly to make pancakes for Shrove Tuesday. The game even prompts you to execute civilians if you walk up to them, for seemingly no reason whatsoever.
When you’re not sneaking up behind foes with a whisk or a pizza cutter, or assassinating civilians you’ll likely be taking part in some very satisfying and intuitive first-person cover-based shooting. To take cover you simply walk up to a wall and crouch. From there you can push up on the left stick to have your character peek over cover and maybe even take a few pot shots if you can see anyone. If you pull the left trigger your character will poke his gun over cover and allow you to aim precisely, but you’ll be more exposed. It’s a useful cover system that enables you to avoid the hail of bullets while offering some of your own.
It doesn’t make it easy, though, and the enemies may even take advantage of an overreliance on the system to perform flanking manoeuvres, among other things. These are enemies that exhibit a desire not to die that’s as strong as their desire to kill you. They’ll duck and weave to avoid gunfire, they’ll lie prone to steady their aim or make themselves more difficult to hit, and they’ll take cover and move around within that cover to find better positions. A few times during my playthrough I was outflanked and destroyed by these enemies and they quickly teach you not to stay still for too long.
Thankfully you’re a Syndicate agent, equipped with the DART-6 chip that allows you to slow time, highlights enemies through walls, and breach the chips inside the enemies’ heads. You can use the aforementioned Suicide breach to turn an enemy into what is essentially a living bomb, killing any enemies (or otherwise) around them, or, if you’re not a fan of suicide bombers, you could make an enemy’s gun backfire and throw him and his mates to the floor with the blast, doing damage and making them more vulnerable to gunfire. Lastly, you could turn to the Persuade breach, which makes an enemy switch sides and fire on their former brothers in arms before taking their own life.
This is where the RPG elements come in, letting you upgrade your abilities and powers as you steal chips from people’s heads with kitchenware. Most of the upgrades can be filed into the ‘makes killing easier’ or ‘makes not dying easier’ categories but there are exceptions. Sadly this is as far as the RPG elements go in single player, there’s no weapon customisation or levelling system at all.
Ironically while you’re causing technical issues in the brains of your enemies you won’t be free of technical issues yourself: Syndicate is full of them. Characters seem to spasm during certain animations, parts of the environment shudder at times, and the game freezes up every now and then. Even the player character can go a bit juddery and not return to normal until the end of the level. It can really drag you out of the world Starbreeze have crafted with all their lovely graphical effects.
If single player isn’t for you then you can jump into Syndicate’s online co-op mode with friends in a Syndicate (like a clan) or with randoms over matchmaking. It’s here that Syndicate best shows off its RPG elements and lets you unlock and research upgrades for the various weapons and abilities you’ll use for all your killing. Although you can’t help but feel they missed an opportunity by leaving the upgrade options of the co-op mode out of the single player campaign.