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Can Syndicate succeed where Brink failed?

Looking past the retro comparisons

Syndicate's problem is right there on the game cover. See that menacing man with his crotch wrapped around the title, the short-haired white man being eaten by clouds of angry hieroglyphic wasps? He's called Miles Kilo, but who is he, really? Who? In transforming last century's drag-select 'em up into a story shooter, Starbreeze seems to have forgotten to add in a compelling lead man. Which is a bit of a surprise, needless to say, from the people behind Riddick and The Darkness.

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That's a dilemma the online co-op mode isn't called upon to solve - though as a narrative-driven affair with four fully-backstoried and paid-up characters, including The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, it has a go. Starbreeze's online prompts different questions. Was Splash Damage wrong to think that the older, more thoughtful style of multiplayer shooter could thrive on consoles? Is there room to pick up where the solid, flawed but unforgivably buggy Brink left off?

Brink and Syndicate are worlds apart, but it's mainly just the world. Brink's Ark is a crazy-paving sprawl of oranges, blues and whites, built for free-wheeling tussles over scattered objectives and hotspots. Modelled on ancient Bullfrog maps, Syndicate's co-op levels are chains of open, cover-strewn areas with one link caught in a boss battle's maw.

The two games share an interest in, nay, an obsession with unlocks - Syndicate's include cybernetic powers or "apps" - and the plugging thereof into hulking, charismatic avatars, but more than anything else, it's the stylishly thumpy handling that hits home the comparison. Neither shooter is quick on its pins - they're tailored for planners, not death-defiers. So calm down, grasshopper. You can't just smear a magazine's contents across an opposing force, get blasted to marginally short of oblivion and dive back out to heal up. Or at least, not unless you've got very tolerant allies.

Victory comes instead from monitoring your team closely and employing apps for mutual gain. Most often, you'll be holding the bumper to pump nearby health bars full of nourishing Wi-Fi. More complicated mini-boss scenarios task players with de-hack-tivating layers of power armour, blasting them off, then similarly rinsing the layer beneath, all the while evading the bullets of the vengeful wearer. The feel is almost MMO-ish, as lead programmer Lars Magnus Lang told us after our hands-on, and as with Brink, we expect that association to strengthen as you specialise your Agent - deciding which of the 87 weapon upgrades suits your shottie best, and whether you're a tank or a scout.

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So how does Syndicate take things forward? In a nutshell, by adding recoil. Brink felt a little floaty and feedback-free despite its swaying movement and chunky gun designs. The weapons looked fat and colourful but never shook your world like you wanted them to. By contrast, Syndicate's guns are untamed monsters, filling huge swathes of screen estate with thundering depth-of-field effect as you fight to hold the reticule steady. (A generous dash of zoom-lock makes it possible to keep control, providing you stick to short bursts.)

Coverage of Syndicate to date has focused on what it does and doesn't have in common with the celebrated Bullfrog original, and given that Starbreeze has explicitly positioned the online as a nod to retro, it's hard to see that conversation drying up. For my money, though, there's a more involving chinwag to be had about how it broadens its adopted genre, reaching beyond twitch-gunnery in order to compete. First-person shooters are often branded a one-note symphony (with Activision shouting loudest); however it turns out, this game is evidence that you can sing a different tune.

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