The idea of a review is to criticise a game for what it is, not what it isn't. We'd be awfully upset if someone wrote 800 invective-laced words about what terrible ballet dancers we are. We're not trying to be ballet dancers, we're trying to be the world's most talented, handsomest and most pleasantly fragrant band of videogames writers. As far as that stuff's concerned, you're weapons-free.
Syndicate is not trying to be an action RPG, despite its outward similarity to Deus Ex. It's trying to be a shooter - and it's by far one of the most polished shooters we've seen. The slight, six-hour campaign clearly took much time and effort to produce. Its sleek, shiny future cityscapes are stunningly realised with a crisp, wintry palette. It's a triumph of aesthetic style and consistency.
The problem is that it hints at a fascinating and beautiful wider world and then resolutely refuses to let you interact with it beyond filling its inhabitants full of bullets. It plays the shooter role so unrelentingly straight - light on plot, strategy and RPG elements, heavy on slaughtering endless waves of men, punctuated with boss battles - that it feels shallow and anachronistic.
Syndicate boasts the same player physicality that became Starbreeze's calling card in Riddick, though it's lacking the really wince-inducing melee attacks. There's a modest but imaginative arsenal including a deliciously potent laser, a minigun that can slice people clean in half and a woefully underused Thermite flamethrower. Bad guys are agile, diving around like the John Woo Appreciation Society, but they also have their dense moments as you lead them on a maypole-esque circuit of an isolated piece of cover.
In theory this competent meat-and-potatoes combat is enlivened by the ability to breach - i.e. hack - objects and enemies during a firefight. The first time you defuse a grenade in mid-air or cause a hapless rent-a-soldier to spontaneously shoot himself in the loaf you feel like an ultimate badass. Once you realise the extent of your technical prowess is pressing the LB button when prompted and, actually, the strategic consequences of breaching are minimal, that feeling of empowerment disappears entirely. Eventually, rather than attempting anything clever, you'll settle for charging in mashing the melee kill button as the quickest way to dispatch your foes.
Where that method falls down is during the numerous boss battles. We thought there'd been a silent agreement that boss fights were awful and should be avoided. Syndicate revels in them, overpowered super-agents lining up to perform a heavily-armed dance around you. They're uniformly dreadful, with a special shout-out to a truly unbearable final confrontation. Mercifully, there are mid-fight checkpoints, but it's still a long period of punishing trial and error.
Perhaps if there was a stronger story we'd be less likely to collapse in a disconsolate slump every time a grumpy cyborg showed up. While Syndicate's small cast includes impressive names in the shape of Rosario Dawson and Brian Cox, they're barely used. It's not that a story of warring mega-corporations couldn't be interesting, but there's little attempt to reveal the motivations behind the characters, making it difficult to care about them. You're never given a satisfying reason, from any quarter, as to why you're mowing down a seemingly endless conveyor belt of Stig lookalikes. Or why you shouldn't be. "More death? Is that what you want?" Dawson asks us and, by that point, we couldn't care less either way.