Guns and apps together lead to rare but sublime glee. You grab a thermite gun from the ground and spray liquid death on nameless soldiers. When gunfire intensifies, you activate your overlay, slowing down the proceedings long enough to take down a pesky soldier with a gauss rifle. And when your tactical overlay expires, you recruit an enemy to your cause, who turns his pistol on his own kind. After all of this, a nearby grunt cries out in anguish, heeding your demand for his own suicide. Such moments make you feel extraordinarily powerful. On medium difficulty, Syndicate offers just the right amount of challenge: enemies can be tough, but your additional survival tools make you feel like a powerhouse of destruction. The final levels are an action-packed blast, betraying what Syndicate might have been had it not strayed so often.
Pretty lighting is one thing, but this is way over the top.
But stray it does, lingering on pseudo-puzzles that only require you to jump around a bit or breach a few computer terminals. A lengthy midgame section removes two of your three applications and reduces the fun factor by doing so. Then there are those annoying little details, such as picky contextual button prompts and even the game's own lighting. Lens flare and screen grime are evocative effects, but Syndicate gets noticeably carried away with them, sometimes obscuring your vision during shoot-outs and even making it difficult to tell a window from an empty doorway. As gorgeous as the game is, you get the sense that Starbreeze too often prioritized presentation over gameplay, at least in the campaign.
You can't say the same about the online cooperative missions. Four-player co-op is challenging and exciting, a fantastic mix of shooting and special abilities that requires actual cooperation and communication. In place of flaccid pacing and weak storytelling, you get barrages of bullets, as well as areas swarming with thick-skinned sergeants and hoverbots. The varied levels also require you to be conscious of what's above, behind, and below. The AI is tough and aggressive. Hardened soldiers trudge toward you with their miniguns and snipers pelt you with lead, all while you sprint to a security room so that you can disengage a nasty turret threatening to tear the entire team to shreds.
When in doubt, activate your tactical overlay.
Co-op play requires you to think differently, starting with the healing of your teammates. You can heal teammates at anytime, providing you're in range, though it takes a few precious seconds. The importance of this mechanic can't be overstated because it changes the flow of the match considerably. Enemies approach from all angles, so you are constantly on the move. Yet, you must not only be aware of where you are in relation to your foes, but also where you are in relation to your friends. Your teammates can revive you should you fall, but doing so in the heat of battle isn't always easy--not when an entire horde is upon you. But with a full team, no challenge feels impossible. Co-op maintains a delicate balancing act, making you feel as if the odds are almost--but not quite--insurmountable. And that's what makes the action so explosive. Watching your three teammates fall powerless to the ground and then bringing them back after single-handedly cutting through the mob? It's pure adrenaline, and it's all but guaranteed to cause bouts of triumphant swagger.
The co-op scenarios recycle some of the same ideas: grabbing objects and returning them to a dropship or escorting a little bot as it rolls forward, for instance. But the level design prevents tedium from being a lengthy visitor. In a maze of walkways, a heavy may appear, zapping you with electric bolts and preventing you from moving and shooting. Elsewhere, you snipe teleporting agents from above while your buddies charge the expansive hangar below. The most powerful foes have chips to extract, which are used to enhance your performance, just like in the campaign. But that corpse--and his chip--won't last forever. You need to get to it quickly if you want to reap its benefits, which is a neat challenge in the later missions.
You need to be skillful with your gun, though rifles and pistols aren't your only tools of destruction. Not only can you customize your loadout with different weapons, but you can also customize it with different applications (special abilities). Team heals, damage buffs, shields--these skills and others--give you an edge when you most need one, but you can't exploit them: applications take time to refresh between uses. In time, you might even equip additional skills once you earn enough chip upgrades.
This is not the time for a nap. Oh wait--he's dead. Because you killed him and stole his chip.
In fact, Syndicate sports a nice selection of enhancements and unlocks designed to keep you coming back. It won't take you as much time as you might think to fully improve your applications and weapons, but with so many weapons to grab off the ground after a heated battle and with three difficulty levels, returning to the cooperative missions is a temptation you'll fall for time and again. There are other considerations to keep you returning, too. You can create a syndicate--that is, a clan--and vie for leaderboard dominance as a group. You get credit for besting the performances of fellow syndicate members. It's a shame you can't physically customize your co-op character and that the maps don't scale based on how many players join you. (The missions are all designed for four players, though earlier missions are perfectly doable by two or three skilled gunners.)
Syndicate is a game of thrills and missed opportunities. And so it's important to know what you want from this shooter before you commit. Come to it for the thrills of joining a team and mowing down gunners like so many weeds in a Colorado research facility. Come to it for a chilly vision of the future, where the minds of meddlers can be altered with a simple computer program. There are numerous games better at providing single-player satisfaction, however, and this is where Syndicate falters. While it isn't entirely successful, the campaign still dares to be different. And while "different" isn't the same as "great," Syndicate reminds you that with a bit of creative effort, shooters don't have to play by Modern Warfare rules to be truly modern.