Reboots of beloved gaming franchises tend to be met with a fair amount of angry backlash, and none more so than reboots that twist classic strategy games into First Person Shooters. And let's face it: strategy games don't get much more classic than Syndicate. Numerous fans have added their disgruntled voices to the debate; annoyed and confused as to why yet another beloved brand is being resurrected by the nightmarish AAA machine.
But here's the thing: Starbreeze make great shooters. I'm as unconvinced as anyone about the need for all these reboots, but if my experience with the singleplayer preview level is representative of the finished article, Syndicate is set to be just that. A great shooter... with one hell of an electronic warfare suite.
Starbreeze's FPS credentials are immediately apparent after leaping into the action, taking place in the research labs of rival Megacorp Aspari. The standard FPS controls are instantly accessible, and the movement speed, sensitivity and weight is absolutely spot-on. The selection of weapons, ranging from nifty automatic pistols, brutal shotguns and assault rifles all perform beautifully, kicking back with a determined sense of weight, heft and power. Many of the firearms feature a secondary fire mode, such as the Gauss Rifle which can lock onto targets with the left trigger and deliver its powerful ordinance around corners or over cover. Gunplay is as slick, solid and capable as you'd expect from the veteran studio, and brutal melee takedowns are as satisfying to pull off as they are easy to trigger.
Starbreeze were keen to highlight the advanced AI that powers the private armies you'll be facing. Squads of enemies are keen to use cover, suppress, fall back and flank you given half a chance, with squad sergeants barking out orders and revelling in their durable liquid armour. Players will need every shred of spatial battlefield awareness they can muster, which can be improved exponentially by activating the Darkvision mode that highlights enemies even if they're cowering behind walls or stacking up for an assault. The Gauss Rifle can even lock onto enemies when using Darkvision, though it's balanced by a limited ammo supply.
The HUD design also helps to root you in the world. Detailed information about weapons, important items and enemies is overlain directly into your field of vision via a slick popup, allowing you to read up on the stats - as well as the lore - on the fly rather than accessing an immersion-breaking menu. It doesn't get in the way of the action (only appearing after looking at the item in question for a couple of seconds), but it makes you feel like a augmented cybernetic trooper rather than just a character in a game.
However, Syndicate is far from a traditional shooter. Agents aren't just straightforward grunts, rather, they're incredibly intelligent operatives who use their cranial chips to aggressively hack into enemy hardware. This concept is known as Breaching, and it provides an entirely new way of dealing with any given situation. Anything that can be Breached - and I mean literally anything - shows up on your HUD, and initiating a hack is as simple as holding down the left bumper. There are no minigames or QTEs, just a single context-sensitive command that lets you Breach whilst engaged in heavy combat.
At its most basic level, agents can Breach scenery items that open up new paths or provide a battlefield advantage. For example, I was able to overload a ventilation system that sprayed a bulletproof window with a supercooled gas, making it brittle enough to shatter. This new portal provided a way for my homing Gauss Gun projectiles to seek an otherwise impassable door lock - letting me progress into the next area. Hovering security drones could also be Breached in order to deactivate their energy shields. Granted, this was an overly simplistic and linear tutorial, but the Starbreeze developers assured me that later levels will be much more open and allow for multiple ways to hack security systems to advantage.
Breaching also has a number of more relevant (and fun) combat applications, since every enemy soldier is also equipped with an inferior cranial chip that's ripe for exploitation. A selection of Breaching powers can be accessed from the D-Pad, and each can be activated by simply holding down the bumper while targeting the foe in question. You'll be able to level up these abilities by completing objectives and ripping advanced chips out of enemy troopers. Which is as gory and satisfying as it sounds.
Backfire causes an adversary's weapon to jam, often with explosive results. A fairly long recharge time stops you from nerfing entire squads, but skilfully disabling units with more powerful firearms gives you a fair bit of breathing space and extra mobility. This skill can also be used to neutralise incoming grenades. Persuasion temporarily causes an enemy unit to switch sides, and choosing a target on a higher level can provide some seriously handy overwatch to turn the tide of a difficult engagement. And Suicide? Yes, you can force foes to turn their guns on themselves. The trailers misleadingly suggest that it can only be used in limited story-specific situations, but you'll be pleased to know that everyone is fair game.
These three skills don't overpower the experience, but they add a new tactical dimension to the already-solid gameplay. I was reminded of Batou from anime film and series Ghost In The Shell: a powerful straightforward warrior who can also dominate his enemies with electronic warfare. I'm sorry, but I had to hack your eyes, pal.
Finally, it's worth noting that the preview build looks fantastic despite not having been optimised to any great extent. The Xbox 360 version displays crisp texturework, smooth animations and nary a hint of screen tearing, allowing the gritty neon-edged art design to shine through even at this early stage.
The jury is still firmly out on whether Syndicate really needs - or deserves - Bullfrog's branding. In fact, I'm convinced that it would stand up as its own IP, or hell, even as a Ghost In The Shell tie-in. But what matters is that, from what I was able to play, Starbreeze's project is shaping up to be a fantastic shooter and a great game... and that's all it really needs to be. So long as the level design is expansive enough to let us use our Breaching abilities to their fullest potential.
If not, we (and thousands of Bullfrog fans) will pass judgement accordingly.