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Review: Syndicate

Game: Syndicate
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 69
Completion Time: ~6 hours
Buy If You Like: Amoral cyberpunk FPS bastardizations

Style over substance ^ 100

Syndicate is a FPS reboot of the 90’s series of the same name. As someone who never played the original series, I became interested after watching the trailer and was drawn towards the dystopian cyberpunk setting as a means of getting through my Deus Ex withdraw. Indeed, at first glance Syndicate has a lot in common with Deus Ex on a thematic level, although Syndicate never really goes any farther than reestablishing the rather brilliant lore of prior games. There are no deeper ramifications to your actions, or introspection on the nature of humanity, or much beyond entertaining gunplay, so… not really like Deus Ex at all.

The premise of the game is that you are Kilo, an Agent of a syndicate named Eurocorp, who just developed a highly-advanced neural implant that grants access to various powers. In this future, industrial sabotage takes on an incredibly literal meaning, with Agents of rival syndicates tasked with infiltrating R&D departments and basically killing/stealing ALL the things. During a mission to do exactly that, a conspiracy is uncovered, reinforcements arrive, boom boom, explosions, lens flare, boss fights, the end.

That sounds facetious, but plot is not at all Syndicate’s strong point.

Not much room for deep thinking when you get an Execute prompt for hobos watching bad VR porn.

What is particular strong however, is the gunplay. Syndicate does a great job of making you feel like you are running and gunning in a Matrix-esque movie, including having access to overpowered abilities without making you feel immortal. As the plot develops, you eventually gain access to three main “Breaches”: Suicide, Backfire, and Persuade. Suicide makes the targeted enemy shoot themselves in the head or pop a grenade if they are near others. Backfire causes enemies to fall down (possibly out of cover) and take additional damage for X seconds. Persuade makes an enemy fight on your side for X seconds, before shooting themselves at the end of the timer. Each of these abilities recharge only when you kill enemies, ensuring that you don’t just hide in cover until your cooldown comes back up.

What does recharge is the sort of bullet-time mode that you can use in a more traditional Max Payne/FEAR sense to dispatch foes. In fact, this bullet-time is incredibly important because you frequently face massive waves of enemies who are more than capable of mowing you down in seconds. As you progress, the enemies get smarter, tougher, and many start becoming immune to your Breaches altogether. Along the way, you will face rival Agents as proper boss fights, including extra-long HP bar and various gimmicks. While such boss fights were really out of place in a game like Deus Ex, for some reason they felt alright in Syndicate.

In any case, if you are like me and care more about whether it’s worth $9.99 or whatever than about how much the reboot ruins the spirit of the original games, I would say it entirely depends on how much enjoy cyberpunk settings. Syndicate looks great, it has a solid five hours of mindless fun, and you can almost pretend that there is an in-depth existential plot you are just Spacebaring through the whole time. Indeed, Syndicate has a lot more in common with Hard Reset than Deus Ex in that regard. Times aren’t what they used to be though, and whereas I would recommend Hard Reset at $10, I have a tough time recommending Syndicate at any anything higher than $5… and even then, only if you really dig cyberpunk games.

Reviews: EYE: Divine Cybermancy, Gratuitous Space Battles, Hard Reset

Game: E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 60
Completion Time: ~14 hours
Buy If You Like: Half-Life 2 meets Deus Ex meets Warhammer 40k meets mostly hollow FPS frame

Welcome to the future.

Everything you need to know about E.Y.E.: Divine Cybermancy (hereafter EYE) are the first two lines from its Wikipedia page:

E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy is an indie action/role-playing first-person shooter video game created by the 12-person French development team Streum On Studio, and built using Valve Corporation’s Source engine. It is a cyberpunk themed game based on the role-playing board game “A.V.A.” developed by Streum On Studio in 1998.

In other words, yes, this is a FPS built in the Half-Life 2 engine based on a board game and designed by 12 French guys.

The funny thing is that EYE plays exactly how the Steam gameplay videos look, e.g. cool. After character generation, you start out in a weird dreamscape area before jumping through a Martian gate and waking up in a cave. From here, the game takes you through impossibly large Blade Runner-esque settings, and has you kill (usually) never-ending waves of AI bots on your way to completing various objectives in – have I mentioned impossibly large? – locations. Despite the AI bots behaving very obviously like AI bots, the combat in EYE nevertheless remains deeply satisfying for reasons I cannot express.

The problem is that you can never really shake off the vague sense of hollowness that pervades the entire game. You gain XP for kills and damage, and as you level you spend skill points raising stats that allow access to either better weapons, better tech, or better PSI powers. You can upgrade your various implants by spending Brouzouf, the games currency, or you can spend it researching various technologies that may grant you additional stat points or unlock other items (or be a total waste).

And yet… none of it really matters. The game’s plot is the most convoluted, strangely localized mess I have ever seen. And despite “branching paths” the story very clearly was never meant to drive the game in any particular direction. I mentioned earlier that all the enemies behave like AI bots and I meant that – there is never any sense of scripting in the encounters you face, it very much feels like a Counter-Strike match against bots. Each map you complete can be played again as a “secondary mission,” where you are given three random objectives and placed in the middle of a never-ending firefight on said map; ironically, these secondary missions usually end up being more coherent and fun than the plot itself.

All that being said, I actually stuck through EYE to the end and found myself replaying the secondary missions quite a few times. I realize now that my experience is probably colored by my love of the sort of Deus Ex/Warhammer 40k/Half-Life 2/Blade Runner zeitgeist of the game, but I certainly did find the game more amusing than a 60 Metacritic score would seem to suggest.

If you find yourself gravitating towards cyberpunk games regardless of quality, you cannot go wrong with EYE… provided you find it on sale.

Game: Gratuitous Space Battles
Recommended price: bundle
Metacritic Score: 72
Completion Time: ~7 hours
Buy If You Like: The modular unit-designing of space games, without all the pesky gameplay

You have no chance to survive make your time.

Gratuitous Space Battles (hereafter GSB) is one of those indie games that is so ballsy that I am almost inclined to overlook the fact that there is no real game to speak of. Straight from the Steam description:

Who needs backstory? Who needs resource-gathering? Diplomacy is so last year. Gratuitous Space Battles cuts right to the chase of sci-fi strategy games, and deals with large, completely unjustified space battles between huge opposing space fleets.

Do you know in space-sim games when you are designing new hulls? You know, fitting components in the empty slots, trying to balance power/crew limitations while keeping costs under control? That is basically all you do in GSB: design space ships, place them on the left-hand side of the screen until you reach the resource cap, edit their orders a bit (ignore fighters, keep in formation, escort the cruiser, etc), and then press Fight.

Now, I will admit there is something deeply satisfying about watching epic space battles and see shit blow up. The very fact that it is impossible for you to influence the battle once it has begun is oddly comforting in ways that is typically impossible in RTS games.

But… that is the entire game. Design ship, place, watch result. There are 14 “levels” counting the tutorial and two endless modes, but the only difference in levels is the resource cap and occasionally the “anomalies” that might prevent fighters from being placed, reduce max engine speed, forbid shields, and so on in an effort to shake up otherwise unassailable strategies. And believe me, by the 2nd map I had a fleet composition that was basically impossible to defeat.

The ballsy part is how the base game costs $19.99 and there is currently $36.94 worth of DLC. A casual look reveals most of it consists of different races with their own unique hull components, and then a $6.99 DLC that turns the title into a full strategy game. If you are as disinterested in that as I am, the base game will take you about 7 hours to beat with the default race. There are two other races you can unlock to stretch that further, and you can always download player-generated scenarios to pit your fleet against theirs. Since there is zero rewards in doing so though, it is debatable as to why you would bother outside the novelty of the thing.

Game: Hard Reset
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 73
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: Cyberpunk FPS meets Devil May Cry

Cyberpunk hard-on: engage.

Hard Reset is one of the best-looking, most frantic, disappointingly short, unforgiving FPS games I have ever played. Set in a dystopian Blade Runner meets Matrix future, you control Fletcher as he mows down huge waves of robotic enemies using two highly moddable gun types and a cornucopia of destructible environment set pieces.

Starting out with a machine gun and a plasma rifle bound to the Q and E buttons respectively, you can upgrade them by collecting currency hidden around the levels or as drops from enemies. The machine gun can turn into a shotgun, a grenade launcher, a mine-layer and so on; the plasma rifle gets an AoE electricity mode, a rail gun, a Smart Gun mode that can track enemies through walls, and so on. The key to surviving robot attacks usually comes down to a combination of moves, such as launching a Gravity Grenade (unlockable secondary fire for grenade launcher) to trap a bunch of small bots next to an exploding barrel or what have you, and then launching a normal grenade at the pile.

Er… so yeah, that particular “combo” is fairly straight-forward. And I suppose that leads me to the disappointing aspects of the game: namely the wildly oscillating difficulty.

When you can use the One-Two grenade launcher combo, the game is actually depressingly easy; although bigger bots won’t die instantly, the gravity grenade works on everything but bosses. If one or two little bots escapes the gravity well, or spawn only after the first group blows up in spectacular fashion, watch out. The sheer density of exploding set pieces means you will frequently backpedal into a deathtrap a mere buzz-saw attack away from taking your life. That is when you experience the bizarrely out of place Checkpoint save system (no Quicksaves here), which probably sends you four waves and an upgrade into the past.

The game is also, as previously mentioned, disappointingly short. The story is not nearly as bad as other reviewers have stated, but right as it appears that the game is ready to head in a new direction while tying up some loose ends, the game… well, ends. The brevity of the game is such a hot-button issue that the developer has a passive-aggresive thread on the Steam forums called “Official announcement about GAME LENGTH” that starts out with:

Ok let me make some things clear.

You can finish Quake in 11 minutes.
You can finish Super Mario in less than 10 minutes.
You can finish Doom in less than 30 minutes.

They are still good games.

You can’t finish Call Of Duty in less time than the developers wanted because it’s heavily scripted, with all the cutscenes, NPC preventing you from going somewhere etc.

Hard Reset was designed to be an oldschool game.

In spite of the truncated narrative, in spite of how it’s sometimes difficult to tell that you are actually dealing damage to robots with some weapons, in spite of how I would have preferred a cyberpunk FPSRPG over a Devil May Cry Arena-style FPS, I still find myself having enjoyed the (few) hours of Hard Reset immensely. There is reportedly a sequel or expansion in the works, and if the forum poll results are any indication, the team is well aware of how their nascent fan base feels about the necessity of Quicksaves, new story arcs, standalone single-player levels, level editing tools and mod support, and all sorts of other fantastic goodies.

If even half of the list makes it in, I personally can’t wait for Hard Reset 2.0.