The Average Gamer

Syndicate Hands-On Preview – Co-op Mode

The Syndicate demo will be out for Xbox Live Gold users on 31st Jan (tomorrow) and PSN on 1st Feb. EA gave us a hands-on preview with the co-op mode. It’s good. Real good. I imagine it would be a bloody nightmare if you play with online randomers.

The Western Europe map that will be available is 4-player co-op and if you want to complete it on Hard as we did, you’ll need to be incredibly focused on teamwork and tactics. As Mat Jones pointed out in his own Syndicate preview, we dropped straight into MMO jargon from the outset. The level of co-operation required to complete this map makes it feel an awful lot like a small 4-man raid, clocking in at roughly 30 minutes per session.

In the world of Syndicate, you play as an Agent; a member of the Syndicate squad with a Dart 6 weaponised chip implanted in your skull. These brain enhancements let you get up to all sorts of remote shenanigans like causing your enemies’ guns to misfire, commanding computers without using your hands and healing your squad mates. No, I have no idea how a skull implant can repair bullet holes in other people’s bodies but there it is. You can also offer your team buffs in the form of shielding, breach enemies’ armour to make them vulnerable and, if you die in the field leaving one of your team-mates still alive, they can resurrect you when they get close enough. Very MMO-ish indeed.

The tactics our group used on this map were very much around teamwork. In one section with distant snipers and rocket launchers, we’d send out one player to snipe while the others heal and generally try to stay out of rocket blast radius. In another section, we’d split into pairs and have one group draw the boss over to one side of the map while the others engaged additional enemies on the other.

If even one team member lost focus and failed to heal their buddy or to keep their assigned enemies at bay, the battle was over, so good communication was paramount. The HUD design is very helpful with this, showing the health bars of all your teammates at the top. There’s no excuse for letting someone die through ignorance. Thanks to the checkpointing system, having the entire team wipe was frustrating but not the end of the world. The checkpoints we needed to use were perfectly placed, so dying usually meant that we’d spawn at the entrance to a section. We never had to repeat more than one real firefight.

The game had no avatar customisation that I could see but you do get to define your own set of three loadouts named Defense, Offense and Support. These define the equipment you will have at the start of the mission. Each loadout has a free choice of primary and secondary weapons and a chip ability or “application”. These names are purely for convenience and don’t restrict your options – if you want to set up your “Defense” loadout aggressively with sniper rifles, assault rifles and, say, a chip ability that causes your opponent to commit suicide with a grenade, you go right ahead. You’ll also have the option to unlock a second remote ability once you grind enough points to upgrade your chip.

Grind. Remember that word. It will come up later.

When playing on hard mode, loadouts are more about customising for your own play style than trying to build a balanced team. In a traditional MMO raid, you’d need to make sure you have at least one healer, one “tank” to soak up damage and draw attention, and maybe someone set up for crowd control. Syndicate co-op needs people to do all those jobs yet doesn’t force you into specialising for any one role. This is just as well because, as with most games, the XP system is heavily biased towards killing.

I spent one of our four play-throughs spamming heals on everyone else while a specialist sniper took out distant targets and the remaining two took care of close-quarters fighting. This left me trailing at the bottom of the leaderboard with 10,000 XP while the sniper took home 23,000. In another play-through we all took sniper rifles as our primary weapon and clocked in with a respectable 15,000 XP each. The fire rate and low recoil of the basic sniper rifle do mean that a quick double-tap to the torso will kill most enemies as quickly as single headshot, so I fear that this weapon is rather overpowered. However, you get points for kill assists and achieving objectives as well as heals, so there’s little danger of sessions turning into a race to be the fastest sniper. I hope.

XP is important for a number of reasons. Yes, you need it to level up but you also use it in research to unlock new abilities. This is where things gets weirdly complicated.

  • Killing, healing and completing mission objectives will get you XP.
  • Levelling up though gaining XP will earn you chip points.
  • Completing challenges will win you application tokens.
  • Completing certain objectives will give you blueprint tokens.

Spend chip points to upgrade your implanted brain chip and gain new applications like the aforementioned shield buff. Spend application tokens to enhance existing abilities – for example, the basic Backfire will do some damage to a distant opponent when he next tries to shoot you. Upgrade that with the Chamber Patch and Backfire will happen earlier and cause extra damage.

But here’s the catch. You can’t use your application tokens to purchase Chamber Patch unless you’ve already spent a chip point on the ROM 1 upgrade. Even then, once you’ve purchased the Chamber Patch, you still need to unlock it by setting it as your research project and earning 5000 XP in a map. Blueprint tokens work in the same manner but for grenade and gun upgrades. To put this another way, the team have built an RPG-like technology tree but spread it across 3 different menu screens for an awkward-as-hell interface.

The upshot of all this is that unlike an MMO where you’ll run a raid time and time again in the hopes of getting a rare or epic drop from the boss, your incentive to repeat maps in Syndicate’s co-op mode is to grind your research for weapon upgrades and abilities. You can queue up multiple research projects so if you want a fairly cheap ability, any excess XP earned in the session won’t go to waste.

Having played through the demo level four times in a row on hard mode, this worries me a little. I honestly feel like I’m done with the Western Europe map already. I’ve proved that my team are good enough to beat it on the hardest difficulty available. Where’s the incentive to earn new abilities? I could speculate that this might lie in other maps, with certain bosses requiring specific abilities to beat but as yet, that has no basis in fact.

If you have a group of friends you trust, or a clan, then Syndicate’s co-op will be great fun on hard mode. Everyone else will enjoy running and gunning their way through the normal difficulty. Abilities are fun but long cool-down times meant that we hardly used them and we really didn’t need to. As such, even though I really enjoyed our sessions, I have my doubts over the longevity of this mode without a steady churn of new maps. You should definitely try it for yourself when the demo is out this week.

Syndicate will be released on 24th Feb on Xbox 360, PC and PS3.