As a heads-up: calling anything “underrated” is obviously subjective. This then is an opinion piece that strives to illustrate the manner in which journalists unfairly criticised the 2012 shooter Syndicate. The game’s 74 Metacritic score, were it a film, would indicate a generally positive reception. But in gaming circles 74 is comparatively low. That might be symptomatic of an industry that calls anything above “85” good and anything below “70” deeply average.
A shameless cash cow?
Take the most reviled publisher in all of gaming (Electronic Arts), pair it with a franchise people are protective of (Syndicate) and add the word “reboot”. The game that results is, unsurprisingly, the cause of a great deal of heated debate. But it also happens to be the game I consider the most underrated of 2012.
When the Syndicate reboot emerged early last year the general consensus was that it was a shameless cash-cow trading in on the name of a revered franchise. In a sense EA was perhaps naïve to expect the game to succeed. Why? The original is still remembered too fondly to be replaced easily, while EA is considered to be something of an Antichrist. But to label Syndicate (2012) a bad game because of its association with a big publisher, or its history, is plain wrong.
For a start, the original is only revered because it’s fashionable to wistfully cherish the memory of old games… without actually playing them again and thus, tarnishing that memory. Secondly, the hatred towards EA stems purely from the fact (as far as I can tell) that it’s succeeded far too well at making gaming a profitable capitalist venture. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Syndicate reboot is no more an EA game than the original was. Instead it’s the work of Swedish developer Starbeeze Studios, who, incidentally, is responsible for the excellent Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.
And much like Butcher Bay, the Syndicate of 2012 is hallmarked by expressive visual touches and a genuinely creative approach to visual design. Yes, I can hear your screams: “but the new Syndicate doesn’t look anything like the original! And it’s got a soundtrack by Skrillex! Skrillex!” But for one, Skrillex has merely remade the original theme tune as a catchy electronic version for the masses (the soundtrack as a whole is composed of many songs, not all of them by the aforementioned artist). For another, do we seriously want a reboot that looks just the same as the original? With Starbreeze at the helm, this new, reimagined Syndicate could only ever have been a first-person shooter. It’s the genre Starbreeze has excelled in. And if we’re honest, who seriously wants a contemporary Syndicate game that looks as if it belongs on floppy discs?
Go on, take a look at screenshots of the original game. It takes place from an isometric viewpoint. Let’s be clear, isometric games had their day in the early ‘90s. Grand Theft Auto once adopted a similar viewpoint. And what changed? 3D gaming became an infinitely better alternative. I’m not suggesting Syndicate is the best game of 2012. Nor am I suggesting it’s without its faults. But I suspect that its cool reception was largely due to its lineage and the misguided notion that lineage should never be tampered with.
What the critics had to say
Quarter to Three gave the game a 1/5 rating (no I hadn’t heard of the website before either) and lambasted it for presenting a boring future where advertising and designer labels abound. They use the word “Ikea.” But I don’t think this is a fair criticism at all. Haven’t we all suspected that the varnished walls of the future will be strewn with advertising? Futhermore, an “Ikea” future actually fits the theme of the game perfectly, since the series has always been about the idea of a world that acts as a vehicle for capitalism.
Edge Magazine thought Syndicate was beautiful and stylish. Yet they disliked a story which, in 2012, they felt was unoriginal. They also disliked the way the game felt overly linear and lacked some of the strategy involved in the original. Well the second point I can understand, but the former I find odd. Syndicate might smack of Deus Ex, but Deus Ex smacks of a dozen similar influences. This word “originality” that we bandy about (and I’m guilty of it too) is misused. Nothing is ever inherently original. And if any game in 2012 had the right to tell a story of megacorporations wresting for power, it’s the Syndicate reboot. After all, isn’t a remake supposed to honour the themes of its predecessor?
Eurogamer was more generous, awarding Syndicate a 7/10. But they, like other critics, found the game “unoriginal”. According to Dan Whitehead, Syndicate failed to distance itself from the “cyberpunk herd.” I’m not sure what herd he’s referring to because only a small minority of contemporary games have tackled the setting, and no rival has done cyperbunk in such arresting detail. Whitehead also found the very fact that Syndicate is now a first-person shooter to be to its detriment; indicative of a game, he says, that struggles against convention. While Eurogamer is generally considered to be an excellent publication, I think it’s lazy journalism to judge something against such biased standards. Calling Syndicate a tired remake just because it’s a FPS blatantly disregards the many lazy sequels churned out every year. Call of Duty never does anything demonstrably new but it always gets a thumbs up from critics.
Catching a ride on the bandwagon
It’s become something of a journalistic cliché to label any new FPS “unoriginal” while the franchises that flog the same old ideas get away with it unscathed. In actual fact, Syndicate is not “unoriginal.” It’s one of the few games that makes you feel as if you’re inhabiting the shoes of a real body. Nor is the world bland – it’s in actual fact quite dazzling.
I write this article not because I would have awarded Syndicate 10/10 myself, but because I sense it was criticised for trampling on its own lineage. But that’s not a fair accusation to level at Starbreeze’s Syndicate, for it walks the tricky tightrope of honouring its predecessor thematically while updating the look and feel of its mechanics. I understand it has little in common with an isometric strategy game from 1993, but the 2012 version is symptomatic of a style of gaming we’re now accustomed to: run-and-gunning. It’s just that, by and large, Syndicate does run-and-gun much better than its peers.
As my follow-up article will reveal, bandwagon-style journalism isn’t uncommon, and it doesn’t merely apply to games that get a frosty reception. A lot of games are grossly overrated. With a 74 Metacritic rating, Syndicate would count as a very good film. But in gaming circles, this aggregate score makes it positively bog-standard. In my next article I will argue that another game in 2012 was grossly overestimated, and it currently enjoys a metacritic rating in excess of 90.
It was only Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb that truly captured the majesty of this Syndicate remake. Gerstmann was fired from one of the world’s largest gaming websites for being too opinionated. Clearly he hasn’t lost his individualistic voice.