There’s lots of stuff to say about 2012’s Syndicate. The hacking was really, really well integrated in the action, in a way that felt great pretty much every time. The feel of the world was pretty nice, though the main plot was pretty surface-level on exploring, like, any of it. There’s lots of incredibly 2012 stuff about the game too. For instance, there are like 5 actions that are done with different semi-context-sensitive buttons when a single one would do just fine. The boss fights are horrible, due to the weird 2012 thing where games would have cool powers, and then make the bosses immune to those powers so you’re forced to rely on normal shooting. The credits aggressively blast dubstep at you, it’s a great 2012 romp all around.
But what I want to talk about is that the game would’ve been about a million times better with some better feedback. Part of this may have been that I’m playing on PC, at 1920x1080 and the UI was probably scaled for 720p. Having the UI bigger may have helped. But also, boy there could’ve been way more and better feedback.
Let’s start by talking about the way powers work. You have 3 hacking powers: Suicide (Causes the enemy to explode after a delay), Backfire (Does some damage, stops the enemy from firing, and knocks them down), and Persuade (Turns the enemy into an ally). Each one has a certain amount of “energy” that it takes to recharge, and they all recharge when you gain energy. You gain energy by basically doing cool combat stuff. Headshot? There’s some energy. Multiple kills in short time? Have some energy. Do the Gears of War active reload thing on hacking? Take some energy!
It’s a cool system that basically encourages you to be super active while playing. It works pretty well with another power you have that slows down time and highlights enemies (Which works on a cooldown rather than with energy). If you’re using powers and nailing headshots, then you’ll be able to continue using powers. As a mechanic, I really dig it. However, it almost never feels like the cool cascade that it should.
Part of the problem is the delay. When you do one of the things that gets you energy, it gets added to a queue. Each item in that queue goes through a little animation in your strange abstracted health bar, that comes up with a number of energy that you gain from that action. Then there are bars for each power that then fill up based on the energy that you got. Syndicate’s a pretty fast-paced game (one of the things that makes the hacking cool), so by the time you get rewarded for your action, you’ve probably already done some more stuff. It’s not that long of a delay, but it’s enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s action->energy, it just feels like you play the game and get some energy.
Another part of the problem is that the little animation is all of the feedback you get. There’s nothing really to indicate that abilities are ready other than a bar being filled and changing colours.
Another part of the problem is that it’s referred to as “Adrenaline” and “Energy” off and on in different parts of the game, but it’s not a single shared resource. Rather, each power individually recharges. This ends up removing a lot of choice from the gameplay that could’ve been in there. If I have to choose between doing a small aoe that will hurt some guys now, or getting more energy and doing a larger aoe, that’s more interesting than just using an ability when it’s ready. It also means that the feedback that you get is divided, when a single resource could’ve had a much more prominent indicator.
What it left me with was basically abilities that always felt either ready or arbitrarily empty. It was tough for me to feel like my combat actions were having an effect on the ability recharge.
So what can we (and specifically, me) learn from this? Well, this is a case of the mechanic being so cool, and being hurt by the way that it’s presented and a small mechanical choice.. A simple bit of audio and visual feedback, and a bit more snappiness in the response to your actions and the game could’ve really had that feeling of rewarding skillful play and aggression.
If I had to redesign the system today, I would’ve done a few things:
Make energy a single resource. Make each ability use a certain amount of energy. So the big powerful persuade that doubles your power is 100 energy, the aoe that kills everyone is 75 energy, and the tiny aoe that just does a bit of damage and weakens enemies is 30 energy. This makes your choices meaningful, and it allows for…
Make the energy a single, prominent UI feature. Make it so that at a glance I can see what’s going on with the energy
Make the energy fill more snappily. If I get a headshot, the energy should immediately fill. Not headshot->animation starts->animation tells you that you got a headshot and gives you some meaningless number->animation drains that bar and fills energy.
Add a sound and visual cue for getting energy. I want the headshot to feel like it’s got some impact the second it lands, I want multikills to get more intense as they rack up.
And that’s it. Those few redesigns would’ve really helped Syndicate’s abilities feel like what the intent behind them seems to be.
The mechanics in Syndicate were great, and fun to use, and fun to interact with. With the tiniest bit of presentation work and a small change to the resource, the game would’ve been elevated just that final step.