Synthetik: Ultimate makes it’s way to the Xbox after a pretty successful appearance as Synthetik: Legion Rising on PC, but how does the roguelike top-down tactical-shooter, stand up to home consoles and more importantly gamepad controls.
After launching Synthetik, you’re introduced to the story where a 1980’s super-computer started to become self-aware, attempts where made to limit all CPU’s to 1% of their processing power, however by the mid 90′, the self-learning AI had combined to create a robotic army intent on taking over the world, it’s a very Terminator-Esque affair, but as you progress into the game, you’ll find little more in the way of narrative.
Instead, you choose from one of eight classes, ranging in offensive power, defensive stability and skills before you head off to be dropped into a teleportation zone in the first area, as you start to look around for the exit zone, you’ll come face to face with a few basic enemies that you’ll quickly dispatch and these early moments feels pretty familiar to anyone who’s ever played a top-down shooter before.
However it isn’t long before you start to realise there’s something very different about Synthetik, as dependent on your difficulty settings, you might be seeing a massive reduction in accuracy when you’re hit, or having to eject your cartridge before you can reload your weapon.
This first play-through may throw up a few issues, but I managed to pass the first of five main levels (each filled with numerous smaller areas) before eventually meeting my first death, shortly into the second level.
This apparent jump in difficulty initially had me concerned, but rolling back into the main menu, the game rewarded me with a handful of new items I’d unlocked, alongside enough currency to unlock a new Halo inspired heavy pistol, called “Master Chief”.
On to the second attempt with a slightly more powerful character and with a more difficult weapon in my hands, I started to see a few issues with the otherwise refreshing tactical approach, at this early stage the twin-stick controls didn’t lend themselves well to tactical play as aiming was pretty awkward and the cursor was taking so long to float over to an enemy to lock-on, I was usually left reloading in the middle of a firefight after wasting half my ammo.
The control scheme is certainly a mixed bag and throws up as many positives as it does negative points, skills, and perks such as dropping mines or auto-turrets are all easy to access, movement is slick with the quick dash proving a great tactical advantage against stronger enemies, and the overall tactical approach gives a familiar genre a much-needed breath of fresh air, however, it feels like the aiming is designed for mouse and keyboard, which was great for the games original release on PC, however, on the Xbox (and with no Mouse & Keyboard support) it starts to hold back an otherwise excellent shooter.
Thankfully, these can be worked around to an extent, by strafing side-to-side slowly, and checking out various weapons as some just don’t work well with this forced approach, while others feel like they’re made for such a style, especially the long-range Nemesis which I found ripping apart enemies at range, and giving me plenty of time to focus on the next unlucky target.
There’s still plenty to get through though and flicking through the game options will present a much-needed adjustment for Auto-aim (which I suggest setting to high), it’s far from perfect, but it’s a small step in the right direction. There’s also a range of difficulty settings, allowing you to add or remove eleven negative modifiers to scale your rewards anywhere from 60% up to 220%,
Sadly I feel like you’re forced to play with some of these off to negate the negative impact of aiming, which means progression might take a little longer.
Other options hidden away in the menu are the video settings, with the chance to change the frame-rate lock from the default 60fps, down to 30 or 45, or up to 75 or 90, I’m not sure if these are copy & pasted over from the PC version, but the game isn’t stated as “Optimised for Series X|S” so I’m not sure if you’ll actually hit 90fps, but it’s highly recommended to leave these at the default settings regardless.
Firstly, boosting quality settings up from normal to Pro seemed fine, but set to “Pro + Extra Particles” I noticed some pretty obvious frame-rate issues, which certainly shouldn’t be present on the Series X.
The other issue is, regardless at what you set these at when you close the game, next time you return they’ll revert back to 60fps with normal quality.
It’s fair to say that Synthetik could certainly look better, but it remains true to the PC version and there are some crisp visuals, but it starts to look a little too familiar and through the levels, you’ll start to notice the change of floor colour feels like the only obvious difference.
Audio is fairly balanced with clear gunfire and special effects but little in the way of music with no voice acting at all, it’s really not needed as (like the graphics) overall presentation isn’t what Synthetik is trying to achieve, it’s much more geared towards providing a sharp tactical experience within a top-down shooter and that’s an area it hits pretty well with the exception of the aiming.
As with many roguelike titles, longevity is never a major issue, in fact, you’re likely to enjoy the game more and more as time goes on, those first few hours might be a little frustrating as you think you’re getting somewhere and an over-powered enemy takes advantage of the loose aiming and sends you back to the title screen in seconds, but as you get to grips with the targeting and start to take your time in approaching small groups of enemies and dispatching them one by one, dashing into cover while reloading, you’ll find a pleasant and rewarding experience that continues to give a great sense of achievement with the ongoing persistent progress that we love about roguelike shooters.
By your 5th, maybe 10th playthrough, you’ll be passing those first awkward moments with ease, dispatching enemies and your own experience with the game will soon find precision headshots more regularly. I can’t say that the aiming issues become a thing of the past, but as you come to accept them, they’re definitely less annoying as you work out ways of counter-acting and still getting enemies lined up quickly without wasting clips of ammo.
There’s no doubt that Synthetik: Ultimate isn’t going to appeal to everyone, if you want a fast-action, arcade shooter with bullets that home in on enemies, you’re in the wrong place, but if your sick of the endless spray and pray mechanics seen time and time again, and you’re looking for a fun, rewarding and tactical shooter, then Synthetik is well worth your time and consideration.
Priced little over £13 it represents great value, I can certainly recommend Synthetik to fans of twin-stick shooters looking for a more tactical approach, but I’m left wondering how much better it could have been with a more capable aiming system.