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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Synthetik 2 is a sequel to the best tactical shooter you’ve never heard of

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Synthetik has more than 7,000 user reviews on Steam, and 95% of them are positive. And yet I don’t know anyone who heard of it before I told them about it. Synthetik is the definition of a cult hit, loved by its players and totally unknown to everyone else.

It deserves those reviews. Synthetik’s a top-down roguelike tactical shooter that’s all about rhythm. You step out from behind a cargo container, line up a headshot—yep, it’s a top-down game with headshots—and aggro a bunch of robot guards. Then it’s shoot-sidestep-shoot-dash-reload, every dead enemy popping with a big red X as they’re deleted from existence.

Moving ruins your aim and firing wildly overheats your gun or makes it jam. You have to time your shots for the moments you can safely stand still, playing deliberate and cautious. At least, until you get one of those runs where you’re handed the right gadgets and become unstoppable—being a roguelike, Synthetik has randomized power-ups and they include teleporting grenades, lightning boots, and straight-up orbital lasers.

Synthetik 2 moves from pseudo-2D to full-on 3D, which means sometimes enemies are annoyingly obscured by all the overhead pipes and walkways. But otherwise Synthetik 2 keeps the same feel, the same rhythm, and even the same plot. It’s an expanded retelling of the first game’s cyberpunk rebellion, one android standing against the Machine Legion, whose roster is expanded with cyberdogs and bikes and more squads of killer robocops. It’s not really a game about the story though, just level after level of metal jerks to shoot.

Synthetik 2 is as intense as the original. It’s not a chill game. When the beats kick in and it shouts TERROR LEVEL INCREASED, when there are too many damn drones hovering around and too many tank-bots, or it throws a boss at you that is literally just a jet (a trick repeated from the first game because it worked there too), then Synthetik 2 becomes a heart attack machine. It’s designed to make you feel frantic, to break your rhythm, to make you whiff one of its protracted reloads and get blown to bits.

Remember how everyone who played Gears of War said more games should steal its active reload mechanic? Synthetik did, only when it’s time to reload you have to eject the clip before slapping in a new one, and if you press the button before a clip is empty any leftover ammo is wasted. Every step in the process makes a chunky sound, and even swapping between the three guns you can carry comes with a solid metal CLICK.

The idea Synthetik’s developers started with was a game about bolt-action sniper rifles. You’d have to eject, reload, and slam the bolt forward with every shot. Those developers, then just two guys in Germany, realized they could give that same heft and sense of tactility to other guns, then kept adding more and building a game that grew byzantine and strange around them. And that’s why I’m standing on a rooftop in Synthetik 2 with an X1000 heavy rifle I have to charge every time I pull the trigger, trying to shoot a jet out of the sky.

Eventually I realize this isn’t the tool for the job, and surprisingly the police breaching shotgun is (it’s “designed to take down both doors and enemies” according to the in-game description). I like the shotgun because it’s one weapon I don’t have to eject the clip from to reload, the spread is so wide it’s hard to miss, and also it hits like a train if you could fire a train from a gun.

The enemies aren’t geniuses and seem to kill themselves on the regular thanks to Synthetik 2’s addition of physics and destructible stuff, which means red barrels are everywhere. Sometimes they shoot a wall I’m behind and kill themselves with the ricochet. They could stand to be a bit cleverer than that, but not much—the point of these clanky metal dillweeds is to cluster in groups big enough I empty a clip shooting at them then reload under pressure, and to have enough hit points that I can make big numbers fly out of them. 

This is one game where I don’t mind having numbers all over the screen, because under the hood Synthetik 2 is all about math. A laser turns out to be bad against armor, so I switch to the PSR 2000 ‘Ninata’, a semi-automatic sniper rifle with armor-piercing rounds, and watch the numbers get big again. Upgrades in the field, some of which I have to gamble for, beef those numbers up further. Others help in different ways—one summons a guardian ally when my shields run out, and at another terminal I get the option to give an anonymous tip to the cops, which will add a chance for my summons to be “elite” while also raising the local terror level. I’m narcing on myself.

This kind of risk/reward stuff was a significant part of the first Synthetik, where you might gamble your own health for a power-up. Synthetik 2 aims to build on that with more varieties of upgrade terminals and more possibilities for what they can affect. It’s adding a new attachment system, dual-wieldable guns, weapons that differ based on which faction you loot them from, etc. It’s the kind of game that benefits from having more of everything, to continuously deliver the surprise of picking up a new gun that’s got a different reload timing and finding out it has a frankly ridiculous ricochet. 

Synthetik 2 is a fancier-looking version of what already existed, with the promise of expanded everything, a modding framework, and dedicated servers for online co-op with up to four players. It also lets you save your run rather than having to start over each time, which is my favorite addition. I have no idea if the changes will be enough to lift Synthetik out of obscurity into the popularity it deserves, but I hope so. It would be nice to have other people know what I’m talking about when I say those big red Xes complete me as a person.

Synthetik 2 is available in Early Access on Steam

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