Platform reviewed: PC
Available on: PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S
Release date: September 8, 2023
SYNCED stands apart as a uniquely lopsided proposition in the free-to-play space. On the one hand, NExT Studios has managed to craft a startlingly high-quality PvE shooter with an engaging upgrade loop and a novel roguelike mod system that will have you coming back time and time again. On the other, all of this co-op goodness has been inexplicably paired with a mundane battle royale that suffers from poorly balanced design and a muddled overall structure.
The disappointing PvP component is almost entirely distinct, however, so doesn’t detract from the excellent co-op, but does make the overall package harder to wholeheartedly recommend. If you’re looking for a solid free alternative to the likes of Back 4 Blood or World War Z to enjoy with a thrifty group of friends, SYNCED’s co-op mode will certainly do the trick - just don’t expect to give up Fortnite as you rush to make it your go-to battle royale any time soon.
Sync or swim
The action is set in a distant future where the evil Shinar corporation (a name so close to Shinra that it makes me wonder if someone’s been copying Final Fantasy 7’s homework) has managed to bring about the collapse of civilization with its rogue nanomachine technology.
You play as a Runner, one of the few survivors who is brave enough to venture into the Meridian - a perilous wasteland filled with swarms of deadly robots called Nanos. Your goal in excursions into Meridian is primarily to kill Nanos and scoop up lots of glowing blue Nerva (a valuable energy source that’s being used to power what’s left of human society) to bring back to your camp.
As you can probably tell, the plot is reliant on a frankly absurd number of proper nouns that are deployed with almost alarming frequency. It’s by no means the most easy to follow narrative on the planet, but the frequent cutscenes do introduce some much-needed variety to what would otherwise be a series of back-to-back online matches.
These matches are split into two distinct game modes: PvE Dead Sector Runs and PvP Nerva Runs. The two modes feel markedly different but do share some underlying core mechanics. Both allow you to absorb (or sync) defeated Prime Nanos - roaming minibosses that can then be unleashed to fight by your side. There are four types of Prime Nano to choose from, each smartly designed and offering their own unique approach to combat.
The Guardian, for example, carries a huge defensive shield that can help protect your team against incoming fire while the Crusher lives up to its name by effortlessly plowing through hordes of enemies. Each Nano also grants you a unique movement ability, including a fantastic super-powered jump that feels pleasantly reminiscent of the strong traversal in series like Infamous.
The roster of Prime Nanos pairs well with the selection of available Runners, who each boast their own special abilities including an invisibility cloak and radar vision. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but experimenting with new Runner and Nano combinations adds some pleasant variety.
In two minds
Of the modes on offer, I found that Dead Sector Runs were by far the most enjoyable. They are a series of PvE story missions centered around uncovering the sinister secrets concealed by Shinar in the build-up to the collapse. It feels like something straight out of any of the best horde shooters - dropping your team into an environment filled with waves of robots that need to be culled in order to progress.
In addition to a smattering of Nerva, every slain foe drops Radia - a temporary currency that only lasts for the duration of your current run. Radia is spent on upgrading the power of your current weapons and unlocking one of two randomly selected mods. While the shooting is all mechanically solid, with fluid animations and a robust sense of feedback, mods are really where the combat comes into its own.
Some are small, offering basic buffs to stats like health or attack strength, while others introduce whole new mechanics like the ability to spawn decoys or ricochet bullets between enemies. There is a seemingly endless number to choose from and, most importantly, they can all be upgraded and combined in interesting ways. This opens the door to a huge amount of strategy as you carefully try to craft the perfect combination. It can feel slightly too reliant on luck at times, but when it does all come together the results are incredible. In one particularly memorable run, I bought a series of weapon knockback upgrades leading to a hilarious situation where I could use a fast-firing SMG to send whole groups of enemies flying around the environment like some kind of deadly robot confetti.
All of these upgrades are vital for success against the mission’s final boss, a challenging gauntlet designed to put your combat skills to the test. They’re mostly just big bullet sponges with powerful attacks, but there are some novel gimmicks thrown in here and there to keep things fresh.
There are a smattering of more open-world Dead Sector Runs that allow you to explore huge environments freely while collecting upgrades. It’s a delightful change of pace.
Your haul of accumulated Nerva can then be spent on permanent upgrades back at base, including a selection of starting mods and more powerful weapons. Despite being mostly centered around increasing your overall power level, a numeric measure of the power of your starting mods, the whole loop feels extremely rewarding with plenty of significant unlocks to keep you going.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find that Dead Sector Runs can be enjoyed solo or as a pair. The overall difficulty adjusts depending on the size of your team, a clever inclusion that also means you're not heavily punished if someone disconnects halfway through a match.
Unfortunately, the Nerva Runs are far less enjoyable. A strange take on the battle royale formula that brings in elements of extraction shooters and territory control modes, your main objective is to loot gear and gain Nerva by capturing marked points on the map. Hordes of Nanos are still present, as is the same Radia upgrade system, but it all seems a little out of place in a PvP context. Railing against AI enemies with random overpowered abilities is one thing, but it feels incredibly unfair to find yourself eviscerated by a rival player who just happened to roll better mods.
Add in a pricey battle pass, multiple premium currencies, a gacha system, not to mention the ability to buy some Runners directly with cash (which could potentially put paid players at an advantage) and there’s little here to make SYNCED’s PvP component more appealing than its strong competition in the battle royale genre.
The accessibility options in SYNCED are fairly basic. Subtitles are enabled by default (for both cutscenes and in-game radio transmissions). Controllers are supported on PC and you also have the option to switch a number of actions that are commonly associated with holding down keys (like crouching or aiming down sights) to a toggle.
How we reviewed
I played more than 20 hours of SYNCED on PC and managed to complete most of the co-op Dead Sector Runs either solo or as part of a team. I also spent several hours getting to grips with the PvP mode, Nerva Run, where I experimented with as many weapons and abilities as I could get my hands on.
Our list of the best co-op games will offer you unmissable multiplayer experiences, as will our list of the best multiplayer games on PC, but if you're looking for something to suit a solo experience, then it's worth checking out the best single-player games.