Synced’s premise is simple, established through a discordant medley of news reports that kick off this multiplayer game: an outbreak of nanotechnology gone rogue in the Pacific Northwest causes complete global collapse after the appearance of organic-synthetic mutants known as Nanos. In the aftermath, vagabond humans, codenamed Runners, journey into the exclusion zone surrounding the outbreak’s source to push back the Nanos and attempt to put a stop to them once and for all. Oh, go on then Synced, twist my arm.
The exclusion zone – otherwise known as the Meridian – serves as the third-person shooter’s battleground, split into a series of distinct maps for PvE and PvP. I spent the bulk of my preview blasting through PvE-driven Dead Sector runs, which consist of two primary goals: contain the Nano Surge, and eliminate the Tyrant. Conversely, PvP-driven Nerva runs aren’t restricted to the tired old battle royale format; instead, Next Studios makes a concerted effort to appeal to the full spectrum of players. By extending PvE’s objective-based format into a points-based system that rewards players for more than just enemy kills, Nerva runs become more approachable.
Regardless of which permutation of Synced I choose, a match kicks off in much the same fashion: an initial scrum against a swarm of Nanos, culminating in the opportunity to sync to one for my very own. Companion Nanos come in four distinct flavors, and all of them are fairly self-explanatory: the Guardian shields; the Suppressor lays down suppressing fire; the Seer detects enemies; the Crusher, well, crushes things.
Like the Runners, it’s clear that my optimal companion is dependent upon which mode I plan to play. I was partial to the Crusher during solo play, while the Guardian’s shield was a lifesaver in close quarters as part of a team. That said, it can be tough to differentiate friendly Nanos from foes in the heat of battle, and I found myself often unloading electrified buckshot into my co-op partners’ Nanos during more hectic encounters.
I can call upon my Nano at any time, and command them to attack enemies and hold a position with the touch of a button. It’s fun to sit back and watch Nanos go head-to-head with each other, as is unceremoniously dropping my companion on the heads of a horde of angry little Nanos rushing right towards me.
That said, my Nano is more than just another ally on the battlefield. When it’s not on the rampage, it’s stored in my Runner’s Nano Arm, where its attributes can be repurposed as an additional ability. If combat is too hectic to make use of the Guardian’s AoE shield, why not call him back for a smaller portable shield to take with you on the go? It’s an elegant solution to managing situations where my companion Nano is less useful, and it grants me a little more tactical choice than just letting it roam the battlefield for the whole match.
The Nanos may be Synced’s main attraction, but it was the Runners who stole the show. Each of the six available Runners comes furnished with their own defined personality and backstory. Some are tinged with dystopian heroism and tragedy, while less scrupulous characters have taken advantage of the upheaval to carve a slice of the post-apocalyptic pie. I was immediately enamored with Park, a shady ex-business mogul from South Korea who boasts a steady hand and a chain-lightning grenade for some handy crowd control, while my co-op partner was partial to Layla, an agile cyberpunk ninja with invisibility and the ability to heal herself by scoring kills with her deadly katana.
Of course, each Runner also possesses their own individual skills and perks that differentiate them from one another, though some are clearly more suited to co-op than others. Dr. Stone is the roster’s dedicated medic, but it’s hard to justify picking him over the more damage-focused characters during solo play, though he’s undoubtedly a boon as part of a team during PvP. However, for the most part, I found that each runner’s suite of abilities strike an elegant balance between PvE and PvP, as well as solo and co-op play. Ragna’s propensity for picking out foes in an environment can come in handy in any game mode, and some runners have perks with multiple effects to cover all iterations of play.
Once I’ve finished playing matchmaker with the roster of Runners and Nanos, Synced is all about refining my build and discovering new synergies from its various loot tables to craft the most powerful loadouts. I was treated to a fully unlocked arsenal of weapons and mods in this preview build, though the sheer number of options at my disposal was frankly overwhelming. It was far better to jump straight into a match and discover them as intended: by stumbling upon them at random and taking them for a spin. I derived great satisfaction from the sound design of Synced’s firepower, though the weapons themselves are fairly rudimentary and I’d love to see weirder and wilder artillery become available as Synced evolves.
Regardless, the weapons themselves are only a fraction of the power I can accrue over the course of a match. As I defeat Nanos, I collect Radia, a match-bound currency that can be spent at one of the Meridian’s Exchanges. These futuristic fabricators are dotted throughout each map, and offer a random selection of mods for either my Runner or Nano. Abilities accrued via the Exchange are exclusive to that run. They’re also completely random, which lends Synced a roguelike quality that dramatically extends the appeal of its limited map pool.
Certain Runner mods can offer straightforward stat bonuses to my health and reload speed, while others cause my bullets to ricochet between enemies or inflict powerful buffs and debuffs while performing a certain action. On one run, I accrued a frankly ridiculous incendiary loadout that triggered explosives after kills, reloads, ricochets… basically, if I was in combat, there were a lot of explosions going on. The aptly named Haven serves as a hub between matches, where I’m free to customize and upgrade my Runner by purchasing my favorite mods I encountered out in the Meridian.
Synced also delivers a decent amount of enemy variety for the amount of time I spend with it. Large crowds of nondescript Nanos are punctuated by hulking beasts sporting organic shields and energy whips, while bipedal Nanos scuttle out from the undergrowth to go for my ankles while I’m suitably distracted.
It’s doubtless that more Nano mutations are on the cards at Next Studios, but I’d love to see more variations that actively disrupt certain playstyles and force players to switch up their approach to survive. At the moment, their main strength lies in numbers, and I found that I could dispatch the vast majority of Nanos by keeping my distance; my team only got into dire straits on the interior maps, where there was less room to breathe in the chaos.
Enemy Nanos have an obvious weak point, often represented by a faint orange glow emanating from a breach in their carapace. Once they’re downed, I can rush up to a staggered Nano for a clean execution. Each Dead Sector run culminates in a dramatic showdown against a Tyrant. These powerful Nano bosses come with their own distinct movesets that force me to adopt a more strategic approach than the horde-like encounters typical of Synced’s combat. The Rusher is a hulking beast that charges and lunges with a lance-shield while drawing pillars of nanomaterial out of the ground – a far cry from my encounter with the Eroder, which vomits an energy beam and peppers the battlefield with pulsating poison nodes.
However, while my Dead Sector runs took me through underground research facilities and Oregonian woodland, the overall sterility of Synced’s maps does render them a touch too bland for my taste. The environments themselves are by no means ugly, but the distinct lack of striking landmarks gives an overall sense of emptiness and leaves me with little to no inclination to explore. This is most prominent during solo play, where I move from skirmish to skirmish, ticking off my objectives until I’m spirited away to a boss encounter. In PvP, however, these desolate sandboxes are active arenas, and safehouses filled with weapons, armor, and medkits become points of contention.
It’s not lost on me that Synced’s success depends on how Next Studios plans to support its free-to-play model, and I got a small glimpse of its monetization structure while trawling menus during my preview. Each Runner has a customization suite of exclusive outfits, emotes, and stickers that can be unlocked in the battle pass. Suffice it to say, I refused to remove Park’s piratical Jolly Roger skin once I discovered it. Of course, there are also various bundles available in the in-game shop, from outfits to weapon skins. All of the above is standard fare for a free-to-play shooter, though I also stumbled upon a guntech gachapon machine that relies on the luck of the draw – though its exact odds remain to be seen.
Synced is set to run on a seasonal schedule, with additional limited-time events lined up to celebrate major holidays and the like. However, I’m more interested in the promise of character-driven events that shine a spotlight on the backstories of specific Runners. It’s unclear how these events will take shape, but they’re sure to be a window into the world of Synced that its environments are sorely missing.
It’s early days for Synced, and while it can feel somewhat barebones when flying solo, there’s a solid foundation to build upon that leaves me optimistic for its future. It makes a bid for mass appeal with its selection of PvPvE formats, and I have to give it credit for just how well it pulls that off – and the beauty of a free-to-play is that there’s little to lose if you’re looking to take the plunge. Whether it becomes a regular fixture in my live-service rotation all depends on how aggressive its monetization is post-launch, and how Next Studios responds to its burgeoning community. That said, I’m still thinking about Park’s jaunty little tricorn hat, so as far as hero shooters go, Synced’s definitely doing something right.