The news that GoG are going to be adding the original Syndicate to their store on Thursday caused many parts of the internet to explode in an orgy of fangasmic joy. Syndicate is rightfully regarded as one of the all-time classics of gaming, which is one of the reasons why the news of the FPS reboot has gone down like a cold cup of sick with most of the gaming community. It’s a fairly simple top-down shooter at heart, but its masterstroke was putting the shooter bits into context by setting them as individual missions on a vast, world-spanning strategic map. This strategic layer let you tax your captured territories and plow the resulting funds into researching ever more lethal weapons and bionic body parts for your team of drugged-up cyborgs, providing the sort of wholesome family entertainment that led to entirely-predictable calls for it to be banned1.
Adding this sort of overall meaning to a game that otherwise remains limited in its scope is almost always a good idea – the Mercenaries games are the most fondly-remembered of the Mechwarrior series, while the Total War series built its entire reputation on detailed battlefields littered with hundreds of corpses that nevertheless represented only a single clash of armies in the wider struggle for control of a vast empire. We’re more invested in a game if we have some say in the direction it takes, and the more freedom the game gives us to choose that direction the better – which is why an FPS reboot that will no doubt end up being a linear series of scripted missions with a few RPG-lite character upgrades as the sole concession to choice is completely missing the goddamn point. The fans are rightfully up in arms over that one because the original game is so fondly remembered. You will rarely hear them mention the sequel, however, which is odd because I think it’s by far the superior game.
The original Syndicate wasn’t perfect. It suffered from more than a few flaws. Most of them were down to technological limitations inherent in what was a very ambitious game for 1993 technology, but the one I hold it truly accountable for is that it’s more than a little light on world-building. Perhaps it’s too much to ask from a game that’s nearly two decades old at this point, but I remember the manual had a huge amount of background information that never made it into the game proper. While the mission briefings do their best they end up being hamstrung by the necessity of having to devote most of their words to telling the player what they have to do. The missions themselves are all entirely standalone, disposable entities where you’re dropped into a sandbox city that’s visually identical to the other dozen sandbox cities you’ve visited and told to kill a guy/kill a bunch of guys/persuade a guy. And let’s not even get into the game never following up on its amazing intro with an equivalent outro2.
Syndicate Wars was released three years after the original in 1996, and it more than makes good on this defect. In fact it does one of the most effective jobs of creating a compelling world and atmosphere that I’ve ever seen. In order to do this it has to be more overtly linear than the original game (although it provides almost the same amount of choice in terms of mission selection) but that’s a worthwhile tradeoff; there are fewer missions, but they have more meaning. The world of Syndicate Wars is directly channelling the dystopian cyberpunk vibe of Blade Runner and early William Gibson novels, and this bleeds through in almost every aspect of its presentation. Like the original game the strategic layer is presented as the holographic interface of a controlling Eurocorp executive mastermind, but thanks to three years of technology development it looks sleeker and far more futuristic. The game’s story is all about an unexpected assault on the all-powerful Eurocorp Syndicate by a religious organisation called the Church of the New Epoch, which subverts Eurocorp’s control of the global population and brings the syndicate to its knees. The Church makes up the second faction in the game, with the player able to choose between working for Eurocorp or the Church at the start of the campaign. This isn’t just a palette swap either, with the Church campaign being fundamentally distinct from Eurocorp’s; a player who picks the Church will play through the same storyline but they’ll do it from the Church’s perspective – where the first Eurocorp mission is an attempt to salvage something from the wreckage of a once-mighty corporation, the first Church mission involves infecting Eurocorp’s global network with the virus that crippled them in the first place. The differences even show up in subtle things like the tech descriptions, where Eurocorp’s blurb takes a scientific approach that stands in stark contrast to the Church acolytes unquestioningly accepting new technology as a gift from their messianic religious leaders.
Oh yes, the “religious” leaders. The Church of the New Epoch isn’t a church built around God but instead worships technology. They field technology that is many years in advance of what the Syndicate’s scientists are capable of, and the wellspring of this technology is a document called the Codex which was written by the Church’s leaders. Who are these leaders, where did they come from, and how do they have access to such advanced technology? The Eurocorp storyline is all about piecing the syndicate back together while trying to resolve this mystery, and it’s made all the more interesting with the introduction of a third unplayable faction, the Unguided. These are literal cyberpunks– individuals who have broken free of Eurocorp’s control but who also reject the teachings of the Church. Dealing with the Unguided rebellion distracts Eurocorp but also ends up posing problems for the Church given the identity of the Unguided leader.
Gameplay-wise, Syndicate Wars is a little bit Marmite. Most people viewed it as a fine game, but one which was somewhat worse than the original because of some of the changes made. I’m not one of these people, but I can certainly see their argument; some of the changes Bullfrog made in order to address criticisms of the original alter the gameplay in fairly fundamental ways. The most obvious example is the universal ammo system. In the original Syndicate guns had a limited supply of ammo, and once they’d run out of bullets/energy/rockets/whatever the gun was useless. This led to the absurd situation where each of your four agents would be carting around eight miniguns under his trenchcoat, with each minigun essentially acting as an additional magazine. Bullfrog’s solution to this for Syndicate Wars was to introduce some fluff where all guns – even projectile weapons – now fire slugs of energy that are powered by a small fusion reactor contained within the agent’s cyborg body. Since they’re all running off of the same power source they all use the same ammo; exhaust the ammunition supply for your minigun in Syndicate Wars and you can’t just switch to another weapon. Instead you have to wait, defenceless, while the agent’s power plant recharges.
Now, if you ask me this introduces an interesting gameplay challenge in that the player now has to think about the best way to end a fight quickly. Engaging in a protracted gun battle puts you at a disadvantage; you need to strike hard and fast and then back off while your ammo replenishes. I enjoyed this gameplay change, but other people hated it – and I can’t exactly say they were wrong to do so when it was essentially placing an artificial limitation on the way they played the game. Certain of the other alterations are more overtly bad; Syndicate Wars is a fully 3D game which came out at a time when 3D gaming environments were in their infancy. As a result it has all the unwelcome baggage you’d expect an early 3D game to have vis-à-vis the control system (especially for flying vehicles) and the camera3. Finally you can no longer raise money through taxing territories and selling pilfered equipment; instead your main source of income is robbing banks via demolishing them with high explosives and making off with the cash, with the occasional armoured car robbery thrown in for good measure. Pulling off these in-game heists is very entertaining, but if you don’t know where these banks are (and the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to tell you) you can quickly run out of money for researching and upgrading your agents.
Gameplay-wise, then, Syndicate Wars is a rather flawed beast just like its predecessor. As a game, though, it provides a far more coherent and full-fat experience; the player actively wants to unravel the storyline and beat the Church, which is a big improvement on taking on the hordes of faceless syndicate agents that were the primary foes of the original. This goes back to what I said at the start about giving the individual gameplay elements of a game some wider context that provides them with meaning. Most games opt to do this with a storyline. Some games opt to do it through player choice. A rare few, however, manage to combine the two elements – this is the reason why I find the true RPG classics so damn compelling, and the same is true for Syndicate Wars. As with all old games it might be a little bit painful for somebody to go back and play today, but you should at the very least take a look at this unofficial Syndicate bible (EDIT: link dead, removing) as it’s got most of the world-building bits that didn’t take place in-mission. And if that induces you to track down a copy of the game, then so much the better.
- If the internet existed in 1993 this is the part where I’d provide some sort of link as documentary evidence. Since it didn’t (at least not in the sense that it does today) you’ll just have to take my word for it.
- I mean this quite literally. Syndicate doesn’t have an outro, or an ending of any kind. Once you finish the final mission it dumps you straight back to the main menu with no fanfare whatsoever.
- The plus side is that Syndicate Wars’ city environments are – again – very atmospherically cyberpunk, which is a massive step forward from the original’s identikit brown industrial parks.