Retro: Syndicate

By Kieron Gillen on January 31st, 2008 at 3:31 pm.

The British cover, which is far superior to the US one.
Another alumnus of PC Gamer‘s Long Play series, slightly remixed and expanded

A ninja dressed in gaudy blue has just grabbed hold of the eyesockets of his opponent and torn his head clear of his body, dangling a couple of feet of glistening wet spinal cord behind him. Cue screams from the horrified Tabloids. Gamers laughed at or with it, depending on their temperament. It’s 1993, and Mortal Kombat, in terms of press controversy, is the Grand Theft Auto of its day. But only in those terms. Anyone who actually plays it understands that this game exists purely in the Grand Guignol traition of video nasties, a comedy fountain of gore. It was just slapstick with a very sharp stick.

It wasn’t bad to the bone.

Conversely, Syndicate was the meanest bastard that the world had ever seen. If you want to find out about the path that lead to GTA, you start with the four gentleman with the trenchcoats, mirrorshades and miniguns, sitting in the corner. Syndicate didn’t get the bad press for a handful of reasons. Firstly, it was primarily on the PC and Amiga, with the corresponding lower public profile. But most importantly, to really understand how grotesquely immoral it was, you had to play it. And playing a game? Well, that’s the one thing the reactionary end of the press will never consider.

The girl-game-friendly Sindy-Kate revival has long been touted

Syndicate positioned you as commander of four cybernetically enhanced goons of a global corporation. Your task was building a new world order, one hostile take-over of a country at a time. After receiving your mission and being left in the city, it’s up to achieve it by any means possible. Normally, this will be wiping out opposing corporate agents, but other things to see and do in the near future include rescue, escort, brainwashing and assassination. It distinguished itself by being one of the earliest examples of a convincing living city. People wandered the streets, going about their daily business before having their routine (and often fleshy bodies) exploded by corporate conflict in the high street. Cars patrol the street, and can often be commandeered with a burst of UZI fire. Cops desperately try to keep the peace…

Then, this was all shockingly new. Emphasis on the word “shocking”.

My first experience of Syndicate was the demo on cheery PC Gamer progenitor Amiga Format’s coverdisk. My brother and I were excited anyway. For the time, it was beautifully marketed. Photo-lead adverts of hands hanging of a chainlink fence with a pollution-painted city in the background were – in fact, still are – a few steps classier than the competition. The British cover – which you’ll find heading this feature, is far more attractive than the American version. We both loved cyberpunk fiction, and in a world dominated by cheery platformers were ready for some of the dark stuff. Hell: Living in dreary Stafford even urban decay seemed terribly glamorous.

Within seconds, we’re running rampage through the streets. I’m controlling, with my brother shouting short suggestions of what to do next. Weapons are pulled from jacket and any of the civilians who see them scatter, running for their lives. Cops start firing and are dropped with a burst of fire, the bullets of which we’ll mentally make notes to charge to our expense accounts later. A car pulls around the corner, and we open fire. It slides to a halt, its passengers getting out and running for their lives. Another couple of bursts and the car explodes, bodies flying everywhere.

Syndi!

We’re both wearing our biggest Bad Boy grins when something makes our faces fall. It’s a noise. High pitched and sharp, it cuts through the general aural melee of a city firefight. We realise its coming from the tiny people. They’re on fire. The explosion must have sprayed them with petrol or something, and now they’re reduced to living torches: Living torches in incredible pain. We sit, dumbfounded and disturbed. My brother’s the first to speak: “Kill them”. I open fire, trying to put them out of their misery…

I keep a list of the emotions games have provoked in me. This was the first time one had ever given me the vertiginous sensation of moral repugnance at myself. In the end, the burning people from car explosions were cut from the final version of Syndicate, saved for the appearance of the flamethrower later. It was still a uniquely brutal effect. The choice of sound effect was masterful, and I can still recall the pitch and attack of that noise and feel it race down my spine – I ended up connecting my Amiga to my soundsystem to play it at higher volumes, which turned my bedroom into a riotzone. Even the tiny animation was suggestive enough to let your mind fill in the gaps of flesh melting away from bone.

It’s one of the reasons why Syndicate still sticks with me. It was phenomenally ahead of its time. While I’d argue that Syndicate’s cities were more advanced than anything previously, even if they weren’t, what the game used them for was. It was stripped down from what Bullfrog had talked up for BOB, the game which Syndicate grew into. In BoB characters would, if they were full of peaceful drugs, go and find the owner and get hold of car keys, rather than jacking a ride. Or so went Bullfrog’s always compelling high-concept machine, anyway. You suspect that the version we ended up was far wiser. It simply works. Forget the slaughter and the realistic response of the environment to it. Think of elements like how you manipulated your agents through pumping their bodies with different drugs depending on what you wanted to use them for, or the Persuadertron which allowed you to gather around a mass of consumerist zombies in a ready-made army.

Syndi!

I suppose that’s one of the things which even in these days when everything is taking from GTA’s rampage-in-a-freeform-city mandate that keeps Syndicate precious. For all the nihilism, there was a brain to it, a satirical edge. Multinational agents leading hordes of consumerist zombies to achieve corporate aims? As a pulp object, it makes its point forcibly. What makes it succeed as a game that while all the critique is still there, it simultaneously explains all too well why anyone would want to wield this amount of power through its sheer illicit transgressive thrill. Pulling the trigger on the sniper laser that reduces a politician who wouldn’t play ball to a smudge of ash. Stealing a police car and getting through prison security to rescue someone to paste, and then mowing down every single prisoner for no reason other than seeing their bodies fall in piles at the end of the prison ward. And the final gauss-gun-painted confrontation at the Atlantic Accelerator mission, still one of the most famously challenging end of game missions of all time.

Bad to the bone. But the most evil thing about Syndicate – the thing all its players will answer for if ever dragged before the gates of heaven – is how good being so bad was. There’s that twitch guilt, sure… but the pleasure overwhelms it. Syndicate: a holiday in somebody’s misery – and, worst and best of all, a misery you caused.

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144 Comments »

  1. Jim Rossignol says:

    And if there was a ever a game that could be readily remade with modern visuals (retaining that isometric perspective) it’s this. What a beautiful thing it was.

  2. The_B says:

    Aww man! I already have a slight problem with the fact I have about six games in mid play that I’m yet to finish – and then you guys give me another one I want to go back and play thus taking away more of my time…

    I love/hate you guys. So much.

  3. megamaj says:

    I played it. I felt it. And I miss it.

  4. Phil says:

    Syndicate Wars, with an updated engine, high rise levelling explosions, huge crowds of indoctrinated cannon fodder, cyborg spiders, manga-style armoured super priests and general sense it was Syndicate EXTREME, was a relatively worthy update thorough one with the complexity dialled down.

    It also lacked opportunities for the nuanced evil of breaking a politician’s will by exploding his wife then nicking her car.

  5. Emil says:

    The memories.. I still even remember the cheat codes – Marks Team and Coopers Team for infinite money and all upgrades.. I never finished that last level, the framerate in that particular mission was so poor on the old Amiga 500 that it was almost impossible to play it.
    You’re writeup sound almost exactly like how it was the first time I played it too. It’s one of the great ones, that’s for sure, and it captured the spirit of William Gibsons visions of Cyperpunk perfectly.

  6. Irish Al says:

    An eye-opener yes, but hella fiddly in its PC incarnation at least, with muddy controls and inconsistent speed IIRC.

  7. Sarcasmorator says:

    [nitpick] Scorpion wears yellow and he sets people on fire, he doesn’t tear heads off. Sub-Zero tears heads off. He wears blue! And he wasn’t undead! [/nitpick]

  8. Kieron Gillen says:

    Oh, those ninjas all look the same to me.

    KG

  9. Jonathan says:

    Anyone else think it played like the Snes (super nintendo) Shadowrun game?

  10. Phil says:

    @Kieron – I had hoped we’d left such ninjrist hate speach back in the bad old days, though clearly such sentiments still exist in the shadows – in a cruel irony, right next to the ninja themselves.

  11. Seniath says:

    Yes, I do wish someone would hurry up and make a ‘Spiritual Sequel’ to this gem.

  12. Alec Meer says:

    The first time my parents ever heard me say “fuck” was whilst I was playing Syndicate.

  13. phunkysai says:

    I have been wanting a sequel to Syndicate Wars ever since it came out. I still think about how awesome it was, and wish someone would make a new version…

  14. phuzz says:

    One of the first games I remember playing all the way through and actually finishing.
    I remember my favourite tactic was Persuadertron’ing everyone in sight, especially the enemy agents, and running round with a huge army of followers.
    Bonus points for cramming them all into a train and turning up at a defended station, cue mayhem as 50-100 armed zombies hop out of the train and start going shooty :)

  15. Brett says:

    Nice writeup. A great game I remember fondly. I want Peter Molyneux to tap into his dark side again….

  16. SuperNashwan says:

    EA are mental for sitting on this, I regularly fantasise about how great an online, persistent world Syndicate sequel would be. Reliable whispers reached my ear that EA did start work on something a few years back and then canned it before it got anywhere.

  17. MeesterCat says:

    I still hear the screams of the plebs that had been flamethrowered…

    I miss my Amiga 500

  18. Kieron Gillen says:

    Jim and I are considering starting a SOMEONE RIP OFF SYNDICATE campaign.

    KG

  19. davidAlpha says:

    for me, back in the day, it was all about: this game, pizza tycoon and master of magic. Two of those have already been mentioned in this post/comments.
    Seems im reading the right blog after all :) Keep up the great posts!

    ps: review pizza tycoon pls :) (by Micropose)

  20. Ging says:

    I’d love to see someone do justice to a remake of syndicate – not a port as with freesynd, but a nice, graphical update. As long as it kept the old gameplay (perhaps with a few tweaks), I think I’d probably lose hours to taking over the world again.

  21. H says:

    Blimey, I flippin’ loved this game. It was one of the few games that actually turned out better on the Mac, but which I ended up buying/finishing on the PC. It was just so much fun. Would it actually be as much fun now? I’d like to think so.

  22. mrchinchin25 says:

    Yeah Syndicate yeah!

  23. Ian Dorsch says:

    One of my all-time favorites. It actually runs pretty well in DOSBox nowadays, and it’s every bit as brutal as I remembered.

  24. lalahsghost says:

    Oh lord, I forgot the name of this title nearly ten years ago and have been looking for it ever since!

  25. Hugh says:

    Wow… I’ve got a lump in my throat just thinking about Syndicate. I would have been 12 in 1993, and I remember borrowing a cover disk from the son of a friend of my parents’. I was hooked, and still have the CD (or was Syndicate a 3.5″ floppy game? I’ve certainly got the CD from Syndicate Wars) in a drawer at home.

    I would love to play it again…. Maybe my rose-tinted glasses will mean that it’s never quite the same, but I can’t not try….

    Any any new version would be so very welcome!

  26. Optimaximal says:

    My first PC came with a CD drive, a Creative 4x setup. Bundled with that came gems such as Ultima VIII, Wing Commander 2 & Strike Commander (a real-world spin off of Wing Commander). And Syndicate Plus.

    I don’t think I touched Strike Commander nor Ultima for 2-3 years. Wing Commander was done and dusted. Syndicate stayed on 3 successive PCs for years.

    Syndicate Wars came and went. It was brilliant with much more inventive missions and gameplay (although it had that infinite ammo/health concept which nackered the difficulty) and there weren’t better weapons than the Nuclear Grenade and the Satellite Bombardment (run into a crowded district, select the marker, tap the right mouse button, RUN!) but the bugs and stability hurt the game and it just wasn’t as gripping as Syndicate.

    Sequel (spiritual or not) = DO WANT… NOW!!!

  27. Ging says:

    I wonder who owns the rights to the syndicate IP these days. I mean, EA published Syndicate Wars, but it was still developed by Bullfrog.

    Hmm, even Molyneux seems to think there are licensing issues – “Aside from the licensing complications, some sort of next-gen online version of Syndicate would certainly be popular with gamers.” (cvg.com)

  28. Robin says:

    I think EA still own it.

    I remember Alex Trowers(?) mentioning that there have been a couple of attempts to revive the franchise in the last decade (as someone alluded to above).

    Freedom Fighters hinted at how a more ‘consoley’ implementation of Syndicate might work. Although just a very faithful isometric remake would be perfect.

  29. Nick says:

    Strike Commander.. that was like Privateer with jets right? That was a great game..as was Privateer actually.

    Er, yeah, Syndicate was wonderful.. and the flaming screams were one of the first things in gaming to disturb me as well.

  30. Iain says:

    I wish someone would remake Syndicate as a Ghost Recon-style squad-based tactical shooter. Except with less focus on weapon ballistics and more focus on flaming civilians, obviously…

  31. dAn says:

    Ah, back in the day it was all about Syndicate, SWOS, Cannon Fodder, and Zeewolf 2.

    Good times.

  32. Kast says:

    As absolutely shiny as it was, I never did get very far with Syndicate. Maybe it’s because I was 6, I dunno.

  33. Nick says:

    American Revolt is possibly the hardest game I have ever played, too.

  34. Flint says:

    I once owned Syndicate Wars. I’m sure I would have thought of it as a great game if I had had any idea about what I could do in it. Things weren’t helped by the facts that I was young, the manual was a tome and on top of it all the whole manual was in a foreign language for some reason.

  35. Acosta says:

    I don´t know what to say, speaking of Syndicate blocks me because there has been so few games I have been so fascinated like this one. Syndicate is probably the first game I truly felt I was there, the feeling of immersion was perfect thanks to the little details: taking trains, stealing cars, different platforms, great variety, the excellent sound and effects…

    As game it was incredible, the variety of missions, the adrenaline rush when you approached slowly to your objective, (with that memorable change of music), the brutality of the missiles launch. And it had a lot of tactical deepness in my opinion. It even had character development and I remember the feeling of frustration when one advanced agent was killed.

    But the most evil part of the game was not to flame people or killing civilians. For me, my most evil act was “recruiting” the agent and the mind control system. The act of going in the city and enslaving a random person to be your agent, or using the mind control device to create a cloud of civilians ready to die for your agents. It was a real shock seeing myself in that zeppelin, having a so absolute control of normal people and normal life, which only sin was being in the wrong place and the wrong moment. Syndicate is one of the reasons I become interested in videogames for more reason than being a way of entertainment.

    By the way, I completely endorse the “Syndicate rip-off” movement.

  36. realmenhuntinpacks says:

    the intro was well spooky guy
    oh the atmos, the atmos

  37. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    I love the music in this as well. And the mission briefings. I was very young and wild (uh, like 9) back then, and the art style and font in the briefings really stirred my imagination. Me and my mate made our own evil syndicate at school and walked around the playground looking dodgy. Or if it was raining, we’d go indoors and write our own mission briefings (trying to copy the style of the in game ones, down to the exact layout on the screen) for next time we went out!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=538rLOAaSOc&feature=related – awesome music
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8qSWqAC51w&feature=related – hardest level in any game ever?

    I can’t find a good one for the mission briefings alas

    Awesome.

  38. Steve says:

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who’s had visions of a modern-day Syndicate remake dancing in his head. For god’s sake, it could work and work beautifully.

    Thanks for the great writeup of one of my all-time favorite games.

  39. martin says:

    what a great game, this article brings back some memories.

    a remake would be great, but i am not sure if the bird perspective would still work. maybe something more like r6 vegas or graw2?

  40. Hunty says:

    Awesome writeup of an incredible game. In particular, the mission where you assassinated the senator in the midst of the political rally – surrounded by a throng of hundreds of civilians who it was nearly impossible to resist the urge to gun down – was horribly magnificent.

    I never did manage to beat the bloody Atlantic Accelerator. The last levels of Amiga games always seemed insanely hard – someone mentioned Zeewolf above, and the final mission of that I’m pretty sure is nigh impossible as well. I’ll have to go back and try them both again, to see if I still suck as much as I did when I was 9.

  41. Alan Au says:

    Ah yes, the Atlantic Accelerator mission… *shudder* I could get excited about a remake, with the condition that buildings didn’t completely obscure your view. (I could envision a FLIR-type view being very effective.)

  42. Spaz says:

    Loved this game so much!

  43. ran93r says:

    I still have the game and the Amiga to run it on, granted it’s lurking at my parents but thankfully they have no idea of the gold mine they are sitting on. I will have to go and reclaim it one day as it was one hell of a game.

  44. Ghiest says:

    I’ve still got an old amiga and syndicate + wars too. One of the best ever games imo.

    As someone said above … EA are nuts to sit on this license :/ … should be revived and updated.

  45. Kieron Gillen says:

    While everyone complains about there being no UFO successor, at least people have had a crack. That there’s no decent attempt at a Syndicate-inspired game is a little bizzarre.

    (Personally, I’d like to see a little of UFO worked into Syndicate too, on the research side. Purr….)

    KG

  46. John says:

    I’m sad to say I’ve never played syndicate, but I plead youthful ignorance, m’lud. Does freesynd work under winXP, or does it require the usual DOSbox trickery?
    [hyper-nitpick] that “alumni” at the very start of the article should be “alumnus” [/nitpick]

  47. Kieron Gillen says:

    I admit, I couldn’t get FreeSynd to work and the readme gave me the impression that it’s not got much in it yet.

    Were I wanting to play it, I’d abandonware the original and DOSBox it.

    KG

  48. MEOW says:

    I throw around the idea of making a Syndicate remake about once a week. Mainly because my uni building looks like the game. Especially as it has that whole “two-tier, brown-and-black buildings with chamfered edge” look about it.

    Also: What on earth is Bullfrog’s BoB? Anyone?

  49. Schadenfreude says:

    You’ve got me playing this again and it’s still bloody good. Some strange behaviour I don’t remember from the Amiga version though; did enemy agents always immediately swarm on your location the minute a mission starts?

    Of course now that I’ve got DOSBox installed again I’ll be going back on the Darklands wagon. Best free roaming RPG ever; screw the Elder Scrolls.