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. Kieron Gillen says:

    God, it’s a beautiful game.

    SOMEONE RE-MAKE IT.

    KG

  2. JP says:

    Somewhere in EA’s headquarters, there’s a Mission Impossible style mega-secure vault room with little pieces of paper sitting on a desk that read “Syndicate IP”, “System Shock IP”, “Ultima IP”, etc.

    Someone needs to break in and steal those little pieces of paper and distribute them to hungry developers.

  3. Inglorion says:

    Jonathan: Yes. Shadowrun on the SNES is one of my all-time favorite games.

  4. Acosta says:

    In these times of sandbox “discovery” and spiritual sequels, it blows my mind EA has not shown any public interest in trying to make a new Syndicate (I would even stand hearing childs saying it is “a GTA clone”). However, even if EA as publisher has improved a lot its content, maybe is not the best of the ideas if they don´t have a studio able to carry with such responsibility.

  5. Seth Tipps says:

    @JP
    Well, I did once infiltrate Naval Research Labs to bring my girlfriend her forgotten lunch, so if anyone likes to live dangerously, feel free to join me. After all, Who Dares Wins. FYI I’m just kidding. I think. Damn that was a good game. Many thanks to you, Mr. Diskette. You did the world a great service.

  6. StolenName says:

    I have Syndicate on the Mega Drive and that’s where I played it but after seeing it on the PC at a friends, I despaired.

  7. Optimaximal says:

    This article is well-timed, my current desktop wallpaper is a gigantic screenshot map from one of the first missions:

    http://img168.imageshack.us/img168/4903/syndicateub1.png

    It spans two large (1680×1050) widescreen monitors, cut it down as needed.

    Also I think I made sure it tiles horizontally.

    Oh my god… the floating traffic lights!!!

  8. tackle says:

    @Mike Diskett

    Worth noting is that Diskett in swedish means “floppy disk”.

    Awesome

  9. giovanni says:

    In Italian too. Nomen omen, they used to say.

  10. Winterborn says:

    The Syndicate music was brilliant.

  11. Yhancik says:

    Talking about remake, look at this

    http://www.jongware.com/images/syndicate2.gif
    http://www.jongware.com/images/syndicate3.gif

    Syndicate in 3D, but keeping the pixelart style !

    from http://www.jongware.com/jongware.html
    Sadly, it obviously wasn’t more than an engine test. Too bad.

  12. MEOW says:

    I know no one will read this, no one ever does after the first day. BUT:

    Mike Diskett. Congratulations on havnig a hand in a few of my favourite and most memorable games; Not only Startopia and Syndicate, but mr wobbly leg. The name was unfamiliar, so I googled it. I came across THIS video. From the first sound bite of that video, I knew EXACTLY what that game was! Amazing.

  13. Todd Zircher says:

    Heh, loved Syndicate and Syndicate Wars. Even took a stab at making a 3D clone. Unfortunately, it never got too far along in development. I did have some fun making models for it.

    http://www.virmin.com/synd_gallery.htm

    TAZ

  14. dvwjr says:

    Mike Diskett wrote:

    I wrote the amiga version of Syndicate and was project leader lead programmer for Syndicate Wars.

    Some game design decisions that I’ve always regreted on Syn Wars

    1. Limiting the zoom out to the range of your current weapon, In hindsight it was annoying and made little sense after all you are viewing the world form a blimp camera

    2. Sourcing the sprite artwork in low res and doubling it up for hi res, made the game look ugly compared to the hi res original syndicate

    Hi there, Mike… If you ever stop by again, just a question or two… I have been working on fixing SYNDICATE WARS to work under the WinXP (SP2) NTVDM. Some interesting system level programming decisons your team made, the effects of which were obscured by the DOS&Dos4/GW DPMI environment of the day… I am aware that SYNDICATE WARS can be successfully executed in the very fine DOSBOX v0.72 emulator, however I wanted to get it to run in the NTVDM of WinXP (SP2).

    Easier to ask you (if you remember) than for me to follow the code path backwards – why the command-line options after the MAIN.EXE of “/w /g” in the PLAY.BAT file? These startup command-line options could have been made internal defaults, yet were still ‘optional’ yet required. What did they do?

    The other question, noted some support for potential 800x600x8bpp resolution (VESA mode 103h), was this ever tested or activated? The low-res animation artwork ‘could’ be re-done :-), would then bring the SYNDICATE look to SYNDICATE WARS in both SVGA 640×480 and 800×600 – if the engine supports such.

    The ‘zoom-out/in’ could be changed globally, not sure how that would affect game-play and/or balance.

    Thanks for any replies,

    dvwjr

  15. Cigol says:

    I think we need a Startopia retrospective…

  16. Alex McLarty says:

    “My brother’s the first to speak: “Kill them”. I open fire, trying to put them out of their misery…”

    Evil!

  17. Quinn says:

    This thread is unbelievable! Normally when I stumble onto something like this, it’s from 2002. The internet will save us all. Every few months I check up on the attempt to recreate Rocket Jockey, a game that few have heard of let alone played, from 1996, and now, I have hope that someone will recreate the Syndicate series, which dominated my video game fantasies for years. I’m sure as a 13 year old I spent more time wishing I was a cyborg than anything else. And Sucram, I couldn’t agree more – System Shock was such a close second.

  18. Ross says:

    I would sell a kidney to play a new version of Syndicate!

    If they wanted to have some upgrades to the birds eye view i would suggest a tab where you can shift between BEV and 1st person. It would be excellent for assasination missions where you have to snipe out a target.

    And regarding the flaming civilians. I can clearly remember dragging my best friend into the “computer room” and saying “Check this out” as i torched some civies, his face as they ran around on fire and screaming was priceless. Needless to say he became an addict that day.

    BRING BACK SYNDICATE!!!

  19. Martyn says:

    I’ve recently started a mod for the PC game crysis based on syndicate and syndicate wars. We’ve chosen crysis because it allows us to include civilian interaction – persuasion etc and also have persuaded ai follow you around. Its going to be intersting porting it to a current gen game and to the first person shooter style, but hopefully we can do it justice!

  20. Galen says:

    Anyone got any ideas on how I can play Syndicate on a new Intel Mac? It doesn’t support the classic environment…

  21. BEKO says:

    I had completly forgotten about this game, I knew deep down something was missing from my memory !!

    Que search to find a way to play it again ASAP!

  22. Alex Trowers says:

    Rest assured that, if I ever get my way, Syndicate *will* be remade. Properly.

    Hi Disky!

  23. Thorhall says:

    Well folks, I just discoverd the Dos Box and one of my first games to be played is Syndicate. Well I was pretty impressed – it was actually my first time with a sound blaster – wohoo!
    But well I have a big problem – to save my game doesn’t work at all. I press F3 – the window comes – I delete the empty part and write anything in there an press save. Then comes the main menu and when I look for my saved games – nothing is in there. Can somebody help me?

    It’s one of my most favorite games so I would miss it dearly!!!

  24. [Jongware] says:

    Syn3D image #1
    Syn3D image #2
    >Sadly, it obviously wasn’t more than an engine test. Too bad

    I was pretty content with it — it showed all levels in glorious (slow) Direct3D. I also remember why I put it aside … the engine worked by reading the actual level definitions (and all worked!), and I discovered the programmers cheated with the placement of objects! So, traffic lights were either on the ground or way up in the air, buildings had no back, etc. I was pretty miffed that I had to re-design the levels, so I abandoned the whole project.
    Oh — and it was dead slow as well. Long live D3D …

  25. AFLEMI1 says:

    Im playing a this game using dosbox on osx and am having difficulties making progress. I cant use the agent’s panic option in fights because I have no right mouse button. I can fire using apple+click, but I cant panic because my single left click was spent synthesizing the right click. Does anyone have any advice out there besides getting a pc mouse?

  26. Psychopomp says:

    Don’t try to game on Mac?

  27. smiledude says:

    I am going to try to remake it for pc, but does anyone has the original sprites from Syndicate?
    I think that if I work on a remake it should be with the original sprites…