Retro: Syndicate

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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