Have You Played… Syndicate?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

I’m playing Satellite Reign right now, so the Bullfrog subversive squad-shooter which heavily inspired it is very much on my mind. SR marks a sea-change: a game that’s been bewilderingly ignored by studios for decades is only now getting the follow-up it deserves.

Syndicate’s appeal is two-fold, but one of them perhaps doesn’t have the allure it once did in these post-GTA times. The freedom to murder civilians without consequence is old hat these days, which is a shame – not from a latent psychosis point of view, but because games’ ability to transgress is so diminished. (And when it is attempted, so often it’s simply into nastiness; boundaries not pushed, but shock factor ramped up cynically).

Syndicate, at the time, genuinely presented a world of pitch-black darkness, in an age where we were surrounded by garish colour and straightforward heroism. It means so much to so many because it really was a rite of passage: games growing up, and taking us with them. Not to mention that it was an entrypoint to cyberpunk.

Its other appeal is more timeless, and what Satellite Reign is belatedly restoring to us. Syndicate is city as strategy – managing its roads, its buildings and inhabitants in order to progress to your objectives. Its parts are simple – move tiny people across the map, shoot when you need or want to – but every time they walk on effects and consequences, and situations to manage, ripple outwards. You can avoid chaos outright, but at its best Syndicate is about controlling chaos, and turning it to your ends.

It shows its age, in appearance and especially UI/UX, but it’s a stone-cold classic, with so much still left untapped.

43 Comments

  1. FoSmash says:

    Amazing game, highly influential. Remember using the cheats to get to the final level – four guys stuck on a platform. No idea how I was supposed to complete that as a 10 y.o.

    Found out:

    • Napalm Sushi says:

      Man, that minigun sound effect.

    • killingbutterflies says:

      I recall tooling up with shields, running each agent around the level to herd the enemies all around me and then self-destructing to take them out just before I died.

      • Jonfon says:

        Me too. 4 energy shield, herd herd herd and then boom time. Exploiting the time bombs they dropped for a massive chain reaction was so satifying.

        My first Pc ‘rig’. A 386 with 4mb ram and a massive 40 mb hard disk (syndicate took a quarter of it if I remember correctly).

    • NotToBeLiked says:

      I was 12 and could only understand very basic English, so that mission was a huge problem for me. Until I figured out the enemies always concentrated fire on one member of your team. So I just loaded everyone up with 2 shields and a stack of lasers. Instantly turn on the shields at the beginning, spread out the team to find out who gets targeted, have the other three equip the lasers and turn them on max aggression.
      Still have no idea if that was the way the mission was supposed to be done, but if worked for me!

    • thekelvingreen says:

      The way I always did it was to give each agent full cybernetic upgrades, six lasers, one shield, and a flamethrower. Then I’d press both mouse buttons down the moment the level started to fill the agents with drugs and let them blast the oncoming enemy agents with lasers. After a short while the enemy agents stopped coming but there would be one or two lurking about having got stuck behind pillars, so I’d rest my team until the combat drugs left their systems then I’d send them hunting the remaining enemy using flamethrowers.

      The lasers can be replaced by gauss guns for a more impressive but more risky — less ammunition — effect.

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      I remember jumping straight to the mission as soon as it become available, since my team with four guys with miniguns was steamrolling through most of the missions. It didn’t end well. I haven’t finished it yet!

  2. Al Bobo says:

    When I was a kid, I had that game on my PC, but sadly it was too slow to run it properly. So I never really played it. I only remember that you could make a cyborg of your agent/s.

  3. sicemma says:

    How’s that reboot/remake, Satellite Reign going?

    • Guvornator says:

      It’s jolly good, although it’s still a very early stage – you can’t save, some of the data terminals don’t work, the pathfinding can be wonky, especially with stairs and traffic seems to be broken. Plus in true developer fashion they’re behind schedule – they were supposed to be releasing the Beta version this month, but it’s still pre alpha.

      The good sides are the actual gameplay and environment are superb. It still feels Syndicate-y, which is obviously incredibly important, but the teams skills augment how you approach objectives. Some units can use ziplines to sneak into bases while cloaking. Others can disable security systems. Or you can just group select everyone in true Syndicate style and blast anyone dumb enough to pop their heads out of cover. Plus the fact you don’t pop out of the city between missions makes it feel so much more organic. A lot of systems are, unsurprisingly, under-explained, but everything is there to suggest a great game.

      TLDR: Pre Order with optimism. But maybe wait until Beta to download.

      • sicemma says:

        I was sorely tempted by the kickstarter – just for – “wow this game has the coolest name … that nobody will associate with Syndicate ever”. And it looks great in the videos I’ve seen. Looking deeper into it (and their … one update on steam?) though, it looks about as done as some of the early Wasteland betas, eg, not very. And I’m super burned on Elite:Dangerous to the point where I’m now paranoid all the other EA/KS titles I’ve backed are also going to pull a “how about … an MMO!” shift.

        Still. They can’t get this thing done fast enough because I can’t wait to try it.

        • Guvornator says:

          One update isn’t bad considering they game came out on the 12th. Personally, though I’d be very happy if they didn’t release another one until they’re done.

          However, should you want to totally go against your better judgement, it’s currently £20.69 on Steam for the next 2 days…

          • sicemma says:

            OK, fuck it, there are keys around for it for like 13 bucks. I am now onboard.

      • Jonfon says:

        This bodes well. The only Kickstarter I actually managed to back. Havent touched it yet though. I can wait til its done, I hope.

    • jeeger says:

      Played it a few hours the day before yesterday. Naturally, there are still lots of bugs and missing content , but it’s already a fun game. The city is already properly cyberpunky.

  4. Farva says:

    Such a great game!

  5. SVW says:

    One thing often forgotten about this game, others and UFO: Enemy Unkown in particular, is the lovely and atmospheric art in the selection, customization et.al. screens – X-COM’s chilling dissection tables, Syndicates dehumanizing and exhilarating cyborgisms. Especially important in games which playable graphics were massively limited by it’s time. Just look at this:
    link to cdn.medialib.computerandvideogames.com

  6. Laurentius says:

    Played it and loved it and since then I know that I love sandbox games.

  7. gabrielonuris says:

    I have the GoG’s version installed right here on my working computer, I play almost everyday during lunch times… Sometimes I let it open to build up some credits and finish some researches. It’s indeed a great little game.

  8. Premium User Badge

    patricio says:

    This was a defining game for me growing up. Somehow the graphics make it seem a bit tame now, but that screaming sound effect when you set someone on fire is still really evocative. It was the first game I’d played where you could try any way to complete the missions – for me that always involved rounding up and “persuading” every civilian on the level to come with me.

  9. Freud says:

    It was excellent and 90s hard.

  10. Jams O'Donnell says:

    Ahh yes, a game that lets you play as a madman, killing indiscriminately. :P

    The minigun and rocket launcher sound effects are burned onto my brain.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Hodge says:

    I still love the shit out of this, and it’s one of the games I make a point of replaying every five years or so, just because it’s one of the reasons I love this medium as much as I do.

    That said, I’d be surprised if it would make much of an impression on anyone coming to it fresh nowadays. Everything it did well has been done much better since, but us old fogeys can’t let it go. It’s like the Dad Rock of gaming.

  12. Dave Money says:

    Amiga version though yeah ;)

    • Kaben says:

      Oh yes, loved this on my Amiga!
      My lasting memories of this game are the mini gun sound, the deadly traffic ( Damn those cars!) and the interface showing the cyber modifications to your agents. That green screen with the stats for eyes, brain etc was just so powerful thematically.

    • Fnord73 says:

      yes indeed.

  13. Meestercat says:

    The terrible sounds of the civilians on fire still haunt me. Even though I actively tried to set them on fire.

  14. Jakkar says:

    I discovered Syndicate Wars for Playstation at a bootsale (How could I resist this cover? link to cdn1.spong.com), fell in love with it for its satisfying shared-screen cooperative, the dark plot, the beautifully written manual that laid the scene for the game without breaking character (with Eurocorp and Church officials arguing back and forth between notes – a little like the Overseer’s modifications to the Fallout 1 manual)…

    Not to mention the visuals, the freedom, the collapsing buildings, the massed undead mobs of persuadertronned civvies…

    Syndicate, though? I tried. I did try. Gods, the clunk. And the sheer crude simplicity of the basic combat gameplay.

    Having started with Wars, the original just couldn’t satisfy me – deeper, I hear, but for me Syndicate is about that interplay of characters in a crowded, neon-lit cyber-noir city. The whine of magrail cars sliding by and that bizarre and delicious soundtrack, before the sudden thump of a carbomb going off as blue-clad unchipped deviants flee across a plaza pursued by floating, caped religious maniacs with laser rifles.

    Wars nailed the atmosphere and visuals, a Western Ghost in the Shell.. And forget the PC version, check out the PSX version’s intro;

    link to youtube.com

    I still shiver <3

    • fuggles says:

      This, wars was so much better. Granted the streamlined weapons was odd, but collapsible buildings and hover cars, especially those proper flying ones. Remember being utterly stuck until I found you could blow up banks. One assassinination level I found you could rocket a portion of maglev and sequentially the whole track collapsed until ultimately the target was squashed.

      Man, but that last level – I could finish the Atlantic accelerator, but not the last ones on wars.

    • Unruly says:

      A western GITS, so much so that the game advertised the GITS movie on the in-game billboards and the GITS VHS had a trailer for the game.

      • Jakkar says:

        That, I did not know :D <3

        I just remember the Dungeon Keeper 2 advertising, but perhaps this was a difference between the PSX and PC releases? I imagine some legalities may creep in between platforms, even in the nineties.

  15. Chorltonwheelie says:

    This, Elite and Zork made me a lifer.

  16. Darth Gangrel says:

    I’m tempted to say that I’d rather play the FPS Syndicate from 2012 just for the uproar, but I’m actually more of an FPS guy and the Syndicate FPS seems stupid but fun. Original Syndicate’s concept, genre and other things (although graphics are not *that* bad) don’t really appeal to me. Then again, since I know one of the people who worked on the FPS Syndicate, I don’t immediately feel like joining the hate parade that followed its announcement and release. Not that the FPS game is high on my wishlist, I’ve got Shadow Warrior, Bulletstorm, Serious Sam 4 as well as various games in my backlog to finish first, but it’s definitely something I might purchase for the right price (5 dollars) once I can be bothered to install Origin.

    • jonahcutter says:

      I enjoyed the Syndicate fps. It has some interesting ideas, and pretty well done, nihilistic atmosphere. I do understand the backlash against it, considering how beloved the original Syndicate games are. But it’s not a bad game in its own right.

      If you’re looking for a solid, cyberpunk fps it’s worth checking out.

      Just beware the bloom. It will make your eyes bleed.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        Yeah, definitely not a bad game in its own right. I do get sick of people abducting names of classics solely so they can sell a few more copies of a game that has absolutely nothing to do with said classics, though. You want to make a cyberpunk fps? I’m all for that. Don’t call it syndicate.

    • Jakkar says:

      On the contrary, I found it a pretty poor FPS as well. The gameplay simply wasn’t satisfying. Stressful, but not satisfying. Playing on the highest difficulty, wanting something intense, I found turned it into more of a trial-and-error, load-rinse-repeat experience as you figure out how to overcome waves of dull foes with bland AI. A utopian cyberpu-.. That doesn’t work. Alright, grimangrymanzcommentaryupon1984forteens Gears of War.

      Repetition/trial and error works deliciously for Hotline Miami, due to the speed of gameplay and the instant restart, but for a sluggish shooter with bullet-sponge armoured foes, it was a deal-breaker.

  17. Philopoemen says:

    Favourite game of all time. I played this on a 486 Sx33 w/out a soundcard and using a bootdisk. In fact, i think I got the soundblaster just for this…

    The expansion – American Revolt – is not often mentioned,, but that made the game twice as hard, as well as giving you the I win button in the air raid. Best gaming memories of growing up.

  18. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    A brilliant game of which I had a bootleg Amiga version that didn’t play sound. I now have the GOG version and, having paid for my sins by giving money to EA, can find out how it sounds like.

    Sounds like beeps and boops! Really grim beeps and boops, though.