Written by: Stoo

Date posted: April 10, 2006

I remember many weekends spent on this one, in my childhood. Slightly shameful then that only now, five years after starting this site, I’ve finally gotten round to a Syndicate review. Better late than never, I guess. On reflection, it’s also slightly surprised me that this is our first review of a Bullfrog game. The name will be familiar to many PC gaming fans; known for imaginative game concepts and headed by Peter Molyneux, this was the team behind Populous and Dungeon Keeper.

This one is set in a dystopian near-future, in very much a cyberpunk style. National governments have grown weak, and now powerful private corporations wield the real power. They fight amongst themselves for wealth and dominance using special cybernetically-enhanced agents, under the complete control of their shady CEOs. As leader of a new Syndicate, your goal is to crush all opposition and wield dominance across the entire globe. You start with a map of the globe, divided into various territories. Each area presents a certain mission for your agents; win it and that territory is yours. Between missions you can equip the agents, research new gear and gather taxes.

The missions take place from an isometric view of an urban area in the chosen territory, with up to four agents at your disposal at any one time. While the engine pre-dates the use of shiny spinny-rotating 3D, the graphics are still quite detailed, and the visual style suits the game well.
Maps consist of bleak and grimy urban areas; grim-looking concrete buildings, dingy industrial areas and walled compounds. Citizens wander about and various hovercar-style vehicles zip along the roads, giving a bit of that illusion of a real “living” environment (although they don’t actually do much). You can also steal the cars for your squad’s own use. Ambulance or fire engines too, if you’re feeling like a real bastard.

The one annoyance brought about by the engine is that any buildings will block your view of a patch of ground behind it. Also, whilst many buildings are accessible, you can forget seeing whats going on in there. So if you need to shoot at someone in such a location, all you can really do is wave the pointer around their general area (with some help from the mini-map on your interface) until it goes to the red crosshairs.

Controls are pretty straightforward with the mouse, including a neat “scatter” command that’s useful when under fire. So you can get stuck right into the action when enemies show up. You might face armed punks or poor hapless policemen (who just get caught in the middle of any gunfight), but the most dangerous foes are the enemy syndicate’s own agents. A headlong rush at the bad guys isn’t always the best idea, so you might occasionally need to be a bit tactical. Drawing a few away from their friends at a time, attacking from two directions, retreating into cover, that kind of thing. Nothing especially subtle or detailed.

A further level of control over you agents comes in the form of drugs you pump into their systems. One boosts shooting accuracy, another running speed, a third their ability to return fire on their own initiative when under attack (I think, been a while since I actually saw a manual. Meanwhile gamefaqs has one solitary 10-year-old document, while Final Fantasy games get about 47 each. Grumble grumble.) After prolonged use of the drugs, however, the effect reduces in strength. You must then turn the supply off for a while, until the agent’s resistances lower again.

One thing you’ll quickly get used to is the carnage on display here, and it’s not just your enemies that you gun down. The police, those bastions of law and order, will often try and stop you but being significantly weaker than cyborg agents they usually just get swatted aside with a casual burst of minigun fire. Meanwhile any civilians unlucky enough to be in the near vicinity of a gunfight will usually get caught in the crossfire, unless you’re careful. Not that there’s really any incentive to be careful. You can shoot them deliberately just for fun, if you want. After a few minutes play of a mission, bodies will probably litter the streets. Bodies of innocent factory workers, schoolteachers, milkmen and cat sanctuary volunteers. Their lives tragically cut short, in a senseless rampage of destruction. This game is sickening filth and I demand it be banned.

Wait, sorry, for a minute I was having a horrible vision of being a Daily Mail writer. Just making it clear that this a pretty amoral game, giving you the option to do “evil” things with no ill consequences. I’ll leave it up to you to decide for yourself what impact that has on your desire to play it.

Anyway to make matters a step more insidious, there’s a lovely little device called the Persuadatron. When active, any citizens within a short distance of your agent will be converted into a faithful slave, who will loyally follow that agent around the map for the duration of the mission, or until they die (the latter probably). They can thus serve as a useful human shield, and will also pick up weapons dropped by fallen enemies. With enough captives under your belt in this manner, the power of your “Persuasion” grows and you can force guards, police and eventually even enemy agents to join you. There’s something slightly chilling, but shamefully enjoyable, about having your agents march into battle amidst a throng of loyal cannon-fodder citizens.

You do have specific objectives amidst the bloodshed, in case we’ve lost track of that somewhere. Well, sometimes a mission is just a sweep for enemy agents. Other times you will have a specific target to assassinate. The most challenging missions however those that see you protecting a civilian from enemy attack. These tend to be frantic and frustrating affairs with agents dashing from one spot to the next, desperately gunning down enemies before they can land a hit on your fragile ward. Be prepared to hit the retry button a lot.

Between missions, you have some basic resource management to take care of. Tax levels on conquered territories can be varied – demanding too much can lead the territory to rebel (which I think just means you have to repeat the mission to reclaim it). Obviously a big chunk of revenue goes on equipping your agents, but you also allocate funds for research. The more money you put in the faster you get new toys. Your team starts off with pistols and shotguns, but later on you’ll gain access to the likes of flamethrowers and those ever-useful miniguns. The cybernetic enhancements are also important; these make your team stronger, faster and more durable. Upgraded versions further improve performance.

What’s a little odd is, the resource-management section of the game progresses in realtime. However, the only “events” that you have to worry about are the missions you instigate, there are no attempts by enemy syndicates to take your turf or anything like that. As far as I can tell what this means is, you can grab some territory to set up a good source of tax, then research stuff at leisure whilst you go make a cup of tea, have some lunch or walk the dog. Although that might get a little boring after a while. I think you’re really supposed to spend most of your time in missions, where “game-time” progresses at the same rate.

From a modern perspective I can think of plenty of improvements I’d like to see in a game like this. Destroyable scenery for one thing, it only seems appropriate given how much firepower gets thrown around. Also at the risk of sounding shallow, a 3d-engine with that important spinny-rotating nature. Apart from allowing more dramatic views of the action, being able to actually see your team when they wander off behind a building would be useful. Incidentally the sequel Syndicate Wars provided both of these upgrades although it’s sludgy grainy-grey nature is to me actually less pleasing to the eye than the original’s more technically primitive visuals. Aside from aesthetics I might also ask for improved agent AI, more detailed orders options and maybe some kind of orders queue.

So while it’s a bit basic compared to what we might expect from a modern attempt at the formula,
Syndicate is still pretty good at what it sets out to do. Which is sending cyborgs to cause havoc in a bleak urban landscape. There is a level of tactics involved but it doesn’t take this to a hardcore level, and there’s lots of opportunities to just shoot stuff up. In other words its one of those games that actually deserves the warm fuzzy memories of being hunched over a keyboard on a rainy Saturday, 12 years ago.