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Before they were engulfed by EA, Bullfrog were responsible for some of the most genuinely brilliant and innovative video games of the 1990s. They were mostly noted for their clever twists on a theme, coupled with black comedy - see Dungeon Keeper of Theme Hospital for proof. But they weren't all fun with a wicked grin, as classic strategy game 'Syndicate' demonstrates.
Drawing heavily on the dystopian vision of the future as hinted at in William Gibson novels and 80s cyberpunk classic 'Bladerunner', Syndicate portrays a world which has seen democracy utterly subjugated by its favourite pet, capitalism. In a world where corporations tell goverments what to do with a flex of their financial muscles, Syndicate brings the inevitable clash of interest of corporate competition to the streets with subterfuge, dirty work and open warfare. The Syndicates of the game title are engaging in a bitter struggle to occupy major world territories, and will make it so no matter the cost. And as a leader of one of these amoral syndicates, it falls to you to direct your resources to snuff out the competition. Step forward your representatives in the field, your cybernetically enhanced team of agents who make pushy hard-sell businessmen seem like timid puppies in comparision, as they stomp around the streets in great-coats stuffed with poorly-concealed weaponry.
The game world is presented as a pseudo-3D isometric view, with missions set usually in built-up, futuristic city-scapes. While the game creaks forward to its 20th anniversary, these still don't look too bad today, as they are cleanly rendered. Cars, billboards, phoneboxes and individual people are all instantly recognisable and smoothly animated. I say it's pseudo-3D, as the game camera is static, inasmuch as one cannot rotate the view. This is the first major gripe with the game, as it becomes incredibly frustrating to keep track of anything that disappears out of view behind or even inisde buildings or subways.
Missions are given to you at the load-out screen, and you usually get to choose which territory on the global map you wish to expand into, depending on what you've already taken (a feature neatly used later by Command and Conquer). They vary in theme and design, ranging from the simple assassination of a target, to delivery of secret documents, to all-out warfare between rival gangs. Money is awarded for completing missions, or capturing equipment and enemy agents.
Money talks in Syndicate. The more you have, the easier your task becomes. Cash can either be used to purchase weapons and equipment, or can be sunk into R&D to develop new weapons and upgrades for your agents. The latter are very important, as if you fail to keep up with the in-game arms race of developing your cyborgs, you will quickly find them outgunned and no match for the enemies in later missions.
Combat plays a major part in Syndicate, but it is far from mindless. Weapons are expensive, and must be chosen carfeully to suit the mission at hand. Extra information concerning a mission brief can also be bought, and this is often invaluable. Knowledge is just as powerful as money. Close-range weapons such as shotguns and uzis are fairly cheap, but there are heavy-duty selections from the arsenal as well. Rocket launchers, flamethrowers, time bombs and sniper rifles can all be used to devastating effect, although the range of the latter is so great you can't readily target enemies off the screen, but they can do just that to you (minor annoyance number 2). One of the quirkier features is a gizmo called a 'Persuadatron', which hypnotises anyone caught in its range. This can be used to kidnap enemy agents to recruit to your cause, or create a massive human shield of stupefied civilians (if you're of questionable moral fibre, that is). Medkits and bullet-proofing shields can be employed to keep your costly agents alive.
You can deploy up to four agents per mission, each of which can carry up to eight pieces of kit. Most of the game is played via the mouse, with instructions for movement given with a left-click, opening fire with a right. One of Syndicate's key features is the use of AI, which is controlled using slider-bars beneath each agent on the side-menu. This shows their levels of adrenalin, aggression and brain function - shifting these will make them quicker, defend themselves or act independently. It's a bold attempt at a comples feature, and one that does work to some degree, but very often they get themselves into trouble. Better brain implants can be bought to rectify this, but it doesn't make much difference. Best to give them the orders directly then.
Syndicate caused a bit of controversy back in the day, no doubt due to its demands of the player to be utterly amoral and commit acts of terrorism and murder in order to complete the game. Looking back on this, it seems all a bit of an overreaction. True, the little folk that populate the game do suffer a lot, but the graphics are so cartoonish that it's hard to get too upset by them. There is one mission in particular which involves assassinating a high-profile politician as he goes on a state visit, surrounded by a thronging crowd, and at the time this made me feel a little uncomfortable as there was no option other than to kill the entire crowd. Given that there is no moral choice to be made, some people may find this unsuitable for young children.
This is a good game, full of atmosphere and crisp visuals, and demands some tactical thinking to complete many of the missions. If there are any serious criticisms to be made, it is that there isn't enough variation or interaction in the levels themselves. There's no dialogue, so all problems are solved through action rather than words. And in the later stages, it is seriously difficult; the last three levels will have you smashing the keyboard to bits in frustration. This is compounded further if you have the Deluxe edition, that comes with a mission pack called 'American Revolt', which is notorious for its difficulty.
Getting this to work on modern machines may be a struggle, but DosBox seems to handle it OK. Its legacy is long-lasting, proving influential on RTS games, though not as much as Command and Conquer. It has been followed by two sequels, with the first of these vamping it up to true 3D graphics (but looks shockingly dated now), and the recent FPS incarnation, which by all accounts is a generic console shooter. Well done EA, another legacy bought up and ruined. In all of this, it was the publishers who turned out to be the evil syndicate. Who knew?
Released back in 1993, the original Syndicate is a rather innovative game made by Bullfrog Studios, placing the player in control of a group of four cyborgs operating under the authority of a sinister corporation in a near-future dystopia. The game plays a lot like Cannon Fodder, with an isometric viewpoint and detailed graphics and a simple mouse-driven control interface whereby clicking one button makes your troops move to the selected location and clicking the other makes them open fire. The levels represent a good early stab at creating a living world, GTA style, complete with hovercars-on-rails that can be hijacked and pedestrians that can be gunned down in the street for fun or, using a persuadertron device, made to swarm around your agents acting as armed guards or simply human shields.
Mission objectives include stealing new technology and carrying out asassinations, with a wide range of guns available, including pistols, shotguns, flamethrowers and miniguns, all of which are great fun to use. You can also change the neurochemical balanances of your agents, affecting how their computer AI operates, and whether they will retreat or go in for the kill when attacked, but to be honest this feature sounds good but doesnt work so well in practice, like a lot of Bullfrog's ideas. There is also an element of resource-management on offer in between levels, whereby you can research new technology and upgrade your agent's weapons and physiology, giving them new metal endoskeletons and other cybernetic implants to make them more effective in combat.
The graphics are dated but still look rather good, with a certain retro charm about them that positively screams 'Amiga', and the gameplay is simplistic and entertaining, with the constant ultraviolence and dystopian futuristic setting giving the game a distinct 2000AD feel. As with Bullfrog's Dungeon Keeper the game doesnt quite manage to fulfill the potential of its tremendous concept, and can grow somewhat repetitive (not to mention frustratingly difficult at times), and getting your agents stuck out of sight behind buildings can be annoying as well, but these flaws can be overlooked given its originality and the no-nonsense, cathartic fun that it offers.