Syndicate – Retro Tactical PC Goodness

Syndicate (1993)

You may or may not be aware of this old tactical PC title by the name of Syndicate (1993), created by the legendary Bullfrog Productions. It was one of my favourite games back in my hay day of PC gaming. Playing as a squad of genetically and cybernetically altered, upgradeable cyborgs enslaved by a multi-national corporation, your sole goal is to take over the entire planet, wiping out all competition in your path. What a superb concept; no heroes, just raw carnage with a totally selfish goal in a dystopian, Blade Runner Esc future setting.

With the possibility of a new Syndicate game on the horizon, I wanted to try and enlighten any retro game fans about all of the supreme gaming qualities this game combined to make something I found incredibly fun, even only a few months ago when I downloaded and played it again for the first time in over ten years.

Much like the classic UFO and X-COM games, Syndicate is an isometric game, offering you and your mouse control of up to four individuals kidnapped from the street, and cybernetically enhanced by force. These four cyborgs are then used to perform numerous tasks in a ton of missions based across the entire planet. This game, however, is not turn-based; it’s all real-time and the action is pretty full on. If you’re not quick enough to command your minions when the shit hits the fan, they’ll all be shot, burned, exploded, or – nine times out of ten – run over.

Syndicate Map Screen

The view of the world from your cushy corporate office

Moving from country to country, you neutralize and wipe out any competition, destroying corporate assets – including tons of people – everywhere you go, and ensuring that your own corporation is the only one left. The missions you are tasked generally boil down to either (A) assassinating individuals integral to the rival enterprises, (B) ‘persuading’ individuals of importance to work for you and your company, or (C) blowing a ton of stuff up and killing a load of guys who are just being pests.

The more territories you complete objectives in – and therefore take control of – the more money you start to rake in. But this money isn’t just there for show, it’s very handily used to upgrade your cybernetic agents’ weapons, body parts (including eyes, heart, arms etc.) to numerous levels, giving them the best chance at staying alive in the thick of it – though, as I mentioned before, no amount of upgrades will stop them being flattened by a hover-car if you don’t look both ways before crossing the road, which is literally the most crushing thing that could happen when you’re on your way to the exit point of a mission.

Syndicate Upgrade Screen

A new gun here, a pair of cybernetically enhanced eyeballs there

One of the most fun things you can do in this game is use the ‘Persuadertron’, an aptly retro name for a weapon that plain-and-simply brainwashes anyone you point it at into following you around until either you finish the mission, or they die. There is no limit to how many people you can use it on in one mission, and they will quite happily congregate behind you for the whole level. What is the point in them following you, you say? Well, for starters, human shields! With twenty or so of these weak-minded chumps all swarming around you in the middle of a firefight, most of them will take the enemy bullets instead of you, hence prolonging the life of your super-agents just that little bit longer. Another extremely handy use for them is that they will gladly pick up and wield any dropped weapons they find, and then spray indiscriminately at anybody who so much as looks at you funny, saving you ammo, health, and effort.

Syndicate gameplay

Exploding cars are quite common on the streets of this dystopian future

What makes the game even more fun is that you’re even able to drive the vehicles that you spend most of your time trying to avoid being hit by. Find a car or armoured truck parked at the side of the road somewhere, tell your agents to pile in, and you can click somewhere in the city to auto-drive all the way there, mowing down or drive-by-shooting anybody you don’t like while in transit. Don’t stay in there too long though, because if it takes too many hits from enemy fire you’ll soon explode and all the agents will come out screaming and on fire. This doesn’t bode well considering the fire is damn near impossible to put out, and you’ll likely end up losing most if not all of your expensive cyborg investments, forcing you to either load up and try again, or purchase brand new soldiers to start all over with.

I’m a huge sucker for classic Cyberpunk movies; Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, Robocop, The Terminator, Running Man, Total Recall and generally anything that might have retro laser effects, crazy technology or outfit designs, and other cool stuff along those lines, so it makes sense that I could still enjoy the look and style of something as awesome as Syndicate – which quite clearly is inspired by and borrows a lot from these movies.

Syndicate intro sequence

This guy is about to have his legs run over by a floating car. Makes sense, right?

This game definitely has that kind of feel to it too; you’re in a big-brother world with a heavily armed corporate presence watching at all times, with strict rules and regulations, mind control technology used on the general public in every day life, and corporations fighting their own private battles over control of the population, just to make more money than their competitors. The only difference is these rules hardly apply to your squad, as you can quite effectively blow away anything or anyone in your path.

If you want to try this game – and you really should – you can download and play it (for free!) from this site but you will also need a DOS emulator. DOSBox is the best I have come across yet.

The news that caused me to write this article and has excited my game-anticipation-receptors, is that according to an old post I read at escapistmagazine.com, Starbreeze Studios – the company behind the Chronicles of Riddick games – is reportedly confirmed to be developing a brand new Syndicate game. This news is music to my ears, and I can’t wait to see how it could be done.

As with Fallout 3 and the new X-COM game that is in development, the chances are that this new game will be a first person shooter. This doesn’t bother me in the slightest, because I think change is – more often than not – a good thing. The only thing I’m concered with is whether or not the game will actually be representative of the original’s aesthetic qualities and gameplay elements (the persuadertron is a definite must, and the rounded hover cars need to make a distinct appearance).

There was, in fact, another Syndicate game already released after the original – Syndicate Wars (1996) – but from my experience of it, it simply wasn’t too impressive. Bullfrog tried to bring the isometric world of the original game into the realm of 3D, but because the game was essentially still isometrics-based, it was a sort of flawed 3D that in my opinion didn’t really look very nice or work very well. The game also felt a bit awkward to play too, and just didn’t really have the same charm to it as the original. There was certainly a valiant effort to extend the appeal of the game into newer gaming technologies, but it just didn’t quite seem to work as it should have.

Syndicate Wars (1996)

Syndicate Wars was a fair attempt at a sequel, but didn't really possess the same quality as its predecessor

This doesn’t worry me about the new game though, as I have every faith that if it really is being developed – not to mention by a games company with a record of some truly impressive and beautiful looking games – it could well be a fantastic resurrection one of my favourite all-time tactical games, and I have every hope that it could be just as amazing a revival as Fallout 3 was to me.

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