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The Lesser of Two Syndicates – 1993 vs 2012

The original Syndicate was released in 1993. At some point over the next couple of years I convinced my parents to buy me Syndicate Plus – a repackaged edition that included the ridiculously hard American Revolt expansion pack.
Syndicate was one of those games that stuck with me for years – an instant and long-lived classic. Persuading enough civilians to give yourself a moving moshpit of human shields never got old, and the first time I set a civilian on fire I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one saw me commit such a grisly act. As a well-behaved, church-going boy, Syndicate was my only chance to be the bad guy – and I loved every second of it.

Later, Syndicate Wars came along, pitting church against corporation, Agent against Acolyte. The game never really clicked with me, but I’ll always remember destroying my first skyscraper and watching it collapse in beautiful 3D.

Fast-forward to 2011 when the fact that EA was rebooting Syndicate is one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry. The official announcement came in December – Starbreeze Studios were at the helm and whilst details were sparse, you didn’t need to be prescient to know it would be a first-person shooter. We had hope though; This was the studio that made a good game out of a Vin Diesel film – obvious miracle workers.

How does it stand up? Which is the lesser of two Syndicates?

1993

The very first thing you do in Syndicate is give yourself an identity. Choose your logo and theme colour, name your corporation, name yourself. Here we see Molyneux taking the helm of Bullfrog once again. Not content with the reasonable success of the Project Godus Kickstarter he has finally snapped, kidnapping innocents and turning them into his cybernetically-enhanced killing machines.

The next step is to fit out these hapless meat sacks with weapons and other effects, and choose what the R&D department focuses on.

I’m using that word deliberately – Choose. It might not be a deep, reactive RPG, but it’s already deeper than a lot of other action games. The choices you make here can mean the difference between success and failure, life and… having to thaw out another Agent.

The missions come with a short but interesting briefing that can be expanded with the purchase of further intel. The main objective of each mission is likely to be either persuasion or death – persuading rival scientists or rogue politicians to join your cause, or killing others who can’t be persuaded.

In missions you hover over the city in your Cyberblimp, the four extensions of your corporate will on the ground beneath you, awaiting orders. As well as clicking for movement, targeting and inventory selection, you have additional control over your agents through the use of stimulants that effect adrenaline for movement speed, intelligence for operational independence and perception for accuracy. Agents quickly become overloaded with drugs and you need to allow the levels to re-stabilise or risk them losing efficiency right as a squad of heavily armed enemy agents swoop in.
Body augmentations allow them to sustain these drug-fuelled bursts for longer – just make sure you don’t get reckless with that agent walking around with tens of thousands of dollars worth of silicon under his skin.

With new territory under your control you now get to choose the tax rate for the new private citizens of your ever-expanding corporate dystopia. Keep taxes low and the people will stay happy, but your R&D department will run low on funds, or you might not be able to kit your agents out with the latest and greatest in weapons and augmentations. Raise taxes and risk rebellion, the loss of the sector and another risky mission to recapture it.

Playing it again now 20 years later (holy shit, I feel old typing that) the missions are still fresh in my mind – this is the one that starts and ends in that weird service tunnel, this is the one with the army general surrounded by troops, this is the one where I lost 3 fully augmented soldiers… The maps might feel smaller now, and the limited selection of tiles might seem more obvious, but the levels remain distinctive.

The artwork still holds up thanks to both a strong visual style, and the fact that the indie scene has kept old-school graphics alive. It could do with a richer colour palette, but that’s really my only complaint.
The sound and music are somewhat dated – if only because of the sparseness in the audio – but every single sound effect and bar of music have wedged themselves deep within my brain.

I’m actually surprised at how well Syndicate holds up after all these years. Nostalgia is certainly a part of that, but I still have to recommend the uninitiated head to gog and check it out for themselves. It’s an action game with enough strategy to stay interesting, and a strong creative vision that keeps it relevant all these years later.

2012

Eyescene

With the reawakening of the Deus Ex franchise, Eidos gave their prequel the somewhat unfortunate subtitle Human Revolution. While it may sound like the title of a TED talk, it at least gave some hint to the theme of the game, whilst also serving to differentiate it from the two games that came before.

In contrast to that we have EA.

I love it how EA simply calls nuSyndicate ‘Syndicate’ – and by “love” I mean “hate, but am entirely unsurprised by.” There’s no number, descriptor or subtitle tacked on to the end, just ‘Syndicate’. They want to resurrect a much-loved IP whilst basically ignoring the source material and even going so far as pretending it doesn’t exist… And don’t even get me started on the Skrillex wubstep remix of the original music. Instead we’ll move on to the game itself.

As nuSyndicate opens you are told who you are – an agent named Miles Kilo. Not only do you have no control over your identity in this new iteration, but for much of the opening sequence you can’t even choose where you look. Control of the player character is often taken away in favour of developer direction – a common and insulting occurrence in modern games. The developers would rather make us Agents without agency than risk any of their animations, effects or trite narrative being missed.

Forever Falling

I’ve heard the Calls of Duty and Battlefields have heavily scripted campaigns, but this is my first experience with it first hand. The game is as scripted as a Hollywood film, with excessive use of eyescenes (cutscenes that you’re forced to experience through the player character’s eyes), Mash Time Events (like Quick Time Events, but you’re only mashing one button), and scripted enemy deaths (for example, near the beginning of the game one enemy will always fall over a ledge when killed, even if he was crouching when shot).
Developers and Publishers – I don’t care for your ‘cinematic gameplay’; If I wanted a cinematic experience I’d be watching a movie.

Press X to...

Earlier I complained about the lack of a subtitle on this new iteration, but the solution is obvious: They should have called it Syndicate X. Not because the X would look “cool” and “cyberpunky”, and not because it’s the tenth Syndicate game (it’s not), but because that’s all you ever see on screen.

Mash X to break free from your restraints.
Mash X to open the door.
Press X to violently invade a target’s mind and start another cinematic eyescene.
Mash X to open the airvent.
Press X to have the hovering drone drop another weapon for you over the platform of the train station. No it makes no sense, but it’s for a boss battle, so we don’t care.
Mash X to hold down your partner while he has a seizure.

Press X to...

If I’d forced myself to finish the game I’m sure I would have broken the X button on my controller.

Press X to...

I started off complaining because of the initial disappointment. The game isn’t entirely rubbish, but even the good points are marred.
The visual fidelity on display is great, especially the faces of the main characters you (don’t) interact with between missions, but here again they let themselves down with design choices. I guess someone thought excessive bloom would help the game to look as much like an iconic cyberpunk film as possible, but all it does is wash out that aforementioned visual fidelity and obscure your vision.

The environments themselves are all too uniform for any particular elements to stand out, including the enemies. You have a fancy cyberpunk visual overlay that highlights them and certain objects for you, but this is limited and can’t be relied on for general sight augmentation.

Speaking of overlays, the visuals when you’re performing a scripted hack are fantastic, with information displayed via all sorts of scifi mcgubbins, but the way your vision zooms and pans while this happens makes me wonder if Milo’s eyes are popping out of his head to fly around like military drones.

mcgubbinses

The guns feel weighted and satisfying, but there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before in other FPSs. The one weapon that could have changed the way the whole game plays – the Persuadatron – is reduced to a hacking attack that can only be used on a single enemy combatant. Gone are the days of mindless, swarming bodyguards.

The story was written by Richard Morgan, whose books I have previously devoured. For anyone who has read Market Forces, it’s no surprise that Morgan isn’t going to be able to write a story about absolute corporate governance and power; You know there’ll be freedom fighters and people with consciences and other rubbish that has no place in my evil corporate power fantasy.

Wet work

But perhaps the fact there’s a heavily scripted story at all is the real issue. Much like the XCOM remake, the original Syndicate allowed for simple emergent stories, which is part of its lasting appeal.

Rosario Dawson plays Lily, the scientist with too much heart to be working for a corporation, and Brian Cox plays Denham, the executive who is far too likeable to be the head of an evil corporation. Michael Wincott plays Merit, the Agent who could beat Batman in a talking-like-this contest, and who is too sassy to be a personality-less tool of corporate oppression.
Maybe Molyneux’s agents were meant to have personality outside of the mission, but I doubt it. They were weapons carrying weapons, a means to an end and nothing else. The voice acting and the digital recreation of the actors’ voices are all top-notch, but I can’t help but feel it all completely misses the point.

“From where I’m standing it looks bright. Very bright.” That's not the future, Denham, that's just excessive bloom.

EA forgot that when Syndicate came out, there was nothing else quite like it. NuSyndicate is just Modern Battlefare wearing too-bright cyberpunk skin, and if the critical reception and poor sales are anything to go by, it didn’t even ape those billion dollar franchises well enough.
Apparently the co-op in nuSyndicate is enjoyable, but I can’t imagine it’s better than Left 4 Dead, Killing Floor, Borderlands, or any other genuinely great co-op games. If you really want to play something in the cyberpunk vein (and you’ve played the Deus Ex games to death) then you’ll want to check out nuSyndicate, but I can’t think of any other reason to recommend the game to anyone.

We don’t yet know if EA has shelved the IP again. They believe they took a risk with the game, but only a suit would call it a risk to release an FPS at the height of the industry’s obsession with FPSs. They released a generic shooter without a competitive multiplayer component into a marketplace that is largely propped-up by PvP… This was perhaps less ‘risky’ than it was ‘a poor business decision’.

As trite and pointless as nuSyndicate is, I still want EA to try again. With the success of XCOM I’m hopeful EA will realise there is a market for an isometric Syndicate game with R&D and global territory control.
Alternatively, if they want to take the action route again though, perhaps we could see a GTAlike – a massive area for the player to rampage through, persuading citizens, battling agents, and perhaps even destroying buildings. They could explain away the lack of international scope by calling it a prequel; Your corporation is trying to gain a foothold in some vast, futuristic arcology with plans for eventual global domination.

Either of these ideas could make for infinitely better games than nuSyndicate, and both these ideas smell like money to me, and we all know EA likes the smell of money.

Verdict: 2012 is the lesser of two Syndicates. Buy 1993 here instead.

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4 thoughts on “The Lesser of Two Syndicates – 1993 vs 2012

  1. Madge says:

    How did you play the original Syndicate on a modern day PC. My previous experience with playing old school games on new hardware wasn’t great. And did you ever finish Syndicate Wars? That shit was hard.

    Like

    • Dosbox is what you need to get Syndicate running. Wasn’t too hard from memory, though if you can’t be bothered the version you can buy from gog should just run.

      Oh shit, Syndicate Wars is on gog now too. Might have to buy it for nostalgia’s sake. If you already own it and need help running it on modern systems though, I think you need this. Never did finish it, but man those buildings blew up real good.

      Like

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