|Developer:||Bullfrog|||||Release Date:||1993|||||Systems:||PC, Amiga, Acorn, Mac, PC-98, 3DO, Jaguar, CD32|
This fine Wednesday on Super Adventures I'm having a go of one of Bullfrog's most classic games, Syndicate!
It's about time as well, because for the last five years or so the only Bullfrog games I've had on my site have been Hi-Octane and Genewars. No Dungeon Keepers, no Theme Parks, and nary a single Populous (not even going to try working out the plural of that... or how to play it).
Syndicate and I have met a few times over the years, but we've never really got on. I'm not sure why, maybe I've been misunderstanding some aspect of gameplay, maybe it's just not my thing, but I've always found it to be finicky, frustrating and bloody difficulty to get anywhere in. Every now and again though I find myself wanting to give it another chance, because I love its particular remix of the 'Blade Runner' dystopian aesthetic and I'm always up for a bit of ultra-violent cyberpunk tactical action. But every time I load it up I end up putting in a cheat and firing Gauss guns at cars for a bit before turning it right back off again.
For some reason I always thought that the Amiga version was the genuine article and all others mere reflections, but this was actually the first Bullfrog game designed first for PC. Works for me, I got it off Origin a short while back when they were giving it away, so I'm all set up to give it another shot.
This pre-rendered cyberpunk city doesn't actually look so bad for a game that came out four years before Final Fantasy VII (it even has reflections on the cars), and it's even more impressive that they managed to fit this on a tiny 880kb floppy disk for the Amiga version as well. Unfortunately the Amiga version don't look so pretty, as it's been shrunk down into a window and apparently filmed through a glass of lager. You get a new appreciation for 256 colour graphics when you've seen what 16 colours gets you.
The intro is about a sinister corporation taking a proactive approach to recruitment, by running a guy over and throwing them into their car. Either that or they just hate smokers. Thing is, you actually do kidnap people to turn them into agents in this, but using this particular technique in game will only get you a smear across the pavement. It's just setting players up for disappointment!
This scene's a little less impressive in the Amiga version as it's all purple, but that does at least make it harder to tell that the Leonardo Device has big red googly eyes.
I always just assumed this guy started off as an ordinary civilian, but I've noticed this time that he was wearing a trench coat even before he was hit with the car. Now I'm thinking they targeted a low level agent who hadn't even earned his glowing eyes yet.
This kind of reminds me of Command & Conquer's mission map, which is fitting as they're both about ordering tiny folks around with the mouse. There's only one place I can visit right now though and that's Western Europe. I've got to finish a job there to make it mine and get a share of the tax revenue.
Though before that I had to name my company and choose a logo. I went with "Super Adventures" because that's a fantastic name for any kind of shady operation, but deciding on a logo was trickier.
Honestly the one I like most is the Bullfrog logo you start off with by default, but I couldn't pick that because it'd be too boring. I would've called my syndicate the "3rd Street Saints" and chosen the fleur-de-lis looking one on the bottom row, but megacorps can't have purple logos either, so I just went with the cyberpunk girl.
MAP' at the bottom and that just brought me to the world map again.
My objective this time is simple enough. I just have to kill the army colonel.
ACCEPT' brought me to my own little X-Com base, except without the base part. Here I get to buy gear, research new items, and manage my team. It's nice that my agents all have names, not that I should really be getting too attached to my brainwashed terminators.
The polymorphic rubber covering their skin's left them looking a bit grey, but I can add a bit more colour by removing bones and organs and replacing them with cutting edge technology! Well cutting edge for my crappy outfit any way, as V1 mods are the best I've got. Legs improve speed, eyes improve accuracy (I think, the descriptions aren't 100% helpful), but I'm going with chest implants first because I'd like my agents to be able to survive incoming fire.
I think I'll spend my spare cash on some shotguns, as I reckon the key to victory is likely having tougher cyborgs with better weapons. Guns can apparently weigh my agents down, but I'm sure their standard issue limbs are up to the task of carrying a couple of shotguns (even if the concept of carrying spare ammo is too much for their level 0 brains).
The thing is, time is always ticking even in menus, so if I choose a research project my cash will start ticking away too. Increasing the funding makes the graph steeper, meaning I'm spending my money quicker to get my new toy exactly 5 hours earlier. Engineers have gotten bloody good at making time estimates by the year 85 NC. That stands for 'New Calender' by the way, as the world started again from 1 at some point. It's cunning really, as it means it that the game is set 85 years after tomorrow no matter what year you're playing it, figuratively speaking.
MISSION 1: WESTERN EUROPE.
It's all 2D so I can't zoom or change the angle, and that beeping is driving me nuts! Every time there's a pulse on the minimap scanner I hear a beep and it's giving me some real motivation to go to its source (presumably the colonel) and put a bullet in him. Annoyingly the thing always focuses on the selected agent so I can't scroll over to take a look.
The game plays a lot like Cannon Fodder, which came out the same year, so I just point my mouse where I want my selected unit to move and click to send him walking. I keep wanting to drag a box around them to select them all, but the game's a bit too old for that trick. Only just though, as you can do it in Warcraft.
Turns out that Chest v1 was worth the cash, as my team are definitely not dead. That's another big difference from Cannon Fodder, as that game has one shot kills.
I started going around checking the buildings for more of the colonel's goons, which isn’t as easy as you’d think because the walls and roof don't turn transparent; once I'm inside a building I have to rely on the scanner to navigate and spot enemies. Well not entirely, as I caught Enemy #3 by poking my head in the building to the right and sweeping the screen until the crosshair cursor turned red.
Wait, has my health gone back to full? Wow the game has regenerating health! How did I not know that? Okay I really need to go kill the colonel now because this pulse is driving me mad.
I was praising the game earlier for the cutscenes matching the in game graphics, but now it's throwing sloping buildings at me all of a sudden! There's nothing that looks like this in the game.
The game gave me a mission debriefing screen afterwards, but it was just stats. There's no wrap up for the story. I killed the colonel, onto the next thing. It apparently took me 1 hour and 7 days to complete the mission (felt more like five minutes to me), so my automatics research is done!
Annoyingly I can't just hold the button to change the tax rate though, so there's a lot of clicking involved if I want some proper income (edit: not really, you just right click the arrows to change by 10% increments). I want my people to stay happy anyway though. I'm a rubbish despot.
My automatics research has unlocked the ability to buy Uzis and if I hang around the menus long enough I'll have brought in enough cash to buy some of them. The timer's always ticking... slowly. The next mission isn't about shooting though. I'm supposed to be kidnapping and brainwashing scientists to bring them over to my cause. I'm 96% sure they won't actually make a damn bit of difference to my research though. Every mission is separate and disconnected from each other, and the rest of the game. There's no ongoing story.
MISSION 2: SCANDINAVIA.
What I'm doing here is getting close enough to pedestrians to automatically hit them with my persuadertron and make them my loyal thralls. Everyone in this crappy world has a CHIP implanted in them, and my device hacks it to get them following me. It's a shame it doesn't give them blue hair as well so I know they're my crew.
Speaking of hair, I wonder how things are on the SNES version.
The Genesis/Mega Drive version is pretty much like this as well and the PSP straight up emulates it. The 3DO and Jaguar on the other hand got proper ports, with authentic gameplay and low res visuals similar to the Amiga game. But really the PC one is what you want.
You can see that some of the cops I've brought are joining in with their own weapons. If I'm not careful, those persuaded NPCs will nick the fallen enemy weapons. I need those guns so I can sell them! By the way if you want to make the Amiga version grind to a halt, gathering a posse is the way to do it.
Gathering a group like this isn't just a laugh, it actually serves an important purpose, as I need a certain number of people with me to persuade tougher units. So if I get enough civilians I can get a cop, and if I get enough of them I can get an agent. Apparently peer pressure's a big part of the process. Trouble is I can't tell how many people I've got with me unless I count them, so I just grabbed everyone.
Annoyingly I didn't get to keep any of the people I brought home after this mission, so I guess I can only recruit enemy syndicate agents for my reserves.
MISSION 3: CENTRAL EUROPE.
Man, look at them all bumping off the walls, they're like a herd of lemmings. They're just as bad when they're not being controlled. Maybe they're all being distracted by the billboards everywhere, I know I am.
The art suffers a bit from its low colour depth, but I love the style of the game. Everything gets darker the higher it goes because all the lights are pointing at the streets. The effect doesn't work so well when there are no street lights around, but I don't really need anything else obscuring my view really.
|Borrowed from an old issue of Amiga Power|
Syndicate spent around three years in development, which was a lot back then, and had accumulated all kinds of names along the way like Cyber Assault, Higher Functions and BOB (standing for Blue and Orange Bloke). The game we ended up with wasn't exactly like Peter Molyneux had described (agents don't automatically run off and persuade car owners to willingly hand over their keys for instance), but the biggest feature they had planned that didn't make it is the multiplayer mode. Competitive multiplayer was so important to the devs that it was implemented before the AI was, they'd play it after work and on their lunch breaks, but the QA team couldn't get it working on their system so it had to be dropped at the last minute.
The game eventually did get its multiplayer included in the American Revolt mission pack, but I've never heard anyone mention playing it, so I guess it wasn't all that popular.
You might be wondering about all those dead people in the road, that was my fault I'm afraid. AI cars are pretty well behaved, but if I send my own agents driving somewhere they go full GTA. The game doesn't care though; Civilians are absolutely irrelevant. The cops don't even care as long as I put my weapons away when asked nicely.
Cars in this are awkward, as they often go off circumnavigating the whole road network whenever I try to send them anywhere. They also have a nasty habit of exploding under incoming fire, which isn't all that healthy for the passengers. Thing is though, I need a car on this level to get me through gates to my extraction points, and you'd be surprise how rare they are in this dystopian metropolis.
In an earlier version the cars were more like the ones in Cannon Fodder, able to drive anywhere. But they didn't have the memory for eight directional sprites, and being able to simply run over opposing agents wasn't doing much to enhance the all-important multiplayer.
A FEW MISSIONS LATER.
In fact there actually is a panic mode which gives all agents full drugs immediately, but I panicked and forgot how to activate it (it's both mouse buttons). Annoyingly the game won't let me micromanage my team while it's paused, so I have to be quick with my clicks.
As long as I've got agents left at base I can always continue after a failure and get the benefit of all the tax money I brought in while I was screwing everything up. But any agent I get killed is lost forever, so I guess I should load my last save and maybe spend my cash enhancing Jones' chest next time.
LATER, AT THE END OF A LONG MISSION.
I only need one of them in particular to make it through to the extraction point, but it's not up to me which of them walks through and which get caught on the fence, so I have to keep walking in and out, trying to lure them through. And when they don't get stuck on the fence they end up walking up the ramp instead! Adding multiple floors to a game when the AI can't navigate one is a recipe for... well, this.
I just shoved everyone into a car in the end and drove them through the gate.
On some levels the enemies all run at me from the start and it's all over in seconds, but levels like this can drag on forever. Plus sometimes I've been stuck replaying the same level because enemy agents kept executing the person I was supposed to be escorting before I reached them, or because I kept accidentally brainwashing the person I was meant to be killing and making them immune to friendly fire. Almost makes me wish the game had mid-mission saves. Almost.
YET ANOTHER MISSION.
I was doing well while my mini-guns had the range advantage, but now some of the enemies have sniper rifles that can hit me from off screen, and now it's all going to pants. I keep hearing a bass thud and taking damage, and I'm never sure which way to run. They're pretty crap rifles mind you, but when there's seven agents shooting at me I don't last very long in the open.
I just realised that these agents I'm fighting have two different hair colours, so they're from rival syndicates. Maybe if I'd found a better hiding place they would've ran into each other and wiped themselves out for me. I don't get any experience or cash bonus for kills, so I don't care who does it!
My scanner range isn't massive, but the dynamic music gives me an early warning when enemy agents are nearby and I should duck behind a wall. Whenever the Danger Theme (YouTube link) comes on I know that shit's about to get real.
The thing is, the Amiga version doesn't have music in game, so this is all new to me. But this tune I've definitely heard before, as it's the theme to that Syndicate first person shooter no one wanted! Here you can have a YouTube link to that as well while I'm feeling generous: Skrillex - Syndicate (2012) Theme.
But Mongolia and India have started freaking out all of a sudden and I don't even know why! You can see that their taxes were set to a reasonable 29% so really they should be throwing parades in my honour, not rebelling against my benevolent rule. You can bet that the other megacorps wouldn't have been so kind.
To win them back I simply have to replay their mission again, exactly as before. Personally I'd prefer being able to revisit levels without all the hassle of inciting them to riot, but at least it's possible.
MANY MISSIONS LATER.
I wish I could say that this was my Gauss guns doing their job, but truth is I can't afford to waste cash on ammo for them. You get three shots per weapon and they cost a fortune to reload.
What actually happened here is that enemy agents have begun to wear time bombs that explode a few seconds after their death (or even sooner when I edit the video to cut out all that boring non-explosion time). I guess they must have assumed I was bringing knives.
Ever noticed how every city in this world looks the same by the way? Sometimes they're orange and sometimes they're green, but the architecture and roads are identical.
Wait, that's just the APC from 'Aliens' with the windshield on the wrong side! And a flower on the roof for some reason. Maybe this is what florist vans look like in the grimdark future of 85 NC. In fact I've been playing so long it'll be 86 NC in a few days.
MUCH LATER, ON THE ATLANTIC ACCELERATOR MISSION.
Next time around though wasn't so bad. I went straight to panic mode, and it turns out they were carrying time bombs so they killed their buddies for me. I still lost mind you, but my defeat wasn't so soul crushingly absolute.
Seems a bit unfair for all the folks down there who just became collateral damage, but it's fine. They were less than a millionth of the tax paying population of this region.
Syndicate's always been one of those games that I wished I could get into but never did. I had more luck with Cannon Fodder weirdly, despite how much of a bastard that game can be, perhaps because I felt there was some tactical depth to Syndicate I was missing. I was confused by the three combat drugs, and intimidated by all the research options and upgrades, feeling that if I got something wrong at the start I'd be making the game unwinnable down the line.
Turns out though it's actually pretty straightforward; almost ridiculously so at times due to the idiot AI. One time I took one guy out on a solo scouting mission, and when I checked back on the other three I found that'd practically killed all the enemies on the map by themselves. I'd left their drugs on full and rival agents had been charging into their bullets off screen. The game doesn't really do mid-mission surprises, so once all the suicidal enemies are gone it's a pretty quiet walk around the city... surrounded by idiot civilians walking into walls.
Plus after a while I felt reasonably sure I couldn't really make any catastrophic decisions outside of missions. If ever managed to blow all my money on absolute rubbish and left myself utterly out-gunned I could always just raise taxes and wait a while. Cash keeps rolling in outside of levels and if you piss a region off, that just means you get to replay an easier level for even more money (and replacement agents)! Trouble is the research is a mystery at first, and then a disappointment later as it doesn't usually open up new options, just upgrades. You pretty much get 'legs, better legs, best legs', or 'gun, better gun, best gun', and I ended up selling all my Uzis and shotguns because the mini-gun made them entirely redundant. Also I found the higher tier weapons like lasers frustrating, but that was mostly because the enemies were shooting me with them! I've barely played with toys like shields and time bombs though, so maybe there's tactics I'm not seeing yet. I got a lot of use out of corners after all.
The big appeal of the game to me has always been its cyberpunk style and the crapsack world it takes place in. I'm not typically a fan of bleak dystopias, but the setting's pretty much just a GTA-style excuse to go have fun with flame-throwers and Gauss guns with zero empathy for the pool souls caught in the crossfire. Plus I love the gloomy pixelled architecture... I just wish I could see my agents when they walked behind it. Not being able to see inside buildings is absolutely ridiculous and if the developers really couldn't find a solution to it they should've locked the damn doors!
There's no ongoing storyline, just disconnected mission briefings to explain what shady shit you're pulling this time on your quest to be the world's greatest bastards. Plus the mission themselves tend to be pretty samey as they're all about shooting people or brainwashing them. Well sometimes they mix it up by having you collect an item, blow up some parked cars or break a guy out of prison, but the rest of the time it's ASSASSINATE, ELIMINATE AGENTS or PERSUADE. They didn't even tell me to scan for replicants or jack into cyberspace!
The game's awkward, dated, and you spend way too much time waiting for little pixel people to get where you want them to go, but I enjoyed it and I want to keep playing. I had anti-nostalgia for this and it still won me over, so that's got to be worth a shiny star.
This is the point where you readers get to leave comments in the box below about the game and my site or whatever, so if you feel like entering some text then you should immediately act on that impulse.