Syndicate: the violent birth of the sandbox city

Box art from the Amiga version of Syndicate. Source: Commodore is Awesome

Box art from the Amiga version of Syndicate. The design of the cyborgs is strongly reminiscent of the Harkonnen troopers in David Lynch’s film adaptation of Dune. Source: Commodore is Awesome

The 1990s was an exciting time for gaming. The technology was allowing creative designers to invent and develop many of the concepts and mechanics that we now take for granted. Games were increasing in depth and sophistication, and new genres were being born. We were moving beyond the plethora of simplistic arcade-style shooters, beat ’em ups and platformers that had mostly dominated the scene in the late 80s. Of course, there was a tonne of stinkers, but it was a period of experimentation on a scale of which we are unlikely to see again in an industry now so incredibly averse to taking risks (at least outside of the indie scene that has re-emerged in the past few years).

One of the pioneers at the centre of this movement was British developer Bullfrog, founded in 1987 by Les Edgar and Peter Molyneux. Bullfrog was behind some of the most innovative and well-regarded titles of that era including the seminal god games Populous (1989) and Populous II (1991), and numerous strategy, management and action games such as Powermonger (1990), Magic Carpet (1994), Theme Park (1994), Dungeon Keeper (1997) and Theme Hospital (1997). Tragically, they were bought by EA in 1995 and ceased to exist as a studio in 2001 when they were absorbed into the company. However, Molyneux did go on to form Lionhead Studios who developed the acclaimed god game Black and White (2001) as well as the Fable games.


Populous on the Amiga. And on the fifth day, Bullfrog created the god game and saw that it was good…

Bullfrog was also responsible for one of the most original games of that decade, the notoriously violent Syndicate, released in 1993 for Amiga and PC DOS and later ported to several console platforms. It’s a title that regularly features in all-time greatest lists and would almost certainly be in my top 10.

Brave new world
Syndicate is set in a dystopian near-future in which nations have become largely irrelevant and governments have been superseded by powerful corporations, now almost entirely infiltrated by ruthless criminal syndicates. It’s a world driven by extreme capitalism, greed and corruption. Cities have become soulless metropolises dominated by advertising, the populace, subdued by neural implants (known as CHIPs), are treated as little more than expendable consumers, the police are bought, and the streets are battlegrounds between the psychotic cyborg agents of rival syndicates vying for territorial control. The tone is skillfully set in a fantastic intro sequence that shows a man being abducted and transformed into an obedient cyborg agent for the syndicate. It’s an oppressive reality that draws heavily from classic sci-fi films such as Blade Runner, THX 1138, They Live and Robocop, as well as the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson.

Storytelling in games is something we very much take for granted now, but Syndicates’ richly-drawn backdrop added a level of sophistication and immersion that was progressive for a time when most developers didn’t bother with anything but the most minimal of narratives. Depressingly, and perhaps part of the game’s allure is that there’s a vague plausibility to the reality that Syndicate depicts.

The Syndicate display ad from 1993.

The display ad for Syndicate, as featured in Amiga Format #48 (July 1993); source: Commodore is Awesome

Syndicate places you as a young executive working for a small but ambitious European syndicate looking to expand its influence. The aim is nothing less than global domination. The world is divided up into 50 territories and each can be conquered by successfully completing a mission there.

As a natural successor to games like Populous and Powermonger, Syndicate combines real-time strategy with action. The game comprises a relatively simple management segment, where you choose and prepare for your missions, and an isometric squad-based shooter where you carry out the missions using a team of up to four heavily-armed cyborgs that you control through a simple point-and-click interface.

In the former, you must manage your income, which is mostly derived from taxing the territories you control. Tax them too much and the populace will revolt, requiring you to send your boys (and girls) back in. Tax income accumulates whenever you’re in the game, so a cheeky trick is to simply leave your computer on overnight and then wake up to a big pile of cash.

The world map is divided into 50 territories. You can tax each of the conquered regions (in white).

The world map is divided into 50 territories. Each one can be conquered by completing a mission there, which then allows you to tax them. My territories are in white.

You can also fund research into a variety of new weapons, gadgets and upgrades for your cyborgs. This is something that needs to be done early on as the difficulty ramps up quickly, plus it provides access to the more interesting and fun weapons like the guass gun (a rocket launcher), time bomb and flamer. There’s nothing quite like lighting up a dark winter night with a napalm jet and some burning civilians – smells like victory.

The loadout screen allows you to conduct research, buy and equip weapons, and upgrade your cyborgs with new augmentations.

The loadout screen allows you to conduct research, buy and equip weapons, and upgrade your cyborgs with new augmentations.

Blood in the sandbox
Missions objectives are simple variations of assassination, combat sweeps, VIP escorts and kidnapping. The latter is achieved with the sinisterly named persuadatron, a gadget that hacks the neural implants of the target causing them to follow your agents around like suicidal sheep. This device works on anybody so you can create a surprisingly effective meat shield around your cyborgs by “persuading” every hapless civilian that crosses your path.

Missions can be retried as many times as you like. It’s only game over (man) when there are no more agents left in your cryochamber. But new agents can only be acquired in the field by capturing them with your persuadatron. However, cyborgs (and police) are not as suggestible as the plebs, so you need to persuade a whole raft of civvies first or upgrade your agents’ brains.

I've manage to persuade some enemy agents to join my cause, and these other civilians under my control are quite handy at getting in the way of bullets

I’ve managed to “persuade” some enemy agents to join my cause, and these other civilians and cops under my control are quite handy at shielding my boys from bullets – the poor saps

Each mission is essentially a mini sandbox set in a bustling and, for the time, incredibly detailed and atmospheric cityscape. Pedestrians loiter and meander among the trees, parks, waterways, street lights, bins, phone booths, mailboxes, etc. Diverse buildings are covered in minute details and connected by raised walkways. Neon lights and animated advertising hoardings light up the night. Cars pass by, their flow regulated by traffic lights, trains traverse the city, police patrol on foot and in vehicles, and cyborgs from rival syndicates lurk in the shadows.

Despite the graphical limitations of the time, the cities are full of tiny details that bring the game to life.

Despite the graphical limitations of the time, the cities are full of tiny details that bring the game’s world to life.

You can explore at leisure either by foot or train, peacefully mingling with the locals; or you can steal cars and run people down, blow up the trains, and murder with impunity. The city reacts to your actions. Order your agents to pull out their weapons and civilians run away screaming while the police (with their pathetic little pop guns) will open fire. Run into a squad of enemy cyborgs and all havoc breaks loose. Miniguns roar, blood sprays, civilians get mowed down in the crossfire, the police show up in APCs, cars and trains explode in huge balls of flame, their occupants screeching and burning to death as they exit the wreckage, windows smash, trees set ablaze, and the bodies pile up. It’s exhilarating mayhem, all lovingly animated.

Exterminate with extreme prejudice
In 1993 this was revolutionary. No other game up to that point gave you such a sense of being in a living, breathing city. This all predates the first Grand Theft Auto game by nearly four years and it’s hard not to see the influence on the latter.

burning car

Nothing quite like a flaming stream of napalm jelly to get the party going

And like the GTA series, it’s unashamedly violent, very deliberately presenting the player with countless opportunities to commit mindless acts of wanton violence in a variety of gruesome and elaborate ways. But it does make for a grittier, more brutal reality that fits in perfectly with the dark theme of the game.

Apparently, earlier versions of the game featured babies and animals that could also be slaughtered, but the testers objected so strongly that they had to be removed. In an interview with Amiga Format (AF #60 June 1994), Peter Molyneux is quoted as saying “They told us we were going too far, funnily enough they objected most to killing the puppies”. In defending the violent content of the game, he claimed: “It’s the player who’s violent, not us. All we’ve done is give a loaded weapon to the player and it’s up to them how to use it…” (however, I was recently told by Mike Diskett in a Steam discussion thread on Satellite Reign that this is “total BS”! updated 01/10/15)

Bizarrely, Syndicate never quite caught the attention of the media in the way that some of its contemporaries did, such as Mortal Kombat (1992), Cannon Fodder (1993), Doom (1993) and Dreamweb (1994).

The gauss gun, a mini rocket launcher, is perfect for crowd control and easily the most fun of all the available weapons

The gauss gun, a mini rocket launcher, is perfect for crowd control and taking out armoured convoys. And it’s far too much fun.

Innovative touches
Like much of Bullfrog’s output during that period, Syndicate is a game brimming with neat little touches that add depth and character to the game; again, the sorts of thing we would simply take for granted now. Animated portraits accurately represent what your agents are up to, even if this is being a bloody corpse or a smouldering heap of ash. Dynamic music alerts you to an enemy presence. Upgraded agents can be self-destructed to create a devastating explosion. And I love that citizens under the control of your persuadatron will pick up weapons from the dead and shoot at anyone you target. You can even name your company (mine is Dystopia Inc.) and choose from one of 40 logos, though I always been a bit disappointed that you can’t change the name of your cyborgs.

One of the most interesting features is the ability to dope your agents up with drugs to regulate their adrenaline (movement and reaction speed), perception (threat awareness) and intelligence (level of independence); but they develop tolerance, which takes a while to recover from, so you can’t overdo it. You can also retard these levels to stop your agents from getting into unnecessary fights or to help reduce their dependency. There is even a “panic mode”, achieved by clicking both mouse buttons together, that instantly maxes out the three levels, turning your boys into autonomous killing machines.

Time bomb

Some enemies carry time bombs that detonate shortly after they die – another reason to keep your agents on a tight leash

But it’s not a game without its fair share of problems. NPCs frequently get stuck on the scenery and the pathfinding is woeful, often resulting in the death of your agents and mission failure. Expectations may have been lower in 1993, but I still vividly remember the frustration caused by the constant hassle of getting your cyborgs to stick together and go where you want. It’s especially difficult when your vision is obscured by the scenery (you can’t change the camera angle) or you have to the enter the buildings because you have to rely solely on the mini-map to figure out what’s going on. On top of this, the missions can be somewhat repetitive in nature and some suffer from pacing issues, particularly combat sweeps on the larger maps where you can end up spending long periods of time scouring the city for one or two elusive targets.

The dread mission failure cut scene. Often the result of your agents wandering off and getting themselves killed - the pathfinding is a real problem in Syndicate

The dreaded mission failure cutscene. Often the result of your agents wandering off and getting themselves killed – the pathfinding is a real problem in Syndicate

Lasting appeal
For the time, Syndicate was a highly original game that slickly blended strategy and fast-paced action in a beautifully realised and atmospheric cyberpunk world. But I guess what I love about Syndicate the most is that you are unambiguously the bad guy, and perhaps this is the game’s most innovative feature and where its lasting appeal really lies. There were other games during that period, e.g. Civilisation (1991) or Frontier: Elite 2 (1992), that gave you the freedom to express your darker side, but Syndicate was the first game I’d ever played where you had no choice but to play the villain. It’s something that’s still rare today. Yes, it’s not uncommon to play the anti-hero, but there’s almost always a turning point where your character rebels against the forces of evil and achieves some sort of redemption. There is no such turning point in Syndicate.

In Syndicate you’re not just a cog in the well-oiled machine of evil, you are the man in charge. The mission briefings, along with the game manual, are loaded with tongue-in-cheek euphemisms for murder, kidnap, brainwashing and subjugation. And with a cold detachment, you command your agents from the safe confines of your plush airship to carry out these nefarious acts, all in the name of expanding your business empire. To quote the manual: “After winning a mission you have earned the right to levy outrageous rates of tax on the helpless citizens.” As with two of its key influences, Robocop and They Live, Syndicate is a brutal but unsubtle satire of corporate evil. And like those films, it pulls it off because it’s not taking itself too seriously.

Entertaining your inner sociopath has never been so much fun!

The missions briefings are full of tongue-in-cheek euphemisms for

The missions briefings are full of tongue-in-cheek euphemisms for murder, kidnap, brainwashing and subjugation. There’s a mischievous sense of humour pervades the entire game.

Sequels and the future
American Revolt, an expansion pack, was released the same year, but that’s just more of the same. A true sequel, Syndicate Wars, was released in 1996 for PC and PS1. It’s a solid and very enjoyable continuation of the original game with, naturally, upgraded graphics and sound. It also includes very welcome improvements to the interface (like being able to rotate the camera), AI and pathfinding (though still far from perfect), as well as a faster tempo, more variation in the maps and missions, destructible buildings, two playable factions and my personal favourite, nuclear grenades.

Syndicate Wars

Syndicate Wars is a solid and very enjoyable continuation of the original game, and it features exploding lamp posts!

In 2012, EA published a reboot developed by Starbreeze Studios, also called Syndicate. Admittedly, I haven’t played this version, but I’ve read enough reviews to know that I’d hate it. They’ve taken a unique and highly-revered third-person tactical shooter with great potential for a modern update and turned it into yet another generic FPS. But then that’s typical of EA, who gobble up talented studios like a giant corporate Pac-Man but show little understanding or appreciation of the IPs they’ve acquired. In fact, EA epitomise everything that’s wrong with the gaming industry, but that’s a rant for another day.

Excitingly, I recently bought into the early access for Satellite Reign, a third-person class-based shooter set in a neon-lit rain-drenched metropolis populated by cyberpunks, cyborgs and cyberpunk cyborgs. It began life on Kickstarter and has repeatedly been heralded as the “spiritual successor” to Syndicate. And indeed, the man behind it, Mike Diskett, worked on the Amiga conversion of Syndicate and was the lead developer on Syndicate Wars. The title is even a blatant reference to one of the weapons available in Syndicate Wars.

And I must say, I like what I see. It’s certainly immersive with a pleasing visual style that neatly captures the aesthetic of Blade Runner and the ambience of the original Syndicate games. Gameplay wise it’s hard to judge at such an early stage of development; the mechanics will feel familiar to anyone who has played Syndicate Wars, though with more depth and a stronger emphasis on tactics. It has a lot of potential, I just hope it gets finished.

red light district 1

The sound, visuals and incredible attention to detail of Satellite Reign make for a highly immersive and atmospheric world evocative of the film Blade Runner and the game Syndicate Wars

I’d like to thank the excellent Commodore is Awesome for kindly allowing me to reproduce materials from their website. They have a massive archive of all things Commodore, including an extensive collection of Amiga Formats stored in PDF format. Well worth a look.


3 thoughts on “Syndicate: the violent birth of the sandbox city

  1. Pingback: Satellite Reign – first impressions | the cake is a lie: a nostalgic gaming blog

  2. Pingback: Hotline Miami – is it really that clever or subversive? | the cake is a lie: a nostalgic gaming blog

  3. Pingback: Satellite Reign – final review | the cake is a lie: a nostalgic gaming blog

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