Retro Revisited: Syndicate Wars (PC)

In this edition of Retro Revisited, we’ll be looking back at Syndicate Wars, the much-anticipated sequel to one of the best real-time action-strategy games of the early 90’s, Syndicate. The original game proved to be incredibly popular, and remains one of my favourite games of all time – to say that I was excited when I learned that a sequel was in development would be something of an understatement!

The game was developed by renowned UK software development studio, Bullfrog Productions, and published by Electronic Arts in 1996 for PC and PlayStation console. The game was developed at a point in time when 3D graphics had largely overtaken 2D as the standard, and Syndicate Wars was no different. The fixed, isometric viewpoint of the original was replaced with a an engine capable of rendering the game world in true, texture-mapped 3D, which meant that the look and feel of the game was quite different to it’s parent.

Despite being a huge fan of the original, I recall that Syndicate Wars left me feeling somewhat conflicted the first time I played it, never quite delivering the same level of enjoyment as it’s forebear.

So it was that, when tackling the game for the purpose of this article, I was expecting to be left with the same sense of dissatisfaction, and could deliver a verdict that supported this original assessment. However, upon revisiting the game some 22 years later, I was pleasantly surprised to find a game that, despite some issues, would prove to be one of the most engrossing (and infuriating) experiences of my gaming career!

The Syndicate universe is set in a dystopian future where mega-corporations (the titular syndicates) rule the globe through substantial financial and political influence. EuroCorp, one of the original syndicates and focus of the original game, was responsible for developing and perfecting the Utopia chip, a microprocessor designed to be embedded into human hosts. Inserted at the base of the neck, the chip interfaces with the brain stem, allowing the person’s perception of the world to be completely altered, should they so wish it.

Better than any drug, the chip provided the population with a means to block out the misery of their real lives by replacing it with a form of augmented reality, which also provides access to a wealth of online, connected information services – think of it like an IOT comprised of human hosts!

Of course, all the personal information contained in the host’s brain becomes instantly accessible, essentially making the population’s personal data – even their very thoughts – available to the controlling syndicate.

Those who controlled chip production would effectively become wealthier and more powerful than any government, and corporate warfare would break out – in the most literal sense – between each of the rival syndicates. Teams of cybernetically enhanced agents became the favoured tool of industrial espionage, dispatched to cities that the syndicate needed to take control of through any means necessary.

Set some 50 years after the conclusion of the original game, EuroCorp is now the single most powerful entity on the planet. Having achieved complete dominance over world financial resources, and wielding unparalleled political and financial influence, this corporate behemoth seems unassailable. With the majority of the planet’s population connected to the Utopia system via their implants, there is little that EuroCorp does not see, hear or exploit.

Trouble rears it’s head when a mysterious and technologically superior cult manages to upload a computer virus into the one of the Utopia network’s central uplinks. The virus renders vast swathes of citizen’s Utopia chips inoperable, and with the digital umbilical that connected the populous to the global Utopia network severed, the Church of the New Epoch instigates revolution on a global scale, indoctrinating citizens, and converting them into cyborg acolytes that prove to be every bit as deadly as syndicate agents.

With it’s corporate empire now at risk, EuroCorp leverages it’s substantial technological resources into combating the cultist threat.

While EuroCorp and the Church wage a brutal war on one another, a third faction emerges in the ensuing power vacuum. Dubbed ‘The Unguided’, these are humans who remain severed from the Utopia network, but who also reject the Church’s indoctrination. Instead, these rebels now follow their own agenda, causing trouble for any who get in their way.

The game features two separate campaigns where players can choose to ally themselves with EuroCorp, or with the Church of the New Epoch, resulting in a sizeable game with over 60 missions in total.

Each mission begins in the Cryovat interface where players can upgrade their agents, select equipment load-outs, as well as initiate research projects to unlock new weapons and advanced technology. The choices you make here can make all the difference between completing a mission successfully, or failing spectacularly – you definitely want to assemble a team with the correct balance of equipment to get the job done.

Upon commencing a mission, your agents are air-dropped into the city and you are free to pursue your objective in any manner you see fit. Most missions typically involve combat sweeps, or persuading individuals and leading them to an extraction zone, although later missions become much more complex.

Agents are guided around the city using the mouse cursor, clicking on the overworld to set a destination, or by clicking on the mini-map in the bottom left corner of the screen. Double-clicking will cause agents to run to the designated location, provided they have enough stamina, but they cannot return fire whilst running. For the most part, the code behind managing agent pathing is fairly robust and will get from A to B without requiring intervention.

Making a return in this sequel is the ability to control your agent’s levels of autonomy and perception, enabling them to react to nearby threats independently of the player. A simplification of the IPA system from the previous game, each agent has a single status bar whose effects can be toggled by dragging a slider to the left or right with the mouse.

Dragging the the bar to the right injects the agent with “Red Mist”, a drug that causes them to fire at any foe who has a weapon drawn, while dragging it to the left will inject the agent with “Blue Funk”, a substance designed to induce a state of psychosis, causing the agent to fire at anything that gets within range, regardless of whether they’re perceived as a threat.

Although these sliders are intended to grant agent a level of autonomy with which to defend itself, I found the whole system to be somewhat unpredictable. There were plenty of times when my agents simply failed to fire on nearby hostiles, even when the slider was maxed out, which resulted in much cursing from their human controller.

One of the biggest changes in this sequel is that the missions are more carefully crafted, often with scripted events that include arrival of enemies, vehicles, or instructions for enemies to begin seeking out your agents.

Syndicate Wars is by no means an easy game, so you will need to replay the missions multiple times in order to work out the best strategy to deal with these events. The developers included the ability to restart the current mission instantly by pressing “R” on the keyboard and you’ll definitely be making use of this feature – this is most definitely a game that requires patience and persistence to beat.

The tools and equipment made available to your agents play a big part in determining exactly what kind of strategy you might wish to employ to secure victory. You must master use of the environment, luring your enemies into choke points, falling back to defensible positions, or using equipment to slow or incapacitate your opponents. Items, such as razor-wire (and the devastating trigger-wire) can be used to set booby traps at key locations, whilst asphyxiating knockout gas can render most adversaries unconscious. If that doesn’t work, you could always equip a persuadertron and attempt to subvert enemies to your cause, using them in the fight against their former allies!

Of course, there comes a time when subtlety and tactics go out the window, and you have to rely on good, old fashioned brute force. From the rotary-barrelled minigun and it’s punishing level of sustained fire, to the destructive force of the plasma lance, nuclear grenade, or the ludicrously powerful graviton gun, there’s an impressive arsenal of toys with which to equip your agents.

Advancement in weapons technology has improved in the intervening yeas between the first game, negating the need for chemically propelled ammunition. Instead, the majority of weapons in the game now draw on an agent’s personal energy cell, allowing sustained fire until the power cell is expended. Once drained, the agent must wait for this futuristic battery to recharge before being able to resume firing. This change means that, while it’s no longer necessary to carry more than single instance of a particular weapon, players can no longer simply hope to grab a weapon from a nearby corpse and re-enter the fray. Instead, it becomes necessary to fall back to strategic locations that are more easily defensible, making use of longer range equipment, rather than trying to tackle each encounter head-on.

This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of opportunities to blow stuff up, however. The raw power of certain weapons is so great that that they can demolish entire buildings, causing them to collapse in huge conflagrations of shattering class and splintering steel. Not only will the ensuing carnage annihilate anything unlucky enough to be in proximity of ground zero, it also provides useful tactical options, allowing agents to open up new avenues of travel by removing obstacles that might otherwise prove impossible to bypass.

In fact, the game is often at it’s most rewarding when, following a lengthy firefight, a skyscraper or other civic structure crumbles under the onslaught, the resultant explosion damaging other structures nearby. This can often lead in a truly devastating chain reaction where surrounding structures suddenly implode, crashing down in quick succession. When the dust eventually settles – and assuming your agents survived – you’ll survey the fruits of your destructive handiwork with a sense of awe, relief, not to mention a tinge of smug satisfaction.

Much like the original game, gaining access to these destructive toys takes both time and money. The cost of researching, and upgrading agents with new equipment and body modifications is not insignificant, so you’ll be needing plenty of cash to make sure your chosen faction can maintain it’s technological superiority.

Whereas the original game rewarded your efforts with income based on the number of territories you controlled, you cannot rely solely on credits earned through taxation alone to fill your coffers this time around. One of the best – and most rewarding – means of earning money in this sequel is to execute raids on banks located in various cities around the globe.

Easily identified as large, imposing structures with guards posted outside, the only means to liberate the money from the vaults is by demolishing the entire structure. Provided you have at least one agent in possession of high explosives, it’s a simple task of running into the bank’s lobby, priming the charge, then making a swift exit to safety.

In terms of game technology, Syndicate Wars was built using a modified version of the engine, largely developed by Glenn Corpes, and used in Bullfrog’s spell-casting first-person shooter, Magic Carpet. The new engine provides full 3D geometry, lighting sources and a rotatable camera, which was a significant improvement over the fixed-perspective, 2D engine from the original game.

The transition to 3D was not simply born out of a desire to make the game look more futuristic, although this is certainly true. It meant that the developers could be more creative in terms of level design, designing environments with varying degrees of elevation, plus the rotational camera improved the tactical options open to the player. No longer constrained by a fixed point of view, players can rotate (or pan) the camera at will, checking alleyways and back streets for potential threats, as well using these environments to set up choke points and ambushes. Most importantly, players would no longer have to suffer the frustration of losing sight of their squad of agents whenever they ran behind a tall building!

The game’s visual style is now much defined this time around, drawing heavily on influences from films such as Blade Runner, touches of Japanese anime (i.e. Akira). The game world appears to be enshrouded in permanent nighttime, illuminated only by the neon glow of billboards street lamps; it’s a very cool vibe that suits the overall aesthetic of the game. Look closely and you’ll spot some great nuances in the visual design, such as the way that shoot corpses continue to fountain blood when shot, or the way that civilians wave their arms in the air as they flee in panic.

These new features would come at a cost, however. The game was released at a time before graphical accelerator cards were commonplace, instead implementing an entirely CPU-based rendering system.

With the CPU responsible for rendering world geometry, AI sub-systems and more besides, you needed a real beast of a machine to play the game at anything approaching a reasonable speed. Running the game at the default resolution of 320 x 200 proved taxing enough for the average PC at the time, and attempting to enable the hi-res 640 x 480 display mode would have been pointless on anything but the latest Intel Pentium processors available at the time.

The engine also seems to have been implemented in such a way that the game speed seems to fluctuate in line with CPU load. Things slow to a crawl whenever the engine is required to render more detailed environments, but will suddenly enter warp speed when the load drops, making things extremely difficult to control – trying to target enemies becomes a total nightmare when the game starts running too quickly. If you’re using DOSBox to play the game as I did, you can change the number of CPU cycles depending on the performance you require, but achieving a stable level of performance remains an issue.

However, one area that received a significant upgrade without any downsides was the audio. Thanks to prevalence of CD-ROM at the time of release, the game features a fully mastered Redbook audio soundtrack by Russell Shaw, which plays throughout the game. The music is both eerie and brooding, and the use of synths compliment the grungy, steampunk visuals.

If I’m honest, I didn’t fully appreciate just how good the game was when it was originally released; it certainly has it’s problems, but the additional complexity and attention to detail in it’s mission design results in a much tighter experience than the original Syndicate – a game where chance of victory was proportional to the amount of sheer firepower you squad was packing.

The experience here is much more considered, often making the player think long and hard about how best to approach a given problem, which also involves a lot of trial and error in the process. I feel that, thanks to my teenage impetuosity, I simply lacked the patience to appreciate fully what Bullfrog had managed to craft.

Make no mistake, the game will have you gnashing your teeth in frustration on many occasion, but perseverance proves to be remarkably rewarding. For those who enjoy squad-based, real-time strategy games with plenty of action, Syndicate Wars is definitely a game worth checking out.

Author: Alec
PC gamer, C64 fan, Amiga advocate, creator of longplay retrogaming videos on YouTube, occasional wordsmith - follow me on Twitter

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