Thursday, 4 January 2018

Game Review: Syndicate Wars (PC)

Developed by Bullfrog Productions and published by Electronic Arts in 1996

Bullfrog developed many great games during their lifetime, spanning the golden years of the Commodore Amiga, to the emergence of the PC as the premiere gaming platform in the late 90's. Theme Park, Magic Carpet and Dungeon Keeper were all brilliant titles, but my personal favourite will always be the Syndicate games, a blend of real-time action and strategy with an ever-so-subtle streak of macabre humour.

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, 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, replacing it with a kind of augmented reality that also provides access to a wealth of online, connected information services.




Of course, all the personal information made available via such hosts was fully exploited by the Syndicates that produced the chip. Those who controlled chip production would effectively become wealthier and more powerful than any government and corporate warfare (quite literally) became the norm 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.

In terms of timeline, Syndicate Wars is set some 50 years after the conclusion of the original game with EuroCorp having achieved complete dominance over world financial resources and wielding unparalleled political influence to ensure that it's position remains 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 somehow manages to release a virus that renders Utopia chips inoperable. 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 are every bit as deadly as the syndicate's agents.

Syndicate Wars box art

Whilst EuroCorp and the Church wage war on each other, a third faction emerges. The Unguided are humans who have been severed from the Utopia network, but show no allegiance to either to the Church, nor EuroCorp. Instead, these rebels now follow their own agenda, causing trouble for any who get in their way.

The game features 2 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 of the missions begins in the Cryovat interface where players can upgrade their agents, select equipment loadouts, 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 without requiring input from the player. Each agent has a set of sliders below it's status bar can be dragged to the left or right, injecting a psychotropic drug that determines how the agent behaves. 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. Dragging the bar to the left will inject the agent with "Blue Funk", a drug that induces psychosis that causes them to fire at anything that gets within range, regardless of whether they're perceived as a threat. These sliders are great for instructing an agent to defend itself, but I found the whole system to be somewhat unpredictable; there were plenty of times when my agents simply failed to fire on hostiles that got within a certain range, even when the slider was maxed out, resulting in much cursing from their human controller (i.e. me).

The plasma lance at work!

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 mini-gun that allows a single agent to lay down an impressive level of covering fire, to the city-levelling destruction of the plasma lance and "cataclysm" nuclear grenade, there's an impressive arsenal of toys with which to equip your agents. The raw power of certain weapons is such that they can demolish entire buildings, causing them to collapse in a huge explosion, annihilating anything in the surrounding area - not only does this afford additional tactical options when dealing with large groups of foes, it can also allow players to open additional paths around the map!

When all else fails, use explosives!

In another change from it's predecessor, most of the guns in Syndicate Wars no longer have a finite amount of ammunition before being rendered useless. Instead, these weapons now draw on an agent's personal energy cell - once the power cell is expended, you must wait for the battery to recharge. Whilst you can no longer resupply mid-engagement by grabbing weapons from a nearby corpse, it does mean that that you need to carry one instance of a particular weapon. Be aware that the energy cell powers the agent's personal force-field; completely drain the cell and there will be no juice available to protect your agents in case of emergency, let alone return fire.

The cost of researching and outfitting agents with new equipment is not insignificant and you'll need plenty of cash to make sure you can maintain technological superiority. This time, however, you cannot rely on corporate taxation to fund your coffers, so you'll need to find an alternate source of making money. Resourceful agents should always keep an eye out for banks to rob in some of the cities; use a pack of high explosives to bring the building down and make off with the loot before the authorities can intervene!

In terms of game technology, Syndicate Wars was built using a modified version of the engine used in Magic Carpet. The new engine provides full 3D geometry, lighting sources and a rotatable camera - a significant advance over the isometric, tile-based engine from the original game where the game world could only ever be viewed from a single viewpoint. The move to 3D meant that the developers could create more engaging and immersive environments, as well as enable players to make better use of their surroundings for tactical advantage - if you're pursued by enemies then you can always duck into a back alley and rotate the camera to make sure you always have the best view of the action.

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, or the way that civilians wave their arms in the air as they flee in panic.

Thanks to prevalence of CD-ROM at the time of release, the game features a fully mastered, Redbook audio soundtrack from Russell Shaw that plays throughout the game and can be changed at any time by the player through the in-game interface (or pressing 5 on the numeric keypad). The music is eerie, brooding and the use of synths compliments the grungy, Steampunk design of the visuals.

Upgrading agents in the Cryovat

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 and world geometry on top of managing the actual game world, you needed a real beast of a processor to play the game at anything like a reasonable speed. The default game resolution of 320 x 200 would have been taxing enough for the average gamer's rig, but the game supports a higher resolution mode of 640 x 480 (enabled by pressing F8 in-game); this mode really wasn't a viable option for anyone other than the owners of the fastest Intel Pentium processors available.

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 came (like I did) then you can change the number of CPU cycles depending on the performance you require, but performance will always be a problem.

If I'm honest, I didn't fully appreciate just how good the game could actually be when it was originally released; it definitely 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 where chance of victory was proportional to the number of miniguns you were carrying. For those who enjoy squad-based, real-time strategy games with plenty of action, Syndicate Wars is definitely a game worth checking out and is available to purchase from GOG if you don't have the original disc.

2 comments:

  1. What a wonderful review! I had played and enjoyed the original Syndicate through the end when it was released. However, I had abandoned Syndicate Wars soon after starting with it because of the huge difficulty. Now I'll be watching your amazing gameplay videos to enjoy the game as if I were playing it :) To me, this is better that watching today's TV series. Indeed, I'm still watching your other 6hr Syndicate video! ;) Thank you!

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it and glad you enjoyed it!

      Yep, Syndicate Wars is very tough, but it's quite rewarding when you finally work out how to beat a mission that's been causing you trouble. The last 2 or 3 missions are absolutely brutal...

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