Ode to Syndicate: Retro Gaming Memories
Once upon a time there was a development studio called Bullfrog Productions. Veterans of the PC gaming world will likely remember them with a mixture of fantastic memories spent pouring hours into their creations combined with a bit of stale anger at the fate of the studio. For those who haven’t heard of them, you are playing games influenced by their works to this day still.
Founded in 1987 by Peter Molyneux and Les Edgar, Bullfrog Productions was a prominent development studio that produced hit classic series such as Populous, Magic Carpet, Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, Syndicate and more. Though not every one of their series was a hit, you could always count on Bullfrog to come out with interesting titles and Bullfrog helped define strategy and simulation ideas in the industry. Fans of Bullfrog Productions will still speak fondly of the development house despite their unceremonious slaying by EA in 2001.
I am here today to talk about one of their franchises that I was lucky to get into as a teen and helped define tastes and ideas of mine to this day. Syndicate with its themes of corporate espionage, and conspiracies of control set against a cyber punk dystopian future wears its inspirations on its sleeve while providing evidence that term “mature game” does not have to just mean scantily clad people or canned romantic dialog trees.
Syndicate was released in 1993 for DOS and Amiga, and was ported to many other systems including Mac, and Atari Jaguar with watered down ports even reaching Sega Genesis and SNES. Produced by Peter Molyneux and designed by Sean Cooper who had worked on Magic Carpet and Populous, and with tracks composed by Russell Shaw, Syndicate definitely had a certain pedigree that it lived up to in my opinion.Syndicate, and it’s follow up Syndicate Wars, is a great mix of top down isometric squad action during missions, interwoven with strategic elements. Putting you in control of a mega corporation, Syndicate allows you to research and choose upgrade options for your four agent squad while directing your teched out goons in varying missions around the world. Choosing optimal weapon load outs for missions and keeping on top of the latest available cybernetic enhancements was paramount in your mission for nothing more than cold corporate domination of the globe.
I was first introduced to Syndicate at a friend’s house as a young lad when he rented the Sega Genesis version for the weekend. What teen that just watched Blade Runner could resist box art like that? Having blissful ignorance that it was an inferior port for consoles, we spent near the entire weekend immersed in the game’s blend of action and strategy.
Thankfully I had gotten my first PC not long after this time and was able to experience the DOS version in all its glory, though I still look back on that console version with a certain amount of fondness for what it was. You can find Syndicate at GOG.com which includes the expansion pack American Revolt, and still holds up as an enjoyable game. Just make sure to read the manual, where you will find most of the story elements. It is a fairly deep and rich setting for the time that I do not want to spoil you on any farther! Just go check it out now at GOG.com.
Syndicate and its expansion enjoyed fairly good success, so in 1996 the inevitable sequel titled Syndicate Wars was released on the DOS world. A year later in 1997 it was honored by great Playstation 1 port that took advantage of the four controller Multitap accessory allowing my circle of drunken friends to enjoy dozens of hours of gleeful destruction as we plotted the glory of our corporation. As a single player game on PC and PlayStation it was a fun experience, but really shined when played as multiplayer co-op mayhem with close friends.
Syndicate Wars was designed by Mike Diskett this time around, who worked at Bullfrog as a programmer on the first Syndicate and its expansion as well as QA on Magic Carpet. With Glenn Corpes on the team, who was a long time Bullfrog alumni with a history of work on Populous, PowerMonger and Magic Carpet series, and with another fantastic soundtrack by Russell Shaw, Syndicate was aiming to be a well-executed game and it did not disappoint in my eyes.
Syndicate Wars kept the top down isometric squad action of the original, this time opting for a 3d engine based on a modified version of the Magic Carpet engine and featuring fully destructible environments. The new engine also allowed a rotating/tilting camera, and the story side of the game was enriched with more flavor (as well as not needing the manual to follow along with) and given more depth with the addition two playable factions instead of just one. The themes of corporate conspiracy were amped up, and the story of the two factions interplay is a rich cautionary tale. I will not spoil these story elements either, because it really should be played and experienced to fully appreciate. You can also find Syndicate Wars over at GOG.com, and even get it in a pack with the first game. Go get it!
Things were quiet on the Syndicate front for over a decade after Syndicate Wars as Bullfrog was enjoying success from the acclaimed Dungeon Keeper series, as well as putting out more titles in the Theme simulation series until the iconic development house was dismantled by EA in 2001. EA; who, as they are wont to do, ignored the franchise for years until they decided to dust off the IP for a reboot in 2012.
I won’t hide my bias here, I loathed this game and felt betrayed by its existence. Originally envisioned as a strategy based reboot, EA made the choice to take it into the FPS realm. The reputation of the project would never recover for me, nor other consumers if you look at the dismal sales numbers.
All seen and heard, the 2012 Syndicate reboot was a competent FPS. Not entirely ugly, and with a cast of decent voice acting and “hacking” skills that do vary up gameplay from the standard shoot shoot bang bang. Extreme bloom, and lens flare use JJ Abrams would be proud of aside it had a certain atmosphere that tried so very hard to be Deus Ex that it could be enjoyed at times. The multiplayer was more reminiscent of the original series, but was still bland to me and not worth the price of entry. The PC port was atrocious, lacking in graphics customization and being buggy on release. It received relatively positive review scores from critics, though was panned by the consumers.
Just like that, EA games killed my beloved franchise as maddeningly as they did the original development house that birthed Syndicate and other acclaimed franchises into the world. Speaking with Computer and Video Games Frank Gibeau, an EA exec, said “Syndicate  was something that we took a risk on. It didn’t pay off — it didn’t work.”. The development studio that made the reboot, Starbreeze Studios, stated in 2014 that only an estimated 150,000 units shipped worldwide.
In my humble opinion, it was the change of genre into an FPS that was the disaster of the game. In a classic lesson the industry is learning, in trying to modify a franchise too extremely to appeal to a new audience, EA managed to alienate the original fans of the series while not making a compelling enough game to engage newcomers. Killing all hype and hope by not having the fans approval, combined with EA assuming an FPS would always be more appealing than anything strategy related is a mistake they have made before. They turned a rich and deep universe into another forgettable 6 – 8 hour shoot-fest. All in all it was a very serviceable shooter, especially when taking into consideration the budget constraints of the dev team. It just wasn’t Syndicate.
EA is a sad story though, and I prefer to focus on the positives. All is not lost for the spirit of the Syndicate franchise, as people passionate in their ideas will never lie down.
Now I don’t personally support early access games (except on rare occasions), so I will not promote purchasing an unfinished product. I DO highly promote going and checking out their website, videos of their development process on their Youtube channel, and their Early Access Steam page. I have high hopes for this game from seeing the background of the developers and the love they have for this project. If you are a fan at all of the original Syndicate and Syndicate Wars, Blade Runner, or games with cyberpunk and corporate espionage themes then I suggest checking them out!In 2013 Mike Diskett, lead designer of the original Syndicate Wars, along with other industry professionals teamed up to form 5 Lives Studios. Their first foray into development is a game titled Satellite Reign, a play on words of the name of a high powered orbital strike deployable in Syndicate Wars of which the project aims to be the spiritual successor to. Through a highly successful Kickstarter, and their industry experience, they were able to streamline an amazing workflow and will have a playable version out as early as December 11th 2014 when it will be on Steam Early Access.
Who knows, depending on how the early access looks, I may be back here with impressions on it.
Thanks for reading my little tale, stay excellent to each other out there!
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