The future is a dire place for the civilians of the world. First came great wars and conquests for new territories, changing the political landscape of the globe as nations bickered, swallowed each other up, and redrew boundary lines. Then came the corporations, which grew in power and wealth until they eventually could buy out the very nations that hosted them. Then came the Syndicates, using brutal force and insatiable greed to infiltrate and control the corporations and their territories, taxing the populous into oblivion while mind control and propaganda keep them in line and productive.
Syndicate is cyberpunk at its most jaded. This real-time tactical title casts you as an executive in an up-and-coming corporation of your own design. You’ll pick your name, color, and logo, and do your damnedest to spread the stain of your greed across the entire globe. Every nation begins under the control of a rival syndicate. The population and their taxable wealth must be wrested from your competition by way of hostile invasion. You’ll deploy a maximum of four agents per mission – armed and cybernetically enhanced to your choosing – and complete some specific goal while fending off enemy operatives. Meanwhile, civilians and police go about their day, oblivious to your little urban war until they get caught in the bloody crossfire. Slaying innocents doesn’t benefit you, but it has absolutely no repercussions either. You can view this as either a classic cyberpunk statement on society’s ever-shrinking morality, or just a minor obstacle to your ruthlessness.
Gameplay is broken out pretty distinctly into management and mission sections. On the management side, you start with the global view screen, showing your territories and those in control of your rivals. As in Risk, you can invade any territory bordering your own. This allows you some freedom of choice in picking missions and your path to global domination, but also allows the designers to corral your progress into levels of increasing difficulty. European missions will be easy, while the difficulty scales significantly as you sweep across Asia or down into Africa. By the time you hit South America, or the mysterious Atlantic Accelerator, you’d better have your shit totally together.
You tax the citizens of your territories from this screen, at percentages from 0 to 99. Doing it right is a constant balancing act. I tried for some time to find the magic number I could apply to everyone, and thus bypass this responsibility while still raking in the maximum amounts of dough, but this never worked in practice. The Urals would be delighted to pay a 51% rate one day, while Kazakhstan grumbled about 15%. You could set low rates for all and forget this part of the game, but you’ll have a hard time making quick and significant progress. Instead, the idea is to squeeze the populous to the breaking point, then back off before a rebellion breaks out. Rebellions require you to replay that nation’s mission to regain control. This won’t matter for earlier missions where your now highly-developed veteran operatives can simply saunter in and waste four guys packing nothing but shotguns, but for the tougher missions, it’s well worth avoiding.
The next management screen sets up a mission briefing where you’ll review the location of your assignment and its objectives. Missions always take place in cities or industrial compounds, but their goals maintain some great variety. Assassinations, rescues, urban pacification, combat sweeps, and more await you with clever briefings and backstories behind each one. There is no set way in how you’re supposed to complete them. You can try to send in one agent to quickly dive in, hit the target, and escape, or march a full squad of four through, blasting cops and rivals as you go. The only real guarantee is that there will always be action and violence. Hope you have no qualms about walking into a house and gunning down a former director’s wife. Or being sent into a city to kill every police officer on the streets. Or leading an embezzler to his death by brainwashing him with your “Persuadertron”. Yes, if the existence of a “Persuadertron” wasn’t enough clue, Peter Molyneux worked on the game.
The briefing screen also allows you purchase a wider view of the mission area or additional information, some of which is helpful, most of which isn’t. Learning that your target’s guards are lightly armed won’t change your loadout because this assessment doesn’t include the heavily-armed enemy syndicate agents present in every mission. I once took a briefing saying opposition was to be “light” and armed with pistols as meaning just that – but they were only talking about the human guards, not the cybernetic murder squad with laser guns. And it’s not just a case of intentionally surprising you as part of the story. You will fight syndicate agents every time, no matter what.
Once you’re satisfied with your intel, the final screen lets you select your four agents and their equipment. A list on the right shows all your available gear, with eight inventory slots for each agent. You also have the power to fit your agents with cybernetic limbs, noticeably raising their abilities and resistance to damage. Research is covered from this screen as well. You select from general topics like “assault” or “heavy” weapons, allocate funds, and wait for your new toy to arrive. Nothing takes longer than ten days to research, but shortening that time takes a surprising amount of cash. If you’re lucky enough to pick up an unresearched weapon off an enemy agent, you can cut its research time and cost 25%, often while skipping ahead in the research tree.
Missions are played real-time in an isometric view as you float over the mission zone in a blimp. You can pan around independent of your squad and scout out the area. A window in the lower left corner always tracks the area around your agents, and if one of them is carrying a scanner, shows dots for nearby civilians, police, hostile agents, and a pulse from the direction of the mission’s target.
All actions are controlled with the mouse. Left-clicking directs your agents to that point, right clicking fires their weapons wherever your mouse is pointed. You can control each individually, or all members of the team in a group mode. You can also direct their movements by clicking inside the scanner window, which is especially useful in guiding them through or around buildings blocking your view. Buildings do not turn invisible and the camera cannot be rotated, as in later, similar games. This is a pain since targets can be located inside houses and out of your view, but passable, thanks to the navigating ability of the scanner window and judicious use of IPA.
IPA stands for Intelligence, Perception, and Adrenaline. The levels of these three drugs basically determine the AI behavior and abilities of your agents. Jack up their Perception and they’ll aim better, up their Adrenaline and they’ll move faster. The default baselines for these drugs give the agents zero autonomy, but enough mobility for you to control them directly. If you need to send them into a building where they will be out of your direct sight and control, jack up Intelligence and Adrenaline and shoo them inside to blast whatever moves. A panic mode is available by smashing both mouse buttons down, which maxes the levels for all three. The agents will then target enemies on their own, shoot quickly and accurately, and generally become a hell of a lot more effective at standing their ground.
The tradeoff with any of the drugs is that these chemicals have near-instant dependencies (shown by a darker bar filling the lighter one that marks the current dose). When the two line up, a white line indicating tolerance moves further from the center of the bar, shortening the length of any future doses and their effects. You can shift your dosage back to the left (I suppose by administering some kind of counter-drug) which takes the same amount of time to have a positive effect while leaving your agent at a lowered state of efficiency. Drug dependency doesn’t carry over into future missions, which is why its effects are so exaggerated. But you certainly won’t be able to trigger panic mode multiple times in a mission without taking time to treat the addiction.
Missions take place in well-developed cities that really sell the idea of the dim, urban future. Hovercars speed by on tracks, advertisements play from giant billboards, neon and fluorescent lights blaze against deteriorating concrete and dirty alleyways. The mood and art direction are definite high points, and create perfect cyberpunk environments for your shadowy agents and ruthless deeds.
The tactical combat sections have the best graphics and the juiciest gameplay, and should be what draws players to the game the most. But it is also where Syndicate will most readily show its flaws. The lack of fading buildings, especially when you’re required to go into them for missions, is frustrating. Every city is also simply a redistribution of the same art assets from others – India will look exactly like New England and Mozambique.
Difficulty can start to become an issue as well. Early missions are a blast, but later ones really start to get nasty. Enemy agents quickly get leg upgrades to run as fast as possible, chest armor to shrug off bullets, and massive guns to pound your team relentlessly. It’s almost recommended to immediately find some defensible position, wait for the inevitable enemy agents to snake around a corner single-file, and shred them all as they come into range. It’s pretty damn satisfying to watch them rip around that corner and right into a firing squad of four agents simultaneously blazing miniguns. But it’s also a process that repeats so often that it starts to get stale. And if you don’t take them out of the mission early, agents can handily destroy vehicles or civilians you’re supposed to protect.
AI isn’t very smart, and pretty bad at navigating, so you can watch your agents and enemies run right into walls and then slide along them until they find the edge. Or get stuck on a corner trying to decide which way is shorter. Or enter a building with only one door, and keep pressing against the opposite wall in an attempt to pass through it. If you simply click somewhere without babysitting waypoints, your elite team will frequently split up, lag behind, or have one member get stuck – not good when you’re scrambling to get everyone into position before the bad guys arrive.
The biggest issue is that the interface isn’t designed to separate your squad. You can’t divide your team into smaller groups or select some with a lasso function; you control only one or all of them. There’s no easy way to send one to scout ahead while the others sneak around the back. There’s no reliable way to have two guard a civilian target while the other two grab a hovercar for a getaway. You can use drugs to try and give an agent some level of autonomy while you attend to the others, but more often than not the lone wolf will wind up dead.
This matters less than you think, because you’ll need all your firepower to get through the initial rush of agents. And later technology will hose you regardless of clever tactics. Chests packed with bombs make for agents that can take out an entire street corner. They’ll wreck your entire team if they can break through and get close enough. Flamethrowers can kill you almost instantly if you let their operator in range. Strong weapons that can pick agents off from safe distances are few and limited. And some of the best ways to handle the mad rush of agents is to panic your agents and let them take on all comers – which also gets stale as they play the game for you.
These issues start to add up over time, and the more you play, the more frustrated you’ll start to get. It may come sooner for some people than others, but even with the ability to recall a saved game and lose no real progress, the loss of time starts to become too much. It’s tough to keep playing when you can spend 10 minutes on a mission and have everyone blown apart by a chest bomb on the way to evac. It’s hard to justify carefully setting up and kitting out your agents, when you’re watching them get killed by a swarm of 30 enemy agents as they step off the train. Finally, the limited interface limits your options for true tactics. Better technology makes for more durable agents, but it still means that on your best day you’ll defeat enemy syndicates because you spent a hell of a lot of money on cybernetics and were able to kill them all by hitting panic mode at the right time.
Syndicate is a very addictive and very enjoyable game, but I think eventually, everyone’s going to hit a point of diminishing return. If you’re not doing well, you’ll reach a mission too consistently frustrating to continue. If you’ve got vaults of cash and are mopping up left and right, you’ll grow complacent and bored. Rivals never encroach upon your territory, never pull any real tricks or deception, resulting in a game where you simply match raw firepower with greater raw firepower, or mash the panic buttons and watch your guys do all the work. Beautiful initial effort, a lot of fun to play, but there’s obvious, grating room for improvement.
A blast to play. Loads of creative missions. So addictive there’s probably futuristic corporate drugs involved.
Gets frustrating easily. Really needed a better system for seeing inside or through buildings. Pretty bad pathfinding AI.