Violent (act of) God game begat unto Bullfrog, rendered unto the Acorn by RCI. Reviewed by Richard Goodwin.
For your downloading pleasure, the animations in this review are of much lower framerate than in the game.
|Syndicate is a cunning blend of several styles, making it difficult to describe in one easy soundbite. Released by Bullfrog in the wake of successes like Populous 1 and 2 and Powermonger, its isometric top-down view says yet another God game, and yes, you control the actions of several little people as they battle against other little people in a simulated environment. But wait, what's this? pistols, shotguns, Uzis, machine guns, rocket launchers, even air strikes, all under your direct control? And what about the football-manager style manipulation of resources, ensuring you raise enough money and spend it carefully so your team aren't outmatched?
In short, you have a game which tries to appeal to all tastes. Without strategy, you're a sitting duck. Without fast reflexes, you're stuffed. Stir in some appropriate sound effects and cleverly wrought graphics and you've got the recipe for success. So does Syndicate look like the picture in the cook book?
Well, maybe I'm not the best person to answer that, being a self-confessed Syndicate fanboy since it came out on the Amiga and PC in 1993; I've even played it on the Sega Megadrive, and the sequel, Syndicate Wars, on the PC and Playstation. We had hoped to have a second reviewer who could give a more impartial view, but it was not to be, so maybe I'd better just say that I'm usually rather hard to please so my rating this game as one of my all-time top three games must have some justification. The nights without sleep playing it to completion are not the actions of a lone madman with headlines like Ultra violent - totally amoral - and more fun than sex! being bandied around by the computer journos of the time (it was PC Gamer's front page of October(?) '93).
|So what's the game about? Well, basically the world is divided up between several evil corporations, and you're a small fish in a very large pond. As head of advertising, you're less into using flashy graphics and sexy imagery to get your message across, you're more of a grab-them-by-the-balls-and-their-hearts-and-minds-will-follow kind of person, at least the ones which still have hearts and minds left after your heavily-armed incursions into enemy held territories. Using a Risk-like world domination map (let's face it, who'd ever heard of Kamchatka before playing one of these two games?) you overrun your neighbours, each victory allowing you access to further territory and so on with the ultimate goal of CocaCola-like global superiority. At first you must move from Western Europe in a linear fashion through single territories, but after nursemaiding you through the initial stages you find that each captured plot of land gives you access to two or three other areas, and so you can decide whether to sweep across Russia and straight on into America, or head south down the Pacific rim and into Australia, or maybe kicking Arab butt on your way in to Africa is more your style.
|This map is not just for deciding which poor unfortunates are to be crushed utterly beneath your mighty cybernetically-enhanced jackboots though, as you can set taxation limits to provide you with much-needed revenue. Too much tax and the populace will rebel, forcing you to re-take that country; too little and you won't be able to equip your operatives or even reload their weapons after a mission, and you certainly won't be able to put money into developing cool new gizmos and body upgrades in the equipment locker part of the game. You start out with just pistols and shotguns in your arsenal, and agents that are little more than human; this is adequate for the first few levels, but as the game progresses you'll soon find yourself outmatched by superior firepower and cybernetics. Putting money into research is your only recourse, which can be a great drain on your meagre funds but again handled very nicely; you can put as much money as you want into developing certain areas of technology, with the amount you spend influencing how quickly that technology can be created. In a further neat twist, if you happen to kill an enemy agent, police officer or soldier and pick up a new bit of kit, it will be submitted to the research department and you'll have saved yourself 25% of the overall development time. And research goes on in realtime, so the longer you spend in the game the more likely you are to be able to pick up new toys on your return, or you can even hang around in the locker room watching the research graph progress - it's even possible to modify how much you're paying part-way through the process.
Enough of the pre-match jiggery-pokery, let's get down to the action. You have direct control over up to four cyborgs (with a few subs in cryogenic suspension should you fail, and the ability to capture enemy agents to further enhance your team), and the click of the left mouse button can move them individually or as a single unit. Clicking with the right mouse button makes them fire towards that spot. Fun as this is, it'd get a little dull after a while if you had to move each member around in such a puppet-like fashion. However, the control chip in each of your team means you can also tweak the levels of certain bodily fluids so that they become more agile, aggressive and perceptive, thus allowing you to just leave them on a street corner and know that they'll probably be able to look after themselves in a rumble; clicking with both mouse buttons puts them into a killing frenzy, where they instantly whip out their most kick-ass weapon and start shooting at any hostile in range. There's always a downside though, and it's this: they can soon become addicted to the chemicals and so become less effective unless you rest them.
|Even though you'll generally spend most of your time wandering around killing bad guys there's usually more to this than you might think; mission objectives like infiltrating enemy compounds to steal weapons or assassinate key figures, or the capture of scientists and nosy reporters, or even escorting unarmed civilians through a warzone keep the game varied, as do the cunning level designs of complete towns, industrial complexes and military fortresses, and the thrill of newer and bigger weapons as you progress. And as for wandering around all the time, well, walking is not always the best way; an array of vehicles (cars, police cruisers, fire engines, ambulances, armoured personnel carriers, TV camera vans and even trains) can be utilized and in some cases are essential for getting around - for instance, you can't get in or out of walled towns without wheels. The vehicles, like the police force and civilian population, are intelligently controlled and even obey traffic lights; sometimes it's fun just to watch this almost lifelike simulation of humanity going on, but hey, it's much more fun pulling out an Uzi and watching the civvies run the other way, or woah, let's take this rocket launcher, blow up the mid-town train and watch it burn!
|Although you can't blow up the buildings (except for smashing windows, and burning trees, bins etc.), heavy weapons can influence things on the other side of a wall, so if you can't be bothered to go inside a building - where you can't see your cyborg and generally have to guide it by using the scanner map, which also betrays the positions of any enemy agents - you can just slam a couple of rockets against the side wall and the concussion will take care of those inside. It's this kind of attention to detail - dead bodies lying around which can be looted, burnt-out vehicles, right down to doors opening and closing automatically as people walk past, that makes this game so involving.
Five years is a long time in the computer games business, and things move on. The graphics in the main action part of the game are a mere 16 colours, and in some cases the palette switching used to give atmosphere can lead to oddities like people with green faces. But no, even these criticisms can't really be justified; occasional palette glitch aside the graphics are, if not Playstation-killing, more than sufficient; all graphics are from the superior, high resolution PC graphics as opposed to the inferior Amiga versions that we're used to from some conversions; at the time they were ground-breaking, with some of the first FMV I'd ever seen to set the scene and to reward or taunt you depending on the outcome of your missions, and although the main characters are relatively small, they are finely detailed, changing to reflect which weapon they've drawn and so on. There are wonderful details like animated advertising boards showing different adverts, some of which go wrong and show static. Even the stuff between missions is well produced, the map and management screens being drawn gradually like a holographic display building up with suitably swooshy sound effects.
Being a fan I was obviously be concerned at how the conversion to the Acorn platform would be handled, and nothing less than perfection would have made me happy; in this I am happy to report that instead of going for a quick-and-dirty straight port as in days of old, this conversion is not just adequate, it's exemplary. The game looks and feels just like the PC version, only better; the scrolling really does feel smoother, and by actually fixing some of the original bugs the game is supposed to be 20% quicker. I could tell no real difference between a StrongARM RiscPC and one using an ARM 700, and apparently it will run on any Acorn machine with 8MB of memory and RiscOS 3.1 or better - although obviously finding the hardware combination lying around to test claims that it'll run on an 8MB ARM 2 machine is a bit tricky!
|Even the installer is stylish, with each of the installation windows being backed with a different greyscale screenshot from the game, an effect echoed in the window that pops up when the game loads which allows you to easily choose between the original game or the lifetime extending, viciously difficult extra missions pack which comes as standard. If there are any niggles then it's that, as with RCI's Doom conversion, the music is MIDI only and the network play option is missing; however, the lack of music at least can be put right if someone can find the Amiga ProTracker tunes (the originals of which have apparently vanished from Bullfrog HQ), and to be honest you're not actually missing much by not having the music.
So - old game? Well, yes, sure, it's five years old, but then Chess was introduced into Europe over five hundred years ago and I don't see that going out of style (hey, it was in Independence Day, and you can't get more 90's than that). This is a great game, it's even been well-received on the usually oh-so-picky newsgroups, and people who think that the age of some of any of the current crop of conversions holds any relevance are really just cutting their noses off to spite their faces and missing out on the best games to hit the Acorn platform.
To sum up
See the Syndicate preview for more information and screenshots.
(Shockwave 6 required)
(Bullfrog parent company, non-Shockwave)