Days of Future Past: Remembering Syndicate Wars

Syndicate Wars mission briefing screen

Back in the mid 90s and early noughties, I was busy developing my love of sci-fi, fantasy and comics. I’d devour genre-defining tomes like China Mieville’s seminal Perdido Street Station and William Gibson/ Bruce Sterling’s classic The Difference Engine. Back then, I’d start and finish these monsters in a matter of days, rather than weeks.

In the world of comics, I was entranced by Joe Madureira‘s work on Uncanny X-Men and indie masterpieces like Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. While many now look back on the 90s Comic scene derisively, and to be fair, abortions like Marvel’s Heroes Reborn event or the ill-judged attempt to redesign Superman as a blue-skinned, electrically-powered hero – not to mention the disaster that was The Clone Saga in the pages of Spider-Man are all best-left consigned to the dustbin. But for me, it was a time of wonder.

Syndicate Wars mission briefing screen And, of course, it was a new golden age for the games industry, thanks in no small part to the original PlayStation and a string of classics on the PC. From Metal Gear Solid and Fear Effect, to Deus Ex, System Shock 2 and Half-Life, sci-fi and fantasy – once accompanied by mocking laughter and ill-judged stereotypes from the mainstream – was everywhere you cared to look. The Matrix. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Batman movies.

So imagine my delight one day when I picked up the latest issue of Official PlayStation Magazine and discovered Syndicate Wars.

I’m ashamed to admit that back then I wasn’t familiar with Syndicate. Despite having spent hundreds of hours playing Theme Park, Theme Hospital, Magic Carpet and Dungeon Keeper, for some reason Peter Molyneux’s Amiga classic had managed to pass me by. So, rather than being a new installment in an existing franchise, Syndicate Wars felt new and exciting, the epitome of cool in a gaming era that was redefining what cool even meant. From its cyberpunk, dystopian vision of the future ripped straight from Blade Runner, to its tale of corporate warfare run amok and weird, cyborg cults, I knew from the moment I first laid eyes on it that I simply had to have it. It was everything I loved about sci-fi at the time – it was violent, bathed in neon, and preoccupied with exploring the exploring the uneasy balance of science, religion and humanity alongside rampant consumerism and mind control. Syndicate Wars had it all.

When I finally got my hands on the finished game, my anticipation had reached fever pitch. I ran home with my new, factory-sealed copy, ripped open the packaging, and pored over ever detail in Syndicate Wars mission briefing screenthe game’s manual (remember those?) before drawing the curtains, turning the sound up on my trusty old 12-inch CRT television and settling down for what I knew was going to be my new favorite game. I wasn’t disappointed.

Looking at it now, it’s almost impossible to believe that the hilariously crude CGI opening cinematic could ever have been considered as cool, but at the time it blew my mind. The illusion of a Utopian city hiding an urban jungle of decay and authoritarianism, culminating in a trenchcoat-wearing corporate agent cutting a bloody swathe through innocent civilians with a chaingun against a driving electronic soundtrack planted seeds in my imagination that would later blossom into a near-obsessive love of the first Matrix film, would arrive in cinemas just a couple of years later. Here it is, if you want to laugh/ relive your nostalgia:

If you’ve ever played Syndicate Wars – or, indeed any of now commonplace squad-based strategy games that line the shelves – you’ll be familiar with its workings. Playing one of two factions – the Eurocom Corporation or the bald-headed and ominous cultists of the Church of the New Epoch – its your job to play through a series of missions, simultaneously sabotaging your enemies while cementing your power. Over the course of the game you can research and obtain new technology, upgrade your units, and brainwash increasing numbers of civilians by using the wonderfully cheesily-named Persuadatron. Once turned, these civilians – and even rival cultists – would follow your small troupe, lemming-like, around the sizeable map that makes up each of the game’s levels. It was great fun.

Syndicate Wars mission briefing screenWhile both the campaigns were largely the same whether you played as Eurocom or The Church of the New Epoch, and the upgrades and weaponry used by both were largely mirrors of each other, each was given a distinct flavor through both their design and mission briefings that set them clearly apart. Both are ultimately attempting to secure their power and influence, both while Eurocom is driven purely by financial greed, The Church of the New Epoch are fanatics, an anarchistic cult for the digital age. Advanced tactical options are limited, and there’s only a small handful of mission types – assassinate, defend, steal, persuade, etc. But the range of weaponry avaialable and a number of side-goals in each mission add some decent variety, while the atmospheric visuals and music keep you engaged throughout.

One of the most interesting things about the game, however – and one which opened my eyes to a whole new world of sci-fi that I’d heard of but never experienced first-hand – was the rather-unique-for-its-time in-game advertising. Billboards throughout each level would display animated adverts for both 2000 AD‘s Judge Dredd comics, and the 1994 animated adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s influential manga Ghost in the Shell.

Judge Dredd I was already aware of. But Ghost in the Shell? This was completely new to me. I’d had brief run-ins with Manga before; Akira, of course, and the cult classic cartoons Battle of the Planets and Ulysses 31. But I’d never really seriously explored that side of sci-fi up until that point. So after spending an entire Summer playing, and re-playing Syndicate Wars, and trying to find out as much as I could about Manga through magazines, the early days of the internet and scouring local bookshops, I ended up scouring everywhere I could find for new sources of sci-fi. Patlabor. Bubblegum Crisis. Appleseed. I found a whole new world to explore, and imagine my delight when I picked up the original graphic novel of Ghost in the Shell and discovered it was almost completely different from the animated movie based on it! Without Syndicate Wars, it’s entirely possible I never would have developed such a profound love of Japanese sci-fi and Japanese culture, and to this day it remains the one thing I most fondly remember about Syndicate Wars.

Sadly, Syndicate Wars remains the last true game in the series. The ill-fated 20012 first-person reboot of the franchise by EA and developer Starbreeze is regarded by most as a failure, including Syndicate Wars mission briefing screenthe publisher themselves. Starbreeze has said it only sold 150,000 copies worldwide, despite appearing on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox One in every major territory. It’s failure can be attributed to deviating too far from what fans loved about Syndicate in the first place – its combination of top-down strategy and unflinching brutality combined with an almost satirical criticism of corporate greed and unchecked technological progress. Not to mention its love of pointing out the many hypocrisies of organized religion. These days, it seems unlikely that Electronic Arts will ever dare to resurrect the series in a form that fans would love to see.

Hope isn’t entirely lost, though. In fact, like so many games, it comes from the indie scene – in this case from developer Level 5, headed up by former Syndicate Wars lead designer (YES!) Mike Diskett, with the rest of the team having cut their teeth on games like Darksiders, Grand Theft Auto IV and L.A Noire. They even have Russell Shaw providing the game’s soundtrack. Shaw composed the scores of both both the original Syndicate titles, as well as Fable, Black & White and most other classic Bullfrog games from the 80s and early 90s. You can read a bit more about Satellite Reign here, and it’s featured in our upcoming guide on Indie Games to watch for 2015, which you can expect to see soon.

Dale Morgan

Dale Morgan

Founder, Editor in Chief
When Dale isn't crying over his keyboard about his never-ending workload, he's playing games - lots of them. Dale has a particular love for RPGs, Roguelikes and Metroidvanias.
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