Reaction to the Syndicate leak
Posted at 18:30 on 11th September 2011 - permalink

Yesterday the first details of the industry’s worst kept secret, ‘Project Redlime’ – a.k.a. Starbreeze’s ‘reimagining’ of the Bullfrog classic Syndicate – started to dribble out onto the global infoweb.

The scant information that has been revealed – a product description and some screenshots – has been met with howls of derision from people who played and loved the original game, which in turn have been met with grunts of condescension from people under 30 for whom Starbreeze may as well be adapting the films of Harold Lloyd.

I had (perhaps naively) hoped that Starbreeze would be a ‘safe pair of hands’ for a project like this. The main things that I know about their games is that they tend to be visually distinctive and to attempt things a few steps outside of the FPS norm. My faith was rather shaken by the leaked materials, which seem to depict the most generic militaristic near-future FPS imaginable, a mess of Killzone, CoD and FEAR.

It is of course entirely possible that the actual game isn’t going to be a Modern Warfare knock-off, and EA have just cherry-picked information that suggests that it is, to reassure the large portion of their audience for whom CoD defines action games. The emphasis on co-op play and mention that there are levels based on missions from the original give a glimmer of hope.

But there are also hints that the meddling with the Syndicate concept runs much deeper. You will, apparently, be playing the role of an autonomous character (“Miles Kilo”) – a syndicate agent rather than an executive overseer. There are mentions of personal motivations (“revenge”), and, oddly, of civilians being able to choose between Syndicates.

This makes me worry that the game is going to be about a syndicate agent going rogue, and potentially acting in the interests of the people and against the interests of the syndicate, in a dorky white-knuckle spy thriller plot. (Or in other words plundering liberally from Deus Ex.) Syndicate wasn’t about that.

Syndicate was as bleak and unambiguous as anything Bullfrog ever produced. I’m sure it’s been talked up in the past (by Gillen probably) as being an unconscious synthesis of the value system of Thatcher’s Britain. It works because it rationalises the amoral actions of your agents as being justified by money and power, with the assuredness of a teenager who has grown up on 2000AD, Robocop and Blade Runner. (Sean Cooper was only 20 when he programmed the game.)

(As for the commentators scoffing at EA’s use of the word ‘visceral’, that’s absolutely what Syndicate was. Most of the appeal of the game was in the feedback the player got from wreaking havoc in a populated city. I’m surely not the only person who would scour each map annihilating every person, car and tree long after the mission had been completed.)

If Starbreeze (or any modern developer) want to try to truly recreate Syndicate (rather than just plundering the basic premise and name recognition) they walk a tightrope between making it a game where you’re actually the good guy, or one where you’re an exaggeratedly obnoxious pantomime villain, almost as an inevitable consequence of modern AAA action games ‘needing’ to have voiced plot-advancing character-driven cut-scenes.

Even if it does turn out to be terrible, there are at least some other games that explore the same ground. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which I should get around to writing about properly at some point) essentially has you playing a syndicate agent (albeit drawn from the company ranks rather than grabbed off the street), and has all the cybernetic augmentations, biochips, steam grates and neon that one could wish for. (Even if you don’t care a fig about Syndicate you should go and buy it anyway, because it’s excellent.)

Droid Assault (recently overhauled in anticipation of its imminent Steam release) plays rather like an abstract, cutesy version of Syndicate, where ‘capturing’ enemies (persuadertron-style) has an even more pronounced strategic dimension. (Incidentally, it’s a bit worrying that the Syndicate description makes no mention of the persuadertron.)

Going further back, Freedom Fighters gave a good demonstration of how A.I. squad-based, block-by-block guerilla warfare could work in a ‘modern’ game (although it has aged quite poorly).

Looking forward, the great thing about the success of Deus Ex: HR is that it has suddenly made cyberpunk-themed games a commercially viable proposition again, so perhaps we’ll see more games that capture something of Syndicate’s atmosphere, even if the ‘official’ one doesn’t.

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