Why Syndicate was 'bad to the bone'

Syndicate cover art
(Image credit: EA)

Occasionally we reach into our deep archives to retrieve something wonderful about a game we love. Like these fond memories of Syndicate from ex-PC Gamer shoeshine-boy Kieron Gillen.

An undead ninja dressed in gaudy yellow has just grabbed the eye sockets of his opponent and torn his head clear off his body, dangling a couple of feet of glistening wet spinal cord after it. Cue screams from the horrified tabloids. Gamers laugh at it or with it, depending on their temperament. It's 1993, and Mortal Kombat, in terms of press controversy, is the Grand Theft Auto of its day. But only in those terms. Anyone who has actually played the game knows that it belongs purely to the Grand Guignol tradition of video nasties, a comedy fountain of gore. Mortal Kombat was just slapstick with a very sharp stick. It wasn't bad to the bone.

Syndicate, conversely, was the meanest bastard that the world had ever seen. If you want to find out about the path that leads to Grand Theft Auto, you start with the four gentlemen with the trenchcoats, mirrorshades, and miniguns, sitting in the corner.

Syndicate didn't get the bad press of Mortal Kombat for a handful of reasons. Firstly, it was a game for the PC and Amiga, with a correspondingly lower public profile. But more importantly, to really understand how grotesquely immoral it was, you had to play it. And playing a game? Well, that's the one thing the reactionary end of the press will never consider.

Syndicate put you in the role of a commander of four cybernetically enhanced goons, in the employ of a global corporation. Your task was that of building a new world order, one hostile takeover of a country at a time. Once you'd been given your mission and let loose in the city, it was up to you to achieve it by any means possible. Normally, this would revolve around wiping out opposing corporate agents, but other things to see and do in the near future included rescue, escort, brainwashing, and assassination. Syndicate distinguished itself by being one of the earliest examples of a 'living city' game. People wandered around, going about their everyday business before having their routine (and often their bodies) exploded by corporate conflict in the high street. Cars patrolled the highways, and could often be commandeered with a burst of Uzi fire. Caught in the middle, cops desperately tried to keep the peace...

Back then, this was all shockingly new. Emphasis on the word 'shocking'.

My first experience of Syndicate was the demo on the coverdisc of cheery PC Gamer progenitor Amiga Format. My brother and I were already excited: for the time, the game had been beautifully marketed. Photo-led adverts of hands hanging off a chainlink fence, a pollution-painted city in the background. They were—in fact, still are—a few steps classier than the competition. We both loved cyberpunk fiction, and in a world dominated by bright platformers we were ready for some of the dark stuff. Hell, living in dreary Stafford, even urban decay seemed glamorous.

Within seconds, we're running rampage through isometric streets. I'm in control, with my brother shouting suggestions as to what to do next. Automatic weapons are pulled from jackets and any of the civilians who see them scatter, running for their lives. Cops start firing and are dropped with a burst of fire which we mentally make a note to charge to our expense account later. A car pulls around the corner, and we open fire again. The car slides to a halt, its passengers getting out and fleeing. Another couple of bursts and the car itself explodes, sending debris and civilian bodies flying in all directions.

We're both wearing our biggest Bad Boy grins when something makes our faces fall. It's a noise. High-pitched and sharp, it cuts through the general aural melee of a city firefight. We realise its coming from the tiny people. They're on fire. The explosion must have sprayed them with petrol or something, and now they're reduced to living torches. Living torches in incredible pain.

We sit, dumbfounded and disturbed. My brother is the first to speak. "Kill them."

I keep a list of the emotions games have provoked in me. This was the first time one had ever given me the vertiginous sensation of moral repugnance at myself. In the end, the burning people from car explosions were cut from the final version of Syndicate, saved for the later appearance of the flamethrower. It was still a uniquely brutal effect. The choice of sound effect was masterful, and I can still recall the pitch and attack of that noise and feel it race down my spine. And the tiny animation was bad—gruesomely suggestive enough to let your mind fill in the gaps of flesh melting away from bone.

It's one of the reasons why Syndicate still sticks with me. It was phenomenally ahead of its time. While I'd argue that Syndicate's cities were more advanced than anything seen previously, even if they weren't that far ahead, the way the game used them was. Forget the slaughter and the realistic response of the environment to what was happening. Think of ideas such as the way you manipulated your agents by pumping their bodies with different drugs depending on what you wanted to use them for. Or the Persuadertron, which enabled you to assemble a mass of consumerist zombies as a ready-made army.

I suppose that's one of the things that keeps Syndicate precious—even in these days when everything is borrowing from Grand Theft Auto's rampage-in-a-freeform-city mandate. For all the nihilism, there was a brain to it, a satirical edge. Multinational agents leading hordes of consumerist zombies to achieve corporate aims? As a pulp object, Syndicate makes its point forcibly. What makes it succeed as a game is that while all the critique is still there, it simultaneously explains all too well why anyone would want to wield this amount of power—through the sheer illicit transgressive thrill of playing it. Pulling the trigger on the sniper laser that reduces to a smudge of ash the politician who wouldn't play ball. Stealing a police car and getting through prison security to rescue someone, and then mowing down every single prisoner for no reason other than seeing their bodies fall in piles at the end of the prison yard. And the final gauss-gun-painted confrontation of the Atlantic Accelerator mission, still one of the most famously challenging end-of-game missions of all time.

Bad to the bone. But the most evil thing about Syndicate—the thing all its players will answer for if they're ever stopped at the gates of heaven—is how good being so bad was. There's that twitch guilt, sure... but the pleasure overwhelms it. Syndicate: a holiday in somebody else's misery—and, worst of all, a misery you caused.