Iain wrote this one.
Have we done a cyberpunk dystopia on AAA yet? Turrican was cybermetal; something as bare and isolating as Metroid doesn’t quite fit either half; Impossible Mission II came closest but has its own idiosyncratic niche (plus: too damn suave). So I guess the lovingly detailed high tech gloom of Syndicate was something new to many gamers. Its suit-encased guards and harsh architecture, its world of garish advertising screens and missions for corporate saboteurs presented in medi-scan silhouette with green lines to data, was novel and, more importantly, cool.
It’s an educated guess, but one drawing on assumptions I make in a spirit of generosity. Because this way, the fact that playing it for the first time did nothing for me whatsoever isn’t just a result of failures. It’s a result of successes, in that it can be put down to Syndicate’s aesthetic having succeeded so thoroughly as to become one of gaming’s defaults. I’ve played a dozen better technological cautionary tales; we’ll be getting to a few of them on AAA. Without any personal nostalgia for Syndicate, it’s hard to see it as anything other than an inferior take on familiar themes.
It doesn’t help that it has some serious oddities even in the implementation of its aesthetic and story, I suppose also part of being a trailblazer. Its tales of cybercorporate rivalry and stealing cyberresearch are accessed via a Risk-looking world map where you take over each region of the world in turn, sticking high taxes on all of them to fund your research and, presumably, continue to deny them affordable cyberhealthcare. But the disconnect in scale between the two concepts of what you’re doing is massive – I suppose I could fill in the gaps in my head, conjecture about how in each level I’m intervening in the one key assassination or ‘persuasion’ that tips the balance and leads to overall control, but it’s not very satisfying.
And thinking about why takes me to a game which serves as an obvious counterpoint thanks to its gameplay similarities. Syndicate has you clicking to direct individual members of a squad around to stake out territory and fire at enemies, and that’s an outline which equally applies to Cannon Fodder. Syndicate adds on all sorts of bells and whistles in terms of destructible territory, different weapons, and enemies and soldiers who don’t go down in one hit, and every one of them makes the experience less compelling. The slowness and fiddliness isn’t quite at Tower of Babel levels, but painfully close. The same thing extends completely to the story. In that Cannon Fodder’s relentlessly pared back focus carried just far enough to leave gaping uncertainty to be poignantly filled, but in going further Syndicate leaves gaps just as uncrossable but with none of the mystery. Imitators having shorn it of any blinding sheen of cool, its hard to see anything else but the gaps.