Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Grand Plan for the ideal Syndicate reboot

[EDIT: Cutting out the links and pictures. Malware warnings suck.]
After I fixed Mass Effect 2 (you're welcome), the least I could do was work up a probable design doc for Project Redlime, which is supposedly a Syndicate reboot from Starbreeze, the The Darkness dudes, due to be unveiled at Gamescom, which is a thing that is happening. While I trust them to make a good game with decent storytelling (see: Riddick and The Darkness for respective examples), I've never seen them make a strategy game, nor take a storytelling approach that would evoke the same cynicism of Syndicate's late-90s corporate-dominated dystopia. Worst-case scenario is that we end up with a first-person shooter casting players in the role of a valiant (cyborg) freedom fighter rebelling against the evil syndicate.

Oh, wait. That might just be the case, if this and this are any indication.

But before you drive your palm completely through your skull, let me tell you about my (grand) plan for a Syndicate reboot. It's a plan that both captures the essence of Syndicate while keeping up with market and design realities that drive the modern blockbuster game. That way I can set us all up for disappointment when the game we get isn't the game we were expecting before we even knew what the game was going to be like in the first place. We'll all go down together.

Then again, what is the essence of Syndicate, anyway? Finding the right answer to that is essential, when writing a doc that supposedly "captures the essence" of a game, the better to sort wheat from chaff in the quest for modernization and "accessibility".

For example, 2K Marin seems to have half the equation when they talk about how X-COM was all about the fear, the kind of dread associated with seeing "UNKNOWN MOVEMENT" plastered on your screen during the enemy's turn. The other half, talking about how that's rooted in Cold War paranoia and postwar America, that's slightly off the mark.

But I digress. What makes Syndicate Syndicate?

Some might have you believe that Syndicate is Syndicate because it's an isometric real-time squad tactical game. They'd be half-wrong. In fact, I'd go so far as to declare Syndicate's early nineties (it was out in '93) gameplay to be pretty antiquated, much moreso than anyone could argue for, say, X-COM.

Think about it. Syndicate's core gameplay mechanics boiled down to a relatively short series of key features designed to distinguish it from your average Dune II:

Having a limited amount of elite, customizable units (one squad of agents)
Direct control in real time, with a limited amount of AI autonomy
The ability to alter above autonomy through the use of drug injections (those tricolor bars in the screenshot), ranging from "shitfaced" to "psycho", complete with strategic management of diminishing returns
Oh, and the lovely Persuadertron!

And that was pretty much it. What Syndicate did as an isometric tactical game, more commercially viable genres can now do. Everything else came down to individual mission design and the setting. From the latter came the variety, and from the former came Syndicate's legacy, what everyone we children of the '90s remember about Syndicate.

Which is where I get down to one sentence about what makes Syndicate Syndicate:

The essence of Syndicate is the player's role as the controlling antagonist, both in behavior and motivation.

You might argue that that's the same essence as a half-dozen other "evil path" games, including Bullfrog's own Dungeon Keeper, but Syndicate is different.

In Dungeon Keeper, Overlord, Black and White, and (to a lesser extent), Fable, the "evil" you is akin to the cackling mustache-twirler that ties innocent schoolmarms to the train tracks, the Dick Dastardly, but successful, since players have to win, of course.

Syndicate's evil, however, is close enough to home that with the right mindset, doesn't seem like evil at all. In fact it's better categorized as being "ruthless", a term which, in the either-or world of videogame (and populist) morality, is generally regarded as such.

In Syndicate, you're not a tyrant, but an executive, a guy who gets his company - and by extension himself, whatever the cost. The one who views people as disposable tools rather than party members to bone. To put it in BioWare terms, the Syndicate player is Mass Effect 2's Illusive Man, rather than a Renegade Shepard (he/she's just a racist, ignorant jerk), a Darth Revan rather than a Darth Malak.

It's a much bigger difference than you might imagine, and it's why Syndicate is so compelling. These days the only times you hear or play that particular variety of evil is when you're scamming some poor sap out of his hard-earned ISK in EVE or something like that.

One can understand why it's not as popular a tack to take. This insidious brand of ruthlessness can be to some more appalling than appealing to some, and handled poorly (or effectively!) can evoke some thoroughly disgusting white-collar transgressions, except with more cold-blooded murder and cyborgs.

All you have to do, really, is watch the intro movie to get an idea of Syndicate's mentality:

This game's idea of "recruitment" is to run people down with cars, kidnap them, then turn them into cyborg assassins.

So, before Starbreeze can (potentially) bum us all out by revealing their saga of an orphan who gets captured by the ruthless Syndicate to be turned into a mindless agent, only to break free of his shackles and take the fight to the enemy (Christ, I hope that's not the case), we must answer the question: What would an ideal modern Syndicate game be like?

I claimed earlier that Syndicate's original gameplay wasn't very timeless. It isn't. When PC gamers remember the 1993 title fondly, I doubt something like the scenario below is part of their cherished past:

Yeah. Right. About the only thing the player does here besides right-click when someone comes around the corner is adjust the drug levels of the agents, which modifies the quality/priorities of the AI. Bleh.

Long story short, whoever picks up Syndicate (Starbreeze) has a fair amount of leeway when it comes to making the game accessible.

In all likelihood, what a lot of people remember fondly when thinking about Syndicate is Syndicate Wars, which, strangely enough, is regarded by some as the Deus Ex 2 to regular Deus Ex. Here's a bit of proof as to why that thought's wrong:

There, that's better. Flagrant violence in the streets, environmental destruction, cyborg supersoldiers piling into a cab like it's a laser-equipped clown car. Perfect for the image of a hyper-dominant corporation that can get away with pretty much anything.

But back to the question at hand. If Syndicate hasn't aged well, what kind of game should be made that's modern but still Syndicate-ish enough to tickle that spot?

We can't just go with another bog-standard cover-based shooter. Syndicate's more about controlling others than controlling yourself. You, as the executive, use disposable (if expensive) cyborg tools to ruthlessly eliminate the competition. What kind of exec does the crouching behind chest-high walls himself? Delegate!

It's also the same reason we can't copy Deus Ex. After all, Deus Ex is Deus Ex, not Syndicate. No self-respecting Denton works in a team.

However! What we can copy from Deus Ex is the multiple-options mission design. The extent of Syndicate's customization was pretty much limited to researching new weapons, and then proceeding along a linear cybernetic upgrade path. Mission approaches were largely determined by your squad's weapon loadout. Of course, the favorite approach always involved the Persuadertron in some capacity.

Now, with the power of space-age computators, individual agents can be customized for different roles. One agent could be specialized for stealth and hacking, another could be specced for heavy assault, another could be specc'd for sniping, and so on, as dictated by mission parameters. Players could spend extra cash buying more intel on mission locations (as in the original game) or unlocking extra shortcuts/tactical advantages/options (as in, say, Alpha Protocol).

What we don't want, however, is talky-talky. Cybernetic death-machines do not negotiate, besides maybe "Come with me if you want to live," in the case of an escort mission. If anything, an exec might do negotiations in the off-time, maybe selecting corporate mergers to unlock new tech or branch missions.

Does this design template sound familiar to you? It probably should. What I'm asking for in a new, perfect-world Syndicate game is something akin to a squad-based Hitman with a more involved back-end, or even (gasp!) the sort of game they say the XCOM reboot will play like.

But wait, you say. Both new-XCOM and Hitman involve direct control of your solo dude. How is that different from the Deus Ex approach we weren't supposed to rip off?

Well, that's where the squad-based stuff comes in. Execs, being the dudes that fly in a blimp and control their agents by remote, can switch between squaddies at any time, handling precise positioning and coordinating mission plans. Set your infiltrator to enter a rival corp's office and hack their computers, with a sniper hiding out across the street, picking off guards in the infiltrator's way. Meanwhile, a heavy weapons guy sits around with a mini-nuke launcher, ready to level the building once the infiltrator is out of harm's way. Pure magic!

But what about the gimmick, you ask? What place does drug manipulation have in your new Syndicate. Well, it doesn't have much of a place. I imagine drugs could be implemented as limited-use power-ups that boost speed, armor, awareness, and other such things. More complex orders, such as moving up cover and precise positioning, can be handled ala Full Spectrum Warrior, or perhaps Freedom Fighters.

Alright. Now we have systems in place to complement the atmosphere. New Syndicate is a squad-based shooter with strong customization elements and varied mission design.

What about the Persuadertron?

It's the iconic Syndicate weapon. A gun that turns a civilian into a meat-shield. It's the ultimate embodiment of Syndicate's ruthless, uncaring mentality. How does that thing work?

Well, it could work as it always has, as a gun that targets individual civilians and turns them into drones that follow agents mindlessly (or picking up guns and firing at targets, ala Syndicate Wars), but realistically speaking, that would be impractical. Complex mission designs would be ruined by players cheesing the Persuadertron, and modern graphics engines wouldn't be able to handle the idea of brainwashing dozens or hundreds of NPCs (as demonstrated in some Youtube mission videos) and herding them around like sheep.

Here's an idea. In my ideal (but realistically conceived) Syndicate game, the Persuadertron is something of an area-effect grenade. Agents toss (or plant) the device in a crowd, and when it goes off, all civvies in the radius go nuts, zombie-rushing enemy units or attacking randomly, causing distractions that draw away guards and police units or diverting automated defenses.

A second version of the Persuadertron would also exist, one designed for use in mission-specific circumstances, like a Metal Gear Solid tranquilizer gun, to stun targets and make them vulnerable to assassination or kidnapping (to turn into new agents).

And there you go. The ultimate, contemporary Syndicate game has been designed. Prepare yourself to by hyped (or disappointed) when Redlime gets revealed, then set me up on Kickstarter to make the true spiritual sequel.

Monday, May 16, 2011

My Grand Plan to Fix Mass Effect 2's Story [Updated]

[This is a post from a year ago, rewritten because I saw the ad for "Prothean Squad Member" DLC and got kinda pissed off. I ended up buying anyway, so congrats, EA. I'm a sucker. But still, they haven't yet taken away my right to be an Angry Internet Nerd.]

Well, the plan grand as far as I'm concerned, mainly because it's a single change that I think would have made the whole affair much easier to swallow.

I'm not going to bother will all the messy details, because was almost entirely inspired by Shamus Young's legendary three-part dissection of Mass Effect 2's plot holes. Read it. He's one of the most crotchety writers in the scene, but he's more often right than wrong.

Once you're done with that, you might think that yeah, Mass Effect 2's main story is pretty bad, and thankfully it's inconsequential enough that it doesn't do damage to the rest of the game, but Mass Effect 3's story must must must do better than this and make good on a lot of the holes they poked into their own franchise.

Now that 3's out and most folks have already seen the leaked endings (I haven't, so don't you dare spoil them), it's a bit too late to fix everything that was wrong with 2.

Oh yeah, making Mass Effect 2's bad plot easier to swallow. All those problems aside, you know what would have been great and made it all a less bitter pill, and even opening new opportunities for spinoffs and all the side material they're so fond of these days? My grand idea, that's what.

In one sentence it goes as follows:

Divorce the Collectors from the Reapers.

That's all they needed to do. That's it. With that, everything is begrudgingly forgiven (by me).

To details.

The big problems with the Collectors were already outlined by Shamus. Their very existence diminishes the Reapers' mystique and flies in the face of what we know about them, and the circumstances of their defeat and its aftermath hold absolutely no consequence for Mass Effect 3's resolution.

But. But! We can fix all that by separating the Collectors from the Reapers. Cut the ties, burn the bridges, make these horrible organic creatures their own horrible organic creatures.

Think of it this way:

In the game, these are three of the four primary facts about the Collectors:
  1. The Collectors serve the Reapers.
  2. The Collectors use mostly organic (or organic-looking) technology.
  3. The Collectors are building a Reaper out of human slurpee juice.
But fact #4 is the most important:

4.The Collectors are former Protheans.

They're Protheans, the last, greatest civilization destroyed by the Reapers. Up until the very end of Mass Effect 1, and even through to 2, the Protheans were thought to have created the Mass Relays, which form the backbone of galactic civilization.

As we know it was the Reapers and not the Collectors, but even then, the Protheans were definitively one of the greatest powers known. Unless you reveal their secret connection to Halo's Progenitors, of course. Even the current Citadel government apparently pales in comparison.

They still stood no chance against the Reapers, but (but!), were still powerful enough to temporarily escape extinction, by sabotaging the Citadel relay, and establishing the cryo-sanctuary Shepard visited in Mass Effect 1.

What if the Collectors were not Protheans that were captured and converted into slaves by the Reapers, but Protheans that escaped the Reaper genocide, hiding in a sanctuary behind the Omega-4 relay, on the edge of a black hole, in a place even the Reapers would have trouble getting to?

It's plausible. They were an awesomely great galactic superpower. They built the beacons. They built Vigil. They built the tiny duplicate Mass Relay that teleported the Mako into the Citadel for that big final fight with Saren.

But tens of millenia is a long time. A long time for the Protheans to have thought of ways to survive, to defend themselves against the Reapers when they came again.

Here's another what-if: What if the Protheans decided that the best way to survive the next Reaper invasion was to build their own Reaper? Fire vs. fire, Reaper vs. Reaper. So they duplicate the Reaper concept, maybe based on a Reaper they managed to disable way back when (Hint: it's the derelict Reaper Shepard gets his IFF from).

Maybe they decide to copy that. They see that Reapers aren't robots, but techno-organic constructs that incorporate exceptional traits from the civilizations they destroy. Maybe the Reapers are like the Borg or Brainiac, who evolve and reproduce by copying/assimilating their best foes, then eradicating them. Like the Machines from The Matrix, every time they destroy Zion/galactic civilization, they get better at destroying Zion/galactic civilization.

So, they observe the species that crawl out of the muck, the ones with the greatest potential. They hide behind the relay, occasionally hanging out in the Terminus systems to trade cool organic guns for genetic samples of rare fauna and your preorder dollars.

Then some human goes and manages to blow up a Reaper! Sweet, that's the species they need. Plan A goes into motion! Slurpees for all! Kidnap a bunch, then into the tubes they go!

See? The Protheans are suddenly deep, nuanced and compelling:  A species fallen from grace, turned into villains by the desperation of their circumstances. They did what they thought needed to be done, and what needed to be done was to kill one civilization to save their own, to make slurpees out of others rather than be vaporized by unknowable space-gods hiding in the cold depths. They picked the galactic-scale Renegade option.

There. Now they matter. Now Shepard can justify blowing up their base, because the Protheans chose to become the Collectors for the sake of survival. If humanity does the same, they lose the soul of their species. There's a Paragon choice for you.

And then Cerberus is a proper villain, like they apparently are in 3 now. They wanted to do Renegade, but Shepard did Paragon. Plus, if Shepard himself/herself went Renegade in the last decision and preserved the base (I know I did), then maybe the Illusive Man wanted to go ahead with the Prothean solution. And Shepard, as a beacon of hope for humanity, is a liability. After all, he was defending all the people Cerberus would now have to abduct and Jamba Juice. This would be the perfect motivation for them to try hunting Shepard down.

Mass Effect 2: fixed. You're welcome.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Other Posts

In the interests of keeping this readable, I'm not going to put up every single story in its entirety. For the earlier ones, I'll just put up the permalinks:

The Destructoid Promoted Stories:

Good Idea, Bad Idea: Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment

The Start of the Affair: My Own Mute, My Own Heartstrings

Feel the Hatred: The QTE

Final Fantasy: She Still Floats

A Time to Destroy: To Hell with Your Rules, I'm Cheating


The Escapist Guest Reviews:

Valkyria Chronicles

The Experiments


Crysis Warhead

I also have a crapload of reviews I made for the now-defunct startup site VGviews.com, but they're not quite my best.