Development house Starbreeze isn't exactly a household name, but their cult status pedigree is unquestionable. Across each of their releases, the Swedish developer has displayed a knack for taking underdog licenses and fitting them to games with standard-crushing tech. They made their mark on the console scene in 2004, with the brutal and visually stunning Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and then followed with the comics-based cult hit The Darkness (Development duties for the sequel were handed to Digital Extremes).
In just a few days' time, odds are favorable that they will be repeating that tradition with Syndicate, EA's FPS reboot of Bullfrog's classic PC strategy series. Traditionalists have cried foul, citing the divergence between this title's genre and its forebears. However, rather than join that choir, Darkstation took the opportunity to ask these crazy Geats just how they plan to make their version of Syndicate a success.
Darkstation: I haven’t played the original Syndicate games, but I am interested to know how and why this project germinated into an FPS. Was this something that EA wanted to do from a genre perspective or a series perspective? And how did Starbreeze become involved in that process?
Viljar Sommerbakk, Lead Combat Designer Single-Player: EA had been looking to remake Syndicate for a while, and they wanted to work with Starbreeze. Starbreeze is known for making games set in dark and gritty worlds, with deep story, engaging FPS movement, and up close and brutal melee combat. I think that letting Starbreeze use our expertise in those areas and interpret the cult classic just made sense. Our goal was to take the elements that made the original Syndicate such a classic, wrap them in an updated visual package and control scheme, and make a great new game in its own right.
DS: Syndicate’s art style looks very tech heavy, with lots of HUD elements and interfaces, etc. Starbreeze made its name developing first person shooters that are more minimalist (Riddick) or primal (The Darkness) in their game design. How did your artists and programmers adapt to this new style?
Andreas Gschwari, Senior Designer Co-Op: It was not hard to switch over really. The basis for Syndicate is the same as for [any] other Starbreeze game. A dark story. There was obviously a lot more focus on guns this time around, and we are really proud of our gun play and how they feel/handle. Art was interesting because the settings provided a bit more variety thanks to the player visiting different areas and different rival Syndicates. The HUD, in particular in Co-Op, was certainly a challenge but we have some extremely talented people here at Starbreeze, so it all came together in the end, and we are very happy with it.
DS: With regards to storytelling, Starbreeze’s games have been a big proponent of retaining the player’s perspective and keeping them in control; have you made any large or incremental changes to that design approach with Syndicate?
VS: We've honed the FPS features that made earlier Starbreeze games stand out. The movement, the brutality of takedowns, the weapon handling, showing cut-scenes from the player's view to maximize immersion. The movement is now even tighter and snappier, we have more takedown variations than before, and small interactions during cut-scenes, bringing the player into the scene more; not to the point of quicktime events, but just enough to make the player feel that he is part of the scene.
DS: This is the first time Starbreeze has done 4 player co-op in its games. How difficult, if at all, was it to bring that mode into Starbreeze’s stable and implement it into Syndicate, mechanically and narratively?
AG: It was not without its challenges, however other Starbreeze games have had multiplayer elements to them. So there was a good solid base to work from, and then of course there was an immense passion from the Co-Op team. All of us here love playing Co-Op games, and all of us knew from the start that bringing the old feeling of having 4 Agents go through a map, clearing everything in their path, was an ideal scenario to do in our own Co-Op game. We knew we wanted Co-Op to be stand alone. So rather than tack it on the Single Player story, or using the Single Player maps, we decided to use a different approach. We decided to use the original maps, as much as possible, and create our own story. So this is how Wulf Western was established and the player takes on the role of a new Agent in that brand new Syndicate vying for power. It gave us a great way of allowing the player to gain upgrades and use the research function of the Co-Op game. Co-Op is obviously not as story driven as the single player, action speaks louder here, but it’s a common thread connecting all the missions. It’s all about the rise of your new Syndicate.
DS: Starbreeze games always feature unique gunplay and weapon handling. What is your approach to developing those assets and bringing them up to your standards?
VS: The people involved with the weapon handling in Syndicate actually have a lot of real life gun experience, to the level of competitive marksmanship. This means there was a vision for how weapons should feel. In addition to that, iteration is key when it comes to perfecting the "through-the-gun experience". You tweak it until it's right.
AG: The other thing worth pointing out here is the more futuristic weapons. We tried to make sure they all have a technical link to known and existing technology, but just push them over the edge a bit. It was great fun creating and balancing guns like the COIL or the Riot Lance!
DS: Did you draw from any real world influences when crafting the various agencies in the game? What was your most influential source for conceptualizing these different organizations?
VS: All the syndicates are fictional, and not based on any real life counterpart. The original game is our main source of influence, as most of the Syndicates we mention are fleshed out there to some degree. We have drawn parallels to current events, however, and tried to draw lines from the context of today, to the "Business is War" of tomorrow.
DS: Last question: do you have any plans for DLC or post-launch support?
AG: Right now we’re just excited to finally release this game and hope gamers enjoy playing it.
Syndicate will be released on February 21st for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC