Force is control is money is power.  Diplomacy is dead and lies rotting in the gutter.  Hope and ideals are too painful to offer any comfort anymore.  A brutal new era has dawned, my era, and I walk a road paved with the spines of my adversaries.

I command from the safety of my hovership.  The four half-human zombies on my plasma screen are mine; they are extensions of me. As a death squad I move through the city streets, closing on a blip on my radar screen, a short-sighted politician who has crossed me one too many times.  He won't have time to regret his lack of judgement.

A round of shells slams into my team, knocking them backwards. I look around in a panic to see an enemy syndicate's squad firing at me from several blocks away.  Without waiting for another round, I run behind a building and pull weapons from inside my trenchcoats.  Patiently I wait, ready for an up-close firefight. My enemy advances.

As soon as the rival squad rounds the corner of the building, I tear into them with four blazing uzis.  The blast flings them back, pinning them against a building.  They are trapped, helpless to do anything but wait for my firepower to relieve them of their pain.  Eventually they collapse into pools of blood.  I walk to their tattered corpses and claim their weapons:  three long-range shotguns and a flamethrower; the R&D team will be pleased. I leave the mess behind, already forgotten, and continue towards my target.

I enter the building and see my politician friend hiding on the back terrace, thinking he's safe.  I consider how to dispatch him, and with a sadistic grin pull the newly acquired flamer from my trenchcoat and step out onto the terrace.  I hesitate just long enough to allow my victim to comprehend exactly what is about to happen to him and who has brought him to this, then I douse him in a nearly solid spray of fire.  He lets out a long tortured scream and begins stumbling about blindly, his eyes melted and streaming down his face.  After a few seconds he falls to the ground, unmoving, an unrecognizable mass of liquefying flesh and charring bone.

All too easy.

Now admit it, this appealed to you, didn't it?  Some tiny, suppressed part of your psyche that you don't  mention to your loved ones stepped up and said, "Yeah, that sounds like fun."  If I'm right, take the following actions:  do your good deed for the day (it's best to start off with a clear conscience), lock your door, turn off the lights, take the phone off the hook, and plunge headlong into Syndicate, a joint venture between Bullfrog and Electronic Arts.  Being despicably bad never felt so good.

In case you haven't figured it out yet, the picture Syndicate paints is about as bleak as they come.  The setting is 100 years from now. All world governments have fallen, their power eclipsed by multi-national corporations, who have in turn been infiltrated and overrun by organized crime syndicates.  (Depending on your political leanings, you may not consider this to be far-fetched at all.)  The populace is kept in line by fear, and appeased by the CHIP, a bio -  mechanical device that plugs directly into the brain stem to alter the individual's perceptions.  Nothing is real outside one's perception of reality, and through this device the citizenry have been reduced to near-mindless drones with only a tenuous link to the environment they shamble through.

All this is an interesting twist on various cyberpunk themes that other games have already employed, but the real kicker lies in how you fit into the picture.  This time you aren't some cyber-rebel raging against the tyranny of an oppressive system. You ARE the system.  As a syndicate executive, you must spread the influence of your organization across the globe, which is conveniently broken up into 50 zones, each representing a mission. Other syndicates won't appreciate your determination, though, and it will be your extreme pleasure to deal them grotesque amounts of violence for their trouble.    An interesting premise, you may say, but if someone walks down to their local software store and plunks $50 down on the counter, odds are he or she is looking for more than an interesting premise. Fortunately, the core game of Syndicate is every bit as enveloping as its setting.  This is essentially a tactical strategy game, with a touch or resource management thrown in to wrap the player in a believable, multi-faceted environment.

Installing the game on the hard drive is simple, with a standard automated install program that prompts you for the install path and your Sound Blaster settings (Sound Blaster is the only sound card supported). The program is a bit of a hog, sucking up 12 megabytes of hard drive space and requiring 4 megs of RAM. It is fully playable on a 386SX, but thrives on a faster processor. Once installation was over though, I jumped straight into a problem; when I tried to start the game, the computer locked up, which I eventually attributed to a sound card conflict with my old 8-bit Sound Blaster Version 1.  EA's tech support was no help.  I called them from work (which is where I am during the tech support department's hours) and spoke to a rather rude young man who refused to speculate on the cause of the lockup until I told him exactly how much free memory I had, which I couldn't do since I wasn't at my computer.  It didn't appease him to know that the game only uses 4MB of memory, while I have 6MB and don't run any TSRs, so I hung up feeling decidedly less than supported.

I finally worked my way around the problem myself.  The manual states that you type SYND to start the game.  I took a closer look at the SYND.BAT file and found that all it did was invoke the file MAIN.EXE and add a few command line parameters.  I tried starting the game by typing MAIN directly, and since have had no problems. (So far I am the only person I know of to encounter this problem, but if it happens to you now you have a solution.)   Once in the game, you'll choose your character's name and set your syndicate's name, logo, and color.  Once this is done you can go to the world map.  This is a handsome and highly functional screen that shows the 50 territories of the world, color coded to show which syndicate is currently in control.  As each mission becomes available to you, its territory will flash.  (You will only have one mission at a time to choose from until you complete a couple, but you'll soon find yourself with multiple available missions to choose from.  This is a nice touch, and it keeps the game from becoming linear.)  Clicking on an available territory shows you its name and population.  This figure informs you, generally, of how much income can be milked from this sector through severe taxation once it is conquered, and also works as a good indicator of the mission's difficulty.  Once the territory is under your control, this screen also shows you the population's contentment factor and lets you set the territory's tax rate.  Pay close attention to how happy the citizens are (which is directly affected by taxation), or you will spend more time squashing internal rebellions than expanding your borders.

In each of the 50 missions, you control a team of one to four cyborg agents.  Before deployment, each agent can be outfitted with weapons and bio-mods -- mechanical body alterations which improve speed, stamina, and other performance areas that make up a well-rounded killing machine.  Weapons and mods cost money, and you are on a tight budget, so choose wisely and intelligently. Money can also be allotted to research to produce more effective bio-mods and deadlier weapons.  (The more you spend, the faster your current research project is completed.)  As you progress through the increasingly difficult missions improved technology will be vital to your success.

Once deployed, your squad appears on a stunningly drawn map of the city or complex that serves as the mission's arena. The 3D three-quarters viewpoint is beautiful to behold, and is also very functional, allowing you to direct your squad with great accuracy. A scanner in the lower left corner of the screen identifies your primary target, and alerts you to incoming police (who shoot anyone brandishing a weapon) and enemy agents, who never seem to bother with formal introductions before they start blasting away at you.

There seem to be three main types of missions: assassination, personnel acquisition (through chemically induced brainwave dampening), and mass extermination.  While the primary goal of many missions is basically identical, each mission has its own background description which makes it stand out from others of its type.  More importantly, each mission has its own unique challenges to overcome, and the real-time action demands that you think on your feet and analyze your situation quickly.  Making strategic use of the mission-specific geography is often the only way to survive the waves of firefights that the enemy syndicates thrust upon you. Mastering the use of your agents' CHIPs to control their intelligence, perception, and adrenaline levels is also a key to success, especially when using the full compliment of four cyborgs.  Once the setting and lush graphics capture you and the gameplay hooks you, the Sound Blaster sound reels you in and polishes you off.  An eerie, moody piece of music plays in the background, and for once in computer game history is isn't annoying.  May wonders never cease!  The true sonic icing on the cake is the sound of the weapons, though. Uzis rattle out their deadly spray, shotguns boom and re-cock, lasers whine as they evaporate their targets, and rockets burst with a speaker- shattering explosion that I frankly didn't think my old 8-bit dinosaur card was capable of.  All these aspects combine into one powerful whole that envelops the player in a rich gaming world more effectively than any role playing game I have ever encountered. You don't just play Syndicate, you enter into and become a part of it.

Bullfrog and Electronic Arts have joined forces to produce a dark, evil masterpiece of a game.  I have never played a tactical strategy game that draws you into the gaming universe as completely as Syndicate does.  This is a solid real-time strategy game with beautifully repulsive graphics and powerful, atmospheric sound. Squeamish non-violent gamers who have a problem with suspending their morals along with their disbelief should definitely seek their entertainment elsewhere, but for those of us who don't mind having a little innocent blood on our hands Syndicate is a thrilling ride straight to the dark heart of cyberhell.