Matters of perspective

Syndicate Wars differed from the original Syndicate in a number of areas, the most significant change undoubtedly being the jump from 2D to 3D graphics. It was very early days for 3D and although groundbreaking at the time, the 3D implementation did bring some problems. One issue is that the freely rotating camera made it much easier to get disoriented. For me at least it was often confusing and hard to remember which way was up and which way down, let alone remembering which way I came from a minute ago – I could never really get a ‘feel’ for what is where on the map. The inability to zoom in and out freely didn’t help, either (the zoom level was for some reason dependent on your current weapon). Unlike Syndicate Wars, Satellite Reign is going to have a fixed isometric perspective. The environment is of course going to be in 3D, but it will have a fixed perspective, similar to Starcraft II (of which Mike Diskett is reportedly a fan). This means that the perspective / orientation will feel more like the original Syndicate, which I think is great news.

However, there is of course another aspect to this. The reason why Syndicate Wars went with a freely rotating camera was most likely the fact that there are a lot of tall buildings in the city, and with a fixed perspective, you would not have seen what’s going on half of the time because it all happened behind the walls of a skyscraper. Actually, that was still a problem in Syndicate Wars at times.

Can you see what's going on on the street?

Can you see what’s going on on the street?

So at this point you may be asking yourself: How did the original Syndicate do it, since it had a fixed perspective? Well, it’s actually quite simple: That game didn’t have tall buildings for the most part. The buildings tended to be rather flat, and you could often walk on the roof. It was of course possible to walk behind (or inside) a building where you could not see the agents for a moment, and sometimes even in tunnels underground, but you still had an overview of the situation and it was never really a problem.

Buildings in Syndicate tend to be flat

Buildings in Syndicate tend to be flat

This approach would not have worked for Syndicate Wars, which had a ton of skyscrapers and other tall buildings with narrow streets in between. Since it looks like Satellite Reign will have a lot of tall buildings, too, 5LS is bound to run into the same problems. It’s certainly not an easy problem to solve, and it will be interesting to see how the team deals with it. Let’s go through the options:

  1. Make only flat buildings, Syndicate style. Seems like a clean solution but doesn’t go well with the skyscraper dark city theme. Note that Starcraft II with a similar fixed isometric perspective doesn’t have tall buildings / highly elevated areas (mountain tops etc.) at all.
  2. Find ways for the player to see through buildings. This was implemented in Syndicate Wars in the following way: you could hide the buildings completely by pressing ‘B’. However, that solution is not ideal because you will end up not seeing most of the actual level design and it will take away from the atmosphere. It’s also clearly meant for use in specific moments only (hence the need to keep the button pressed). One idea could be to make buildings partially transparent if an agent is behind them, or perhaps at least the parts of the building above the ground floor. Some games ease the problem by showing a silhouette of characters when behind an obstacle (like this).
  3. Change the perspective to a top-down view (bird’s view). Think GTA2. However, this would give the game a totally different feel and doesn’t seem right.
  4. …?

I also vaguely remember Mike Diskett saying in an interview somewhere that there may be a way to temporarily change the camera angle. I’m guessing it would probably work like the ‘B’ button in Syndicate Wars, i.e. it will be effective only as long as you hold down a button (think the occasional ‘reverse angle’ shots on sports TV). I can imagine that it would help in some cases, but could also be annoying to fiddle with in the heat of battle, and it probably still won’t work in all cases (e.g. with many narrow streets between skyscrapers).

So how would you go about it, if you were in charge of the game yourself? Let us know in the comments below.

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