Syndicate was a huge success for Bullfrog – and particularly Peter Molyneux. But it was the 1996 sequel, Syndicate Wars, which made me fall in love with the concept. Syndicate Wars was brash, riding the mid-90’s wave of the West’s newfound love of Manga and a fresh era for the Cyberpunk genre, and it took the original to new heights of moody ultraviolence, shot through with pitch black humor.
Unfortunately, beyond an ill-judged FPS reboot from EA, Syndicate has largely been stuck on a shelf in a high-tech vault somewhere for close to two decades, leaving hordes of older fans – myself included – praying to the digital gods for someone to come along and give us the modern successor we desired.
Thankfully, one other person who also wanted to play a new Syndicate game was the lead designer of Syndicate Wars himself, Mike Diskett. One successful Kickstarter and over a year in development later, we’re now able to see what a modern Syndicate might actually have looked like, had history unfolded slightly differently.
Satellite Reign is still heavy in development, but already Diskett’s spiritual successor to the Bullfrog classic is showing enough polish, atmosphere and smart gameplay that I keep going back to the Early Access demo. Partly to soak in the wonderful atmosphere of the world that Diskett and his team at 5 Lives Studios has created, but also because they have managed to update and refine the gameplay of the original so well that going back to the actual Syndicate games reveals just how unrefined and scrappy they actually are.
Syndicate is an isometric tactical game, where you control a small squad of corporate agents in real-time, waging war across city maps in a bid to bring down a rival corporation. It was fun, and incredibly violent (for the time) with a bleak sense of humor; but you could never accuse Syndicate of really doing justice to the actual tactical side of the real-time tactics equation. Sure, you could upgrade your agents to better levels of technology and acquire better weapons; but the upgrade path was rather linear – the toughest exoskeleton was always the toughest exoskeleton, and by and large your agents were all carbon copies of each other, with nothing beyond their weaponry and upgrades to set them apart from each other.
Diskett and his team clearly understand this, and as a consequence playing Satellite Reign‘s early build reminds me of another game from the 90’s: Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines.
In Commandos, your plucky team of Soldiers were sent on a series of missions deep in enemy territory and it was your job to work out how to accomplish your goal using the tools at your disposal. With each member of your squad having completely different abilities – one could wear a disguise, one was a sniper, another was demolitions expert – each level wasn’t so much a gauntlet as it was one giant puzzle. Multiple solutions meant you weren’t screwed if you buggered up halfway through a mission – just as well, because some levels could take hours to complete; but by and large you were forced to approach each obstacle tactically and think outside the box, if you were to complete your mission with all of your squad mates intact.
Satellite Reign has a lot in common with Commandos. Perhaps, aesthetics aside, even more so than it does with Syndicate: each of your four agents has their own specialism, and how you combine their skills to overcome each situation is key to each situation. Do you get your hacker to shut down the nearby surveillance and sneak past the security cameras undetected? Perhaps you get the hacker to steal money from a cash machine, and use it to bribe an official into giving you the access codes to where you need to go? In public areas, your agents can walk around largely unmolested by law enforcement, but just make sure that you don’t have your firearms drawn, otherwise you’ll start a panic and before you know it, someone has raised the alarm, forcing you into an impromptu firefight.
The malleability of the game’s interlocking systems is impressive then, and the freedom to mix up playstyles and adjust on the fly is enhanced by the fact that everything takes place in one seamless environment. In Syndicate and Commandos the action all took place in enclosed locations, custom-designed for that mission. Satellite Reign gives that approach the middle finger, whips out its chain gun and tears it to pieces with hot lead. Hell, you don’t even have set objectives for the most part. While there are going to be missions in the game, Satellite Reign is being designed to give players as much freedom as possible to play it as you want, so there’s nothing to force you into playing through a set of linear objectives.
Instead, it’s going to be left for to you to decide how you want to spend your time in the city. Perhaps you’ll want to raid the bank where a rival corporation keeps a huge stash of its funds. Maybe you want to cripple their defenses by breaking into their security network or sabotaging their bases. Or you could always just start a riot in the streets and start taking potshots when the police show up. The open-ended nature of the game is refreshing, but I have some slight concerns that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, and some may find the freedom a little overwhelming, especially when you need to really have a handle on the various abilities of your team members.
None of this would count for much if the city wasn’t large enough, or interesting enough to hold your attention. Thankfully, based on what I’ve seen so far, it looks like Satellite Reign‘s virtual urban playground is going to provide more than enough nooks, crannies and secrets to explore. The current Early Access build consists of just a single section of the city, but it’s impressively large and packed full of detail. Many of the assets are reused, of course – tailoring each individual building and bit of graffiti or road section would be beyond the capabilities of even large-scale, big-budget endeavors. 5 Lives may have received nearly half a million pounds to fund its project – and that figure has no doubt increased thanks to Early Access backers and post-Kickstarter donations – but it’s still modest compared to some of the biggest Kickstarter projects, like Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity or Double Fine’s Broken Age. And Satellite Reign is being developed by just a small team of industry veterans, rather than an established studio.
But despite these financial and staffing limitations, Satellite Reign‘s city still manages to be both impressively large – at least, based on the demo – and with enough variety and atmosphere to keep you engrossed. Neon signs are everywhere, giant advertising billboards plaster the sides of buildings, and rain pours down out of the perpetual night sky overhead. Zooming in for a closer look is a frequent temptation, though on closer inspection you start to see a few rough edges – lack of detail on the character models, some rough textures.
Most of the gameplay also isn’t in there yet. You’re free to wander around the map and use your abilities – following a relatively smooth linear tutorial; but so much of the underlying gameplay hasn’t been built yet, with the small selection of placeholder missions amounting to simply infiltration jobs. So much of Satellite Reign is still a largely unknown quantity then, and still a long way out of reach; but what is playable is a good demonstration that the team is more than up to the task, so long as they keep their eye on the ball and the scope of the game in check. The last thing I want to see is yet another high-profile tale of a small developer letting its ambitious gameplay aspirations get the better of it. But there’s no sign that 5 Lives is in any danger of that happening.
Sound at the moment is sparse, as is to be expected. A smattering of atmospheric effects lend character to the city, weapons feel meaty, and a great soundtrack layer on a sense of foreboding. The sound of the rain falling is a constant companion, as are sirens in the distance and the sound of people shouting in a foreign language in the streets, though there’s a slight disconnect between what you hear sometimes and what you see on the screen. Thunder rumbles, but lightning doesn’t flash – which is a shame, considering the lighting engine is absolutely fantastic.
My main bugbear at the moment is the UI, which currently feels a bit unwieldy, with icons being far too small and text being difficult to make out without sticking your face close to the screen. After one prolonged session I found myself suffering from a rather unpleasant case of eye strain, and the problem only gets worse as you increase the resolution, suggesting that proper UI scaling is yet to be implemented. The UI has evolved a few times since the early Backers’ version of the game, and it’s clear that Diskett and his team are still trying to nail down the best interface.
Of course there are the usual bugs, placeholders and crashes. Satellite Reign is a lot more stable than it once was, but as with any game at this stage of the development process, you can expect plenty of technical issues. The launcher sometimes stops responding, and while gameplay is seamless once you’re in the city, the initial loading time could do with a bit of optimization. Put up with the normal foibles associated with playing a game that’s still in active development though, and there’s a lot of fun to be had simply trying out new approaches and navigating the city.
5 Lives clearly wanted to nail the basics of gameplay before optimizing the core tech underpinning everything, and with the team currently transitioning the game to Unity Engine 5, I have my fingers crossed that the final game will be polished, satisfying and suitably expansive.
Based on what I’ve played so far, I can’t wait to get my hands on the finished game.