Thanks to Kickstarter, more and more classic games are getting resurrected with spiritual successors, with or without the involvement of the original developers. War for the Overworld gave long-suffering Dungeon Keeper fans the game they’ve long cried out for but never received; Mighty No. 9 (if it’s ever released) is a resurrection of Capcom’s classic Mega Man in all but name; and Sublevel Zero looks like it could be a great return to the vomit-inducing gameplay of Descent.
Satellite Reign – named after a superweapon from Syndicate Wars – is aiming to do the same, this time taking Bullfrog’s seminal Syndicate as its starting point. But more than merely a modern-day retread, Satellite Reign – developed by small indie outfit 5 Lives Studios and headed up by Syndicate Wars’ lead designer Mike Diskett – introduces a number of elements to flesh out the relatively simple gameplay mechanics of the early-90’s isometric action game. When Dale previewed the game a while back he was impressed, though it was difficult to gauge at the time just how well the whole thing would come together due to a lack of implemented content at the time. Now that Satellite Reign is out, we’re finally able to get a full look at Mike Diskett’s vision of what a modern Syndicate game might look like.
Cyberpunk is all about futuristic dystopias and the seemingly unassailable might of mega corporations, and Satellite Reign attempts to place that center stage right from the start with the need to choose a logo for your fledgling corporation. I picked something suspiciously close to an Illuminati pyramid, feeling that it suited the paranoid world in which Satellite Reign is set. A brief introduction sets the scene: a corporation called Dracogenics has created Res-Tech, essentially life after death – or, more conveniently, a handy explanation for why your agents respawn moments after being gunned down. With a near-monopoly on this tech, Dracogenics owns everything: the law enforcement agencies, the banks, even the city itself. And, as big corporations are wont to do, they react badly to any attempt to weaken their stranglehold.
This is where you come in, guiding a small group of four agents around the city in an effort to topple the almighty corporation by any means possible. The tutorial is brief but effective, introducing you to three of your four agents: the Solider, the Hacker and the Support. All the basics are covered. Once you complete the tutorial, the city really opens up. Civilians cover the streets and armed patrols scour about keeping order. Zooming out really gives you an indication of just how big and detailed the areas in Satellite Reign are, and as a fan of cyberpunk I have to say I found it intoxicating. 5 Lives has really nailed the neon-soaked, rain-slicked atmosphere that’s come to define the genre ever since Blade Runner was released in cinemas.
The influence of Syndicate is also immediately apparent, and while it looks and often feels like its predecessor, developer 5 Lives isn’t living in the past. The developer may have Kickstarted Satellite Reign as a spiritual successor to Bullfrog’s classic, but 5 Lives Studios has built on the original template laid down by Syndicate and created something more akin to XCom, or the classic Commandos.
Once you’re into the game proper, you’ll find yourself prompted to head to police headquarters and rescue your fourth agent, the Infiltrator. But despite the game’s seeming
insistence, there’s no actual pressure to do so. The Infiltrator is certainly useful to have – and the sooner you pick him up, the sooner you’ll be able to get on with business; but if you want to get your bearings, you can happily explore the city for a bit first, finding new objectives, missions and placing relay beacons – which effectively work as respawn points. There are all sorts of opportunities dotted around the open map for you to find, providing plenty of options with which to start working towards your goal. I was eager to get my hand on my fourth agent though, so I headed straight to the police headquarters.
Approaching the base, I decided to take the stealthy approach, bribing one of the officers on patrol, I found a side entrance into the base that wasn’t as heavily monitored. I
stealthed in, executed a few stealth kills with my solider and recovered my infiltrator out of the compound before the guards even noticed I was there. But on my way out, I was spotted. The alert function in Satellite Reign is a simple indicator of how much trouble you’re in, represented by a numerical score. Alert level 1 is fairly easy to deal with: avoid any guards for a while, and they’ll soon get bored and give up their pursuit. Reach level 4, however, and you’ll find yourself being chased down the streets by giant robot spiders.
This leads to a pet peeve of mine: your agents don’t exactly blend in with the civilians around them. On the contrary, they look like they just walked out of a bar in TRON. And although they’re decked out with all sorts of equipment, at alert level 0 the guards won’t give them a second glance.
Sure, you might not be openly wielding your guns – but a group of 4 sinister-looking men walking around in trenchcoats, who match the description of the men who also raided a facility just 20 minutes prior? Ok, yes, video games and all that; but the AI suffers from short-term memory, and the result is that you never quite feel as though your actions have a lasting effect on the world around you. Satellite Reign‘s open world feels more like a series of stitched-together encounters that just happen to occur in the same space, rather than being a space where you can create a ripple effect of emergent chaos.
The leveling up in Satellite Reign is all done via a xp to skill points system, while simple enough some planning and foresight has to go into your skill point placement. One of the greatest accomplishments of the game is the encouragement to roam.
While nothing is compulsory, hacking ATM’s increases your cash flow, bribing individuals leads to increase in research and easier access in missions, it’s all lending to rewarding the player for doing more, while not punishing the player that wants to do less. For instance I raided a security compound, stealth killing all the guards and turning off the cameras for a limited time, I entered the control room and scrambled the camera feeds, making all the cameras in the area feed back to the security forces 50% slower.
Satellite Reign is a game about creating the stories as you play as much as playing through the story, but right now some erratic AI, lack of consequence, and the feeling that your actions don’t have any meaningful effect on the world around you means it falls short of offering the kind of freeform emergent storytelling seen in more capable sandbox gaming experiences like Metal Gear Solid 5 and Grand Theft Auto.
Overall Satellite Reign is a refreshing and enjoyable play, and although there is the occasional factor that infringes on immersion and the occasional AI hiccup, 5 Lives has said it’s committed to esponding to the community and improving the game. There’s plenty of potential for Satellite Reign to become something great in the future, but it’s not quite there yet. Despite this, it still offers plenty of fun and layers on the cyberpunk atmosphere thick enough to delight fans of the genre.