Satellite Reign Review
Reviewed on PC
The goal: Infiltrate the bank’s systems by hacking through their security from within their headquarters and uploading a virus that syphons off tiny amounts from transactions into our account.
The plan: The support agent will need to scan the surrounding area and track down a guard with clearance to enter the bank’s perimeter. Once located the hacker will need to ‘persuade’ the guard’s neural chip and bring him under control; if necessary the soldier will need to silently and efficiently eliminate any witnesses. The guard, now under our control, will need open up the gate security, followed closely by our infiltrator agent, cloaked to avoid the vision of the cameras. If we time this right, the infiltrator should be able to avoid all detection and reach the security systems before the cloaking system runs out of energy. Using the neural link to the hacker we can disable the cameras, allowing the rest of the team to enter the compound. Once inside, the soldier must trash the power systems to disable the charge going through the overhead power lines. This should give enough time for the hacker to use the recently fitted leg augmentations to jump into the ventilations systems, climb to the top of the nearby building and zip-line on the cables to the bank’s front entrance, swiftly entering unseen to install the virus.
Only it never quite works out like that. Satellite Reign is unmistakably a loving tribute to Syndicate and its sequel Syndicate Wars, the Bullfrog classics from over two decades ago, right down to its almost identical laser printed opening screen, instantly evoking nostalgia for that bygone (and yet constantly regurgitated at present) era of gaming. Created by 5-Lives Studios, after a successful Kickstarter, the team includes veteran Mike Diskett (lead designer for Syndicate Wars) and as such their intentions are clear. Just as with its spiritual predecessors, the player takes control of four agents who are tasked with usurping an oppressive authoritarian government, dominated by greedy corporations, in a dark dystopian cyberpunk-infused future.
Leading these agents in real-time, from the safety of a satellite view, the player must combine the unique skills of the soldier, support, hacker and infiltrator to circumvent or simply obliterate all in their way to reach the goal of each mission. Such missions are accessed in an open-world structure, allowing the player to pick and choose how they wish to proceed, parading around the city deciding which company to destabilize next, perhaps by stealing prototypes to research later or eliminating key personnel.
With the control of four separate and unique agents, Satellite Reign incorporates elements of another nineties classic: Commandos, only fortunately it is never quite as brutal or as crushingly unfair. It is also far more malleable. Unlike the more linear puzzle-like situations that Commandos often presents, the layout of each area in Satellite Reign allows for multiple options at all times. Take the opening example. While the plan seems elaborate and almost beautiful in its conception, pulling it off is far from easy. Bad timing, a guard straying from their patrol, a camera attached to a separate security system, or any of a large array of unpredictable occurrences can cause that original stealthy approach to fail. Once the alarm is raised events quickly spiral out of control, as soldiers and gun-drones pour out from nearby buildings. Retreat is possible, disappearing from the compound and into the dark streets, waiting for things to cool down, but far more entertaining is to retaliate. Guns raised, your units can attempt to eliminate hostiles and reach their goal by force instead, lining up the bodies as they go.
With this interesting duality between stealth and force, Satellite Reign also unveils another cyberpunk dystopian inspiration: Deus Ex. Only you’re in control of four agents from an overhead perspective. Add in the skillpoint RPG system which allows the player to focus on improving either side of this duality, by perhaps allowing the agent to carry more guns or instead being able to cloak for longer periods of time, and this inspiration becomes even more apparent.
Only the Deus Ex series has something that Satellite Reign completely fails to understand. Immersion, morality and the repercussions of one’s actions. In Deus Ex one can agonise over killing, wondering which action might be considered ‘right’, yet in Satellite Reign no matter how you approach a mission, if you get your men to their goal then that is all that matters. You will receive the same completion text and rewards either way. In the end it all feels rather lacklustre, unconvincing and repetitive, and this is something that runs right down to Satellite Reign’s core.
Take the mission structure for example. Every single mission, almost without exception, is simply to get one agent into a building within a secure compound. Sure, sometimes you might have to sneak a civilian, whose brain you’ve hijacked, in but the concept is almost identical. As such almost every task merges into one unmemorable, although admittedly very entertaining, experience. There are no set pieces, no drama, no shocks - something even Syndicate two decades ago created. Instead you get your men in, and then you get them out again, sometimes without raising a single alarm, sometimes through a pile of smashed cameras, drone carcasses and bullet-ridden corpses.
Similarly the text that is spammed out in the mission control area explaining why you might be breaking into these corporations’ headquarters feels rushed and at times rather juvenile, almost as if they are placeholders for full audio that only a fraction of the main missions seem to include. Since often there are dozens of missions available to complete it is easy to completely ignore them and simply hunt out the pings on the minimap as you would in Skyrim perhaps, not really understanding why you’re heading in that direction until you’ve already reached the destination. The text simply does not immerse the player in the rather wonderful, if perhaps overly familiar, sci-fi concept behind the game with its grand and corrupt corporations holding complete power of the people with neuro-chips and resurrection machines.
Much the same can be said about the open-world city that Satellite Reign is set within. It may look quite stunning. with its lurid fake neon trees shining down on to dank grimy side streets hinting perhaps at the disparity between the rich and the poor, but no area in particular stands out. It’s a mess of repetitive buildings and streets and even after tens of hours staring down upon it, it is hard to recall one single memorable location. Even the four districts that split the game up and create an obvious sense of progression fail to really distinguish themselves. Sure there are probably more neon lights and less market stalls in the final central business district area, but you do not get the impression that the rich people who live there are any better off, even as the text on the screen that appears as you scan them tells you so.
There is also a large variety of bugs. This is quite common for a game of this scale produced by a small studio, especially following a Kickstarter and early access schedule, but you cannot help noticing as cars (which you sadly cannot drive, something that, bizarrely, was possible in the now ancient Syndicate Wars) pile up on top of each other and get stuck, or units get trapped inside closing gates. The AI of the enemy also suffers, often running towards your troops who are hiding in cover with a pile of bodies in front of them. Even more strangely they will often give up the chase after only a minute, with a shrug of the shoulders as if to say there’s no need to track down those renegades who have trashed our headquarters and killed half our security team.
All of which is a shame because Satellite Reign is extremely fun to just play. All those systems that are interwoven on top of each other, bypassing guards with zip lines or vent systems, the hacking of terminals to open gates, depower camera systems or even turn sentry turrets against their masters, persuading guards or drones to join your cause or even go crazy by hijacking their neural chips, makes each mission attempt fresh - even if the goal is always the same. That plan stated at the very beginning was all created on the spot - the game never explicitly made clear that a brainwashed guard would be able to open up the gates without raising the alarm or that a cloaked agent would nimbly be able to follow. Pulling off that move felt spectacular, until a few moments later when a fatal misclick caused it all to devolve into explosive warfare.
The action section of the game compares rather favourably to Syndicate, where agents would placidly pull the trigger at their enemies and watch as their health collapses to zero. Satellite Reign incorporates a cover system, enabling units to hide from and flank their enemies, sniper points where the infiltrator can nest, eliminating foes from on high, as well as a huge array of skills that can turn the tide of the battle. Hacking soldiers’ neural chips mid-fight to force them to turn and shoot their own is always amusing, as well as the vicious blade the infiltrator carries which can instantly down a guard, even while cloaked. All the skills, augmentations and items that pile up towards the end of the game enable a wealth of combos that the player can develop themselves to overcome any situation, although it does have an issue (especially considering the rather lacking AI) of making the difficulty curve fizzle out in the later stages.
Satellite Reign is a fantastic sandbox for this kind of experimentation. Another way to open that gate without making a sound? Toss a sound dampening grenade in first and that barricade will collapse in silence, then use a silenced rifle to take down the cameras. Sure some guards might come to investigate the broken wreckage, but you could always persuade them one way or the other to be silent. It is just a shame that this brilliant framework is not backed up by a richer environment. It is screaming for more involving missions, plots and choices to make you feel like this is a game from this millennium rather than a mere tribute to those from the previous. It certainly does a superb job of revitalising Syndicate for this generation, but it feels like it could be so much more.