“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” ― William Gibson
It was this opening quote from the novel Neuromancer that shaped my imagination for many years to come. William Gibson’s description of a world where corporations rule, and the citizenry enjoy a melange of cybernetic augmentations that serve both convenience and combat. The “normals” that roam the streets are held under tight oppression by a fully-militarized police force, and an unlikely misfit few had the wherewithal to fight for something better. As an adult, I see some of what Gibson had predicted coming to pass in the real world, but I never lost my love for the soft buzzing of cyberpunk. With one look at Satellite Reign, it’s clear the team at 5 Lives Studios feel the same way.
Satellite Reign is the spiritual successor to Syndicate. Depending if you are an old guy like me or not, you may or may not have played the original title or its sequel, Syndicate Wars, on the PC back in 1993. While there was an EA-powered reboot for the series in 2012 (you can read our review here), it turned the series into a first-person shooter, eschewing all of the tactical roots of its Bullfrog-powered origins. The team at 5 Lives Studios have worked on titles like Grand Theft Auto IV, Darksiders II, Star Wars properties, and yes…the original Syndicate. If there was a team you’d want to create a spiritual successor, this team of five would be the crew to do it.
“Southern California doesn’t know whether to bustle or just strangle itself on the spot.”
― Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
The overall story of Satellite Reign is a simple one. Mega-corporations have seized control of the world government, and full-blown class warfare is rampant and enforced by corporate police. If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s essentially the same concept as Syndicate. Corporations are sweeping up the poor and using them for parts, giving the rich nearly endless life. What’s sad is that this is done in full view of the public, and that’s only the tip of the despicable behavior. You serve as the leader of a new Syndicate bent on changing the power structure of the city, but everything you do after that is up to you.
Satellite Reign stands alone in terms of gameplay. It is built on Unity, and from a screenshot you might think it’s a turn-based tactical game. In fact, the game is a squad-based real-time tactical combat sim, but that’s not entirely accurate either. The game drops you into an open world and gives you free reign to make decisions as you see fit. You’ll be given some threads to yank on, but other than the opening bit of content, there is nothing constraining you to tackling it in any specific order.
When you do find a mission you’d like to tackle, whether it be side or main, the game really opens up. Your crew is composed of four character classes — Soldier, Support, Infiltrator, and Hacker. Each has specific skills that open opportunities beyond simply assaulting the front door. Your Support soldier can use world scan to unveil the connectivity of the area, and then your Hacker can pop a nearby security panel. If you prefer a more direct approach, your Soldier can tinker with the hardwire and knock out power to all of the cameras. If misdirection is your game, the Hacker can tinker with the neural implants of other citizens, allowing you to march them into danger on your team’s behalf. Distance wetwork and leaping into high vents to create alternate paths is the purview of your Infiltrator, but even in all of this there are options.
There are seven to eight skills for your crew to upgrade. This can make them more effective with their firearms, give them access to remote control drones, allow them to unleash vicious melee attacks, or even temporarily cloak themselves from view. Each of these options can drastically change your playstyle. A hardened team with the right weapons might see the front door as the simplest path. A skilled stealthy infiltration team might assassinate their foes using silenced weapons, or break in without leaving a trace. Better than those two options, you can also grease palms of the locals to gain information about less-guarded entrances, bribe guards to get codes for a closer door, or steal pass badges to bypass otherwise-locked access points. Which missions you tackle and how you tackle them are entirely up to you.
If there is one thing that is true in life, and will remain true even in a dystopian cyberpunk future, money rules the world. If you recover a weapon prototype, it’ll cost money to research to be able to replicate it. If you want to bribe a guard, you’ll need cash to do so. Implants, silencers, and new weapons all cost money. Thankfully, cash can be acquired a number of ways. The lowest risk option is to install an auto-siphon on ATMs that yield “rounding error” levels of money, but knocking over a bank for a big score isn’t outside the realm of possibility either.
Death is going to happen, but with cloning technology you can turn your demise into advantage. Scanning and tagging unsuspecting meat-puppet civilians reveals their specific attributes like additional health or regeneration, as examples, allowing you to absorb those when you download your likeness into their body. Like photocopying, each subsequent cloning procedure will reduce those bonuses, degrading the clones at each death.
“He is an electric ghost painted in the colours of a dead moment.”
― Joseph MacKinnon, Cypulchre
Combat and ingenuity rest at the heart of Satellite Reign. The game’s isometric view is reminiscent of the original, giving you a bird’s eye view of the action. The level of detail is obviously an order of magnitude higher, but it’s what’s underneath that neon-candy gloss that counts. Part XCOM, part Commandos, and part Crusader, the real-time combat allows you to place your combat crew behind cover, dash using their limited stamina/power gauge, and create ambush points as you see fit. Placing an Infiltrator with a silenced sniper rifle into an elevated position creates a long-distance and lethal overwatch for your operation. Upgrading their damage and distance gives your team incredible advantages, allowing your ground crew to use their special skills to flank, ambush, and otherwise outmaneuver your foes.
If only it worked as well as I’ve described.
The combat, and movement in general, in Satellite Reign suffers under the weight of the pathfinding AI. That cloaked Infiltrator with suppressed pistol you wanted to move into position to silently take down a foe is as likely to step directly in front of them, weapon drawn, and attract a never-ending stream of guards to shoot them in the face. Characters, friend and foe alike, routinely get stuck on the environment, making you wonder where one of your crew has gotten off to this time. On more than one occasion I simply walked past the enemy as they’d become obsessed with a nearby corner, headbutting it as I raided the corporate HQ they were tasked with guarding. This extends to team AI as well, as every once in a while your crew will cut through the most dangerous path rather than the ‘back entrance’ path you might have wanted them to take.
When the AI is on, however, you can expect to suffer. If you have put yourself in the middle of the environment and haven’t taken cover, the AI will swarm, flank you, call for reinforcements, push you into killboxes, and otherwise overwhelm your team. Your soldiers will eventually be fairly unstoppable, but the second you relax you might find yourself exploring the respawn system without warning.
All of that said, there is a pull with Satellite Reign. If you aren’t actively playing it, it pulls you in and makes you think of how you might tackle the next stronghold or objective differently than before. While the storyline may be purposely vague to allow you to craft your own narrative, the ability to tackle that narrative in quite a few ways makes it amazing.
“I think they are a better race than humans ever were.”
― Angelo Tsanatelis, Directive 3.1
Speaking of brightest, Satellite Reign game has some of the most incredible lighting and explosion effects that I’ve seen in any indie game, and easily trumps quite a few AAA titles as well! The world is a neon cacophony of colors, coughing its soft, and somehow dirty, light into the streets below. Yellow lights cast their eerie glow, showcasing the incredible rain and particle effects. Everything else aside, this game is damned pretty.
The team at 5 Lives Studios pulled off something amazing that few other games get right – the atmosphere. The sleepless rain-soaked neon world is seamless as well. You can walk from the safety of the streets directly into assaulting a corporate safe haven without a load or transition of any kind, other than a suddenly restricted save function — you can only save when it’s safe and you aren’t in a stronghold. As a consequence, when you enter a building you’ll get a simple text pop-up of what happened inside. It doesn’t detract, instead enticing your imagination while igniting an immediate need to safely escape, lest you leave your precious spoils on the ground should you die. When the controls cooperate, it’s in these moments that the game shines its brightest.
The world of Satellite Reign is alive with people, vehicles, food stands, advertisements, and more. Unfortunately, very little of it means more than a barrier to your team’s attempts to ransack every corporate entity in the game. You’ll learn things from bribes, but otherwise there’s little in the way of conversations or interactions with NPC. Sure, they’ll run screaming if you pull your weapons in the streets, but they are otherwise just non-interactive meatbags.
I was surprised in the lack of customization for the crew. While you can pick and choose the weapons and mods, augments (head, body, arms, and legs), and color choices for your super soldiers, you can’t otherwise customize them. You can inspect people running around in the environment and hijack them as clones when you find one you like, but you’ll always be dressed like a reject from The Matrix. You can’t change their clothes, hairstyle, race, name, sex, or anything else that makes you care about the character. Couple that with the clone system that removes anything in the way of penalty and you start to see your crew as meat-popsicle archetypes you throw into the bullet-grinder without consequence.
“The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” — William Gibson
If there is one thing that surprised me quite a bit, it’s the sheer magnitude of this Satellite Reign. The massive downtown area is just one of the four major hubs, with a fifth smaller area hanging in the wings. The massive play space is filled with subtle nods to other games, both new and old. For example, Hertzog and Zwei Streets intersect, referencing an early Sega RTS that predated genre-defining Dune II by three years. You’ll also see clear influences from Blade Runner, The Matrix, Neuromancer, and other cyberpunk games and media. Each area feels different as well – I just wish the citizens were more than mobile clone meat.
The camera system in Satellite Reign is one thing that remained the same from the original release. It’s isometric, but unlike other Unity-based cyberpunk games you might think of, you can’t rotate the camera. You can tilt it about 45 degrees to the left or right, but you can’t spin it around for a better tactical view. It also tends to sway back and forth, undulating and keeping the world in motion. It’s clearly an aesthetic choice made to show the game in the best possible angles. Thankfully it doesn’t get in the way, but it may be a turnoff for some players.
Satellite Reign is an incredible successor to Syndicate that gets more right than not. Where it falls down on bugs and control issues, it shines brightly in aesthetics and fantastic combat mechanics.