Satellite Reign: Microsoft Windows [Reviewed], GNU/Linux, Mac OS
Developer: 5 Lives Studios
Publisher: 5 Lives Studios
Release Date: 28 August 2015
Price: £22.89 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Developer/Publisher]
The cyberpunk near-future is borderline dystopian. Militarized police forces roam the streets, rampant commercialism has flooded the night with neon and it never stops raining. Welcome to Satellite Reign. It comes from the mind of (among others, of course) Mike Diskett, currently of 5 Lives Studios, formerly of the now-defunct Bullfrog and the not-so-defunct Rockstar North. Among Mike’s former projects at Bullfrog was the cult classic Syndicate series, to which Satellite Reign is a spiritual successor. It is evocative not only of Syndicate’s gritty cyberpunk dystopia, but also of Deus Ex and Ridley Scott’s seminal film Blade Runner and that already had me all sorts of tingly. The game was crowdfunded in 2013, hit Early Access in 2014 and was launched a scant few days ago as of this writing. I’ve spent several evenings playing it and now I’m back to tell you what’s what.
Satellite Reign, some stay dry and others feel the pain
The year is The Future and most of The City is controlled by a megacorporation named Dracogenics, because in the future evil corporations have officially stopped trying. Dracogenics has fairly recently come into possession of revolutionary cloning technology Res-Gen, whose benefits they hand out discretely to the rich and powerful, presumably for a hefty profit. Your company aims to steal Res-Gen from them for reasons. We’ll talk more about the story and narrative later on, but I’ve sat through enough drawn-out exposition in my day to feel relieved by Satellite Reign‘s minimalist approach: This is you, this is the bad guy, get the McGuffin. OK!
You are handed command over a squad of four agents, each with their own class and skill set. Their names, thankfully, are self-explanatory: the Soldier, the Support, the Hacker and the Infiltrator. The game takes you through a short tutorial course, gives you your main mission as described above and throws you head-first out of the nest and into the city’s perpetual rainy neon-lit night. The game world is open and isn’t segmented into “missions”. Rather, there are waypoints, terminals, civilians and various guarded compounds that serve as objectives. I would be lying if I said the “level” design didn’t remind me a lot of Assassin’s Creed, down to the objective markers and restricted areas.
In each district of the city you have the option to pursue a series of secondary objectives, some of which will bolster your effectiveness or lower the authorities’ within the district, while others unlock checkpoints and a steady trickle of cash. Most of the missions take place in the aforementioned restricted areas that are heavily guarded patrolled by enforcers, droids, turrets and cameras. The objective is usually infiltrating a facility to which there are several paths. I was fairly impressed with how eager Satellite Reign was to cater to various play styles. The many objects and walls in the game serve as cover both in combat and stealth.
Furthermore, there are often times multiple ways to open a gate or disable a camera: using your Soldier to hardwire generators, which disables them completely; using your hacker to temporarily make them consider you friendly; or just plain-old shooting at them until they explode. Generators and terminals are rarely immediately adjacent to what they’re hooked up to. This is where the Support’s worldscan ability comes in. It shows you a wireframe of your surroundings, including who is potentially hostile and what is hooked up where. Your crew members also come with a stamina bar that functions both as a fatigue meter and “mana” for use with active abilities, making managing it at later stages integral to their survival.
Failing a stealthy approach, there is always combat, which in my opinion could use a bit more tweaking. Anything but the easiest of hostile areas are incredibly difficult or tedious to clear using your starting equipment (more on upgrading your gear in a bit, stay tuned!), as enemies have two or three health bars (or layers of defense, rather) and seem to reinforce faster than you can dispatch them. Triggering an alarm essentially makes the mission difficulty spike until you manage to hide for a while, which paradoxically is sometimes easier than you feel it should be, or leave the area entirely and wait for the alarm to cool down and for the reinforcements to decide to return to their barracks.
The fact that combat is completely real-time means that the gameplay tends to be more twitch-based than strategic and it leaves little room for sophistication. Sure, the Support has an ability that “slows down time” temporarily and somewhat mitigates this, but I can’t shake the feeling that having the option to pause the game and issue commands would have made it incredibly tactical. It’s a real shame, seeing that once you level up your squad for a bit they gain access to many interesting abilities and the number of options you have in combat increases, but you’re reduced to fumbling for them.
The AI is interesting, at least. Enemies and civilians don’t use scripts, as much as they use behaviors to decide what to do. Drones patrol the levels, attacking enemies, but if they come across an unpowered door (because maybe someone, I couldn’t tell you whom, switched off a generator somewhere), it will attempt to open it and leave it open so that guards can patrol the area. Also, an interesting little quirk is that the law enforcement doesn’t like you standing next to dead bodies and will warn and shoot you if they find you doing it, but they do the same if they see a civilian standing next to someone that you murdered. This sometimes creates useful diversions, coupled with the fact that your Hacker can hijack the neural implants of a person and offer you temporary control over them. Other times, you might also accidentally start a gang war, like I’ve done between Dracogenics and the Russian Mafia-run company UzyCorp.
Cash & Clones
I mentioned gear and upgrades a while back. Your agents start off with fairly basic gear: a pistol, a submachine gun and a blueprint for a silencer. Being a stealth fan myself, I immediately invested my starting cash in these silencers and quickly found myself a bit short on funds. Every district has a number of ATM’s that you can hack for a slow but steady income. You can also infiltrate the district bank with your hacker to improve this flow, or your soldier for a large one-time payout. Each facility you infiltrate grants you an amount of cash, which takes a while to replenish and a handful of prototypes the first time you infiltrate as part of a mission. Prototypes serve as either unique items for your crew to use and lose upon death, or you can invest in research to mass-produce them later.
Researches can either be on your own staff (you find them walking through the city and “bribe” them to join you) or outsourced, which is more expensive. And here we come to the greatest caveat pertaining to gear and research: For a considerable length of the game (lasted me well into the second district), researching everything you find will drain your money much faster than you earn it. This means that you have to choose between buying gear, researching better equipment or resurrecting your fallen squad members for a price on the battlefield as opposed to for free at a checkpoint. Of course, you can always go back to a facility and rob it again, but that just feels too much like grinding and I feel that it’s a real pity to waste time in such a rare occurrence in gaming as Satellite Reign by grinding for epic l00tz.
Your agents, thankfully, don’t seem to lose any non-prototype equipment upon death. They come freshly cloned with all of their weapons, items and cybernetic augmentation. You are not granted the option to actually create your characters at the start of the game, but later you gain the ability to simply walk the streets of the city, look at civilians as if they’re mere pieces of meat, point at one and say “That one!” and you’ll suddenly be able to apply the appearance of that person (and its ability bonuses) to one or more of your agents. This was, at first glance, a great option; allowing you to customize and specialize your squad, but after finding out that those bonuses slowly degrade each time you switch a clone or it dies, so I haven’t used it much for the rest of the game. Finding out these facts: that the combat is poorly balanced and the financial aspect leaves a lot to be desired, I played Satellite Reign primarily with the Infiltrator. I haven’t mentioned her much above and for good reason. Sure, the Soldier may tank well, the Support may be a good healer and buffer and the Hacker is a master of accessing the inaccessible, but the Infiltrator? Let me tell you about the Infiltrator.
The Infiltrator is a master of stealth. She starts out with “only” the ability to cloak and later unlocks a melee attack as well as ziplining and climbing abilities. Soon she was able to essentially dominate the entire compound, moving from cover to cover completely unseen, eliminate enemies one at a time using either her katana or a silent shot to the back of the head. You can wait by a door for a patrolling guard to activate it, then cloak and dart past. At one point I was enjoying the Infiltrator so much that I decided to try and complete a mission using her exclusively. This was easily achieved right up to where something hooked up to to a generator was in my way. Now I could have easily just tried to hardwire the generator in spite of her being the inappropriate class for this and risk failure, but I decided to test the limits of the game and slowly chipped away at the machine with silenced sniper shots until I was treated to a gorgeous explosion and then strolled, invisible, past the panicked guards that were investigating the debris. Pure unadulterated bliss.
Neons and Synthesizers
Satellite Reign‘s art style looks and sounds amazing. It’s pretty to look at and great to listen to. I actually spent some time walking the dirty streets, staring at the ads, lights and holographic trees and listening to the moody soundtrack simply because I wanted to. It is, however, fairly demanding for an isometric title, but I feel that the sheer scale of the map and the level of detail fully justify it. It doesn’t seem to have any loading times to speak of, because it takes a while to boot up and I suspect it loads everything it needs there and then. The developers have bragged that this is the largest environment ever created in Unity and looking at it…yeah, sure. I believe it. One small nitpick about the sound design (which is very good otherwise) is that the gunshot sounds seem to be louder than everything else, prompting me to turn down my speakers every time I got into a firefight.
I’ve already given you my opinion on the combat and gameplay so let’s talk a bit about the story. Borrowing from Assassin’s Creed in terms of design seems to come with some of the same failings. The story is that you have to get the McGuffin. That’s it. At least, that’s it in terms of “a quest”. However, the city holds its own many and complex stories. There are several factions vying for control and each have a few persons of interest that seem to come up a lot in various message logs that you uncover by hacking optional terminals scattered across the city.
If you’re patient and you like reading, you can slowly piece together puzzles, conspiracies and personal dramas, but you might also just say “I’ll read them later” and keep on playing. Yeah, sure. You’ll read them later. Just like all those Codex entries on historical landmarks from Assassin’s Creed, right? And that’s the problem I have with it. It’s not that it needs a story the scale of Deus Ex or anything, it’s just that it might have benefited from something with more depth. As it stands, this might not have been the cyberpunk noir that I’ve been waiting for, but it’s definitely a worthy successor to the Syndicate series.