It’s a fact fairly well documented on this blog that I like Syndicate. Bullfrog’s little slice of unrestrained corporate mayhem is timeless in my eyes, and so when the Satellite Reign Kickstarter popped up a couple of years back it immediately caught my interest for being made by some ex-Bullfrog staff and for being marketed as a spiritual successor to Syndicate. We could certainly do with one, because while the Starbreeze Syndicate FPS had a few unexpected redeeming features it was at best extremely average and not at all what Syndicate was about. Satellite Reign at least preserves the series’ top-down isometric perspective and four-man (or woman) team of agents, so it’s already a better stab at recapturing the old magic than Starbreeze managed. That’s a very low bar to clear, however; they might be going about it the right way, but is this modern attempt to resurrect Syndicate any good?
I have a feeling that this review is going to descend into complaining and nitpicking pretty quickly. (Most of my reviews do, to be fair.) So I would like to get one thing out of the way before we start: Satellite Reign is a game with a *lot* of problems. Some of them are design problems. Some of them are thematic problems. Some of them are technical problems. Some of them are just plain bugs – this is another game that has come out of Early Access several months too early, presumably because the developers were running out of money. Despite all of these many annoyances, though, I’ve still put nearly fifteen hours into the thing over this bank holiday weekend. It’s increasingly rare that a game gets that kind of commitment out of me, and while you can chalk part of it up to the fact that I am a massive Syndicate fanboy it’s also impossible to deny that Satellite Reign gets at least as much right as it does wrong. And for game with as long a laundry list of problems as Satellite Reign, that is impressive.
So. It is the cyberpunk near-future, and the Dracogenics corporation has a vice-like grip on the unnamed City in which Satellite Reign is set thanks to its monopoly on resurrection technology (where dead people are simply downloaded into new bodies upon their demise – if you’ve ever read Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon series you’ll have a pretty good picture of how this works). You play the part of a shadowy competitor company who has inserted a group of four agents into the City with the objective of wresting control of the resurrection tech away from Dracogenics by any means necessary. To do this you need to acquire money, research new technology and weapons, and upgrade/skill up your agents to the point where they’re capable of making an assault on the Dracogenics HQ. To do all of those things you need to send your agents on various errands around the city to steal everything you need to progress, and because this is a game with Syndicate DNA these heists often involve violent shootouts with the teams of guards patrolling the compounds that you’re trying to infiltrate.
Only often, though. Much to its credit Satellite Reign isn’t interested in simply rebuilding Syndicate from the ground up, and does put a lot of effort in trying to evolve the idea while introducing new elements. In Syndicate combat was the only way forward; you could walk around with your weapons concealed for a little bit but sooner or later you’d be attacked by enemy agents and everything would start exploding. By contrast Satellite Reign does its best to offer you alternative methods to gain access to the secrets you’re supposed to steal – security systems you can hack to turn off or even convert to your side, power generators you can sabotage to cut power to automated defenses, and vents you can crawl through to shortcut a set of particularly nasty defenses. These alternative methods are often only available to a single member of your team, as each agent belongs to a particular class with a specific set of abilities that’ll take advantage of a specific subset of stuff, but if you use them effectively it’s sometimes possible to get your Infiltrator up to the vault without tripping any alarms or encountering any guards.
These non-combat routes are a welcome addition to the game, especially at the start when you don’t have any items or augmentations and fighting the guards is a dicey prospect because your agents are so fragile. Bypassing even one security checkpoint can make a given objective so much easier, and the alternate routes do play well with your agent classes. There’s the Soldier, who can carry heavy weapons towards the end of the game but whose main utility ability is Hardwiring doors and power generators to turn them on/off; the Hacker, who can hack security systems, deploy drones and Hijack a limited number of enemy personnel so that they’ll fight on your side (because no Syndicate game would be complete without a Persuadertron ability); the Infiltrator, who can cloak, access vents and use ziplines, and has a devastatingly powerful melee attack that is silent and can usually take out a guard in one hit; and finally the Support, who has access to a number of team buffing and healing abilities as well as the Scan view, which shows which systems are connected up to which power generators and gives you important clues as to what you can do with your environment.
I thought this class system worked really, really well. All of the agents have abilities that get used both in infiltration and in a fight, and all of these abilities are genuinely quite useful; everybody feels powerful and there’s nobody who gets stuck on the sidelines because their skillset is overbalanced towards one element or the other. On the other hand the system for unlocking skills is a bit janky, since your XP gain is never surfaced and so you can never figure out what precisely you are doing to level up, and skills are presented to you as a simple list where you can’t see the whole tree and only have visibility of what the next level will give you (which is why it’s taken me this long to unlock extra weapon slots for my agents – that’s a passive buried on level 3 of the Weapons skill branch and I wasn’t 100% on whether it was a skill or an upgrade that unlocked them). This makes it really, really difficult to plan the development of your agents because your brain is stuck in a short-term analysis of what you can immediately unlock instead of coming up with a long term build plan.
So the skill system is a little bit mixed, but mostly leans towards the “Great” end of the spectrum. Time to talk about something at the other end of the scale: the City environment, and the compounds you sneak/fight your way into. Satellite Reign isn’t broken up into a selection of discrete missions, but instead takes place in a (relatively) seamless open-world city inside which are placed all of the fortified encampments you must infiltrate. The City looks great. Seriously. I’m actually a little astounded an indie developer came up with a 3D environment that looks as good – and as varied – as Satellite Reign’s does. There’s animated billboards a la Blade Runner, loads of unique assets for shops, hotels and corporation logos, lashings and lashings of neon, and it’s all washed down with an omnipresent acid rain.
Unfortunately when it comes to the things the city contains – the people, the cars, the guards and the compounds — I have to be a lot more qualified with my praise. (Or rather, unqualified with my criticism.) The cars are an easy target; they’re non-interactive objects that exist so that there’s something to populate the roads – you can’t commandeer cars like you could in Syndicate and you (and your enemies) can’t be damaged by being hit by one either, and so they’re there entirely for the ambience. Which is why it’s puzzling that they’re animated so bloody terribly, going from 0 to 60 in about half a second, slowing down just as fast and cornering at full speed like they’re on rails. I don’t care if these are the magic self-driving cars of the future, they feel like placeholders the programmer threw in at the last moment with only the most rudimentary car-like behaviour – they don’t look or feel like cars should. The people I’m a little more forgiving on since Syndicate civilians have only ever existed to be gunned down in crossfire and so it’s sufficient for them to simply meander around randomly, but there’s these weird little interludes where they blunder into a secured area, the guards approach and apprehend them as they would with one of your agents — and then after five seconds the guard forgets they exist and they get up and walk off. It could have been a really nice atmospheric touch, but again it comes across as something half-baked that wasn’t integrated into the game properly.
Then you’ve got the guards and the compounds, which are the second-biggest thing wrong with Satellite Reign. In terms of abstract design, the guards are fine; there’s a pleasing variety of light guards, heavy guards, shielded guards, minigun guards etc. etc., packed in with sentry guns and security drones. Even when they’re not alerted, though, it’s clear there’s something not quite right with their behaviour as they do U-turns without actually turning (making it difficult if you’re trying to be stealthy and stay out of their vision cones) and often get stuck on pieces of scenery that happen to be blocking their patrol – a lot of the time this happens to be another guard, which is frustrating if they’ve gotten stuck right on your planned route into an enemy base. They can’t cope with doors, either, repeatedly running into and out of them ad infinitum until you take pity on them and shoot them to put them out of their misery.
It’s when the shooting starts that the guards really start to become erratic, though. There’s a rudimentary cover system in Satellite Reign that they’ll try to take advantage of, even if the nearest piece of cover happens to be the same one that your agents are sheltering behind. If there’s no nearby cover they’ll simply stop and unload their weapons in your general direction as soon as they’re in range and have line of sight, making it very easy to hit them with a grenade when they’re all clustered up. The only reason they’re any threat whatsoever is because even an individual unshielded unarmoured guard has buckets of hitpoints, and Satellite Reign isn’t shy about spawning dozens and dozens of them to ruin your day as soon as you make some noise. Most of the time there’s a fairly obvious cause-and-effect system going on here, as there are three types of events that will summon guards from the reinforcement closets scattered around the map: getting spotted by a camera (or shooting a camera), a guard or a drone that’s seen you calling in an alert, and setting off explosive items such as grenades and satchel charges.
I don’t have a problem with any of this. My problem is that there’s a random respawn system that works in tandem with this obvious noise = baddies system, and often it’ll spawn enemies behind you in an area you thought you’d already cleared, even though you made no noise whatsoever. Then when the firefight does actually start you end up getting attacked from two sides at once, which isn’t a good situation to be in even when you’re fully equipped; at the start of the game when you’re still finding your feet this often results in four dead agents. Satellite Reign’s adamant refusal to pretend that it isn’t just spawning guards out of nowhere to fight you is a serious issue that undoes much of the amazing work that’s been done on the visuals; the developers go to all this trouble of making a fantastic looking City and then populate it with this incredibly gamey respawn system that completely breaks any credibility it might have had as an actual, believable place.
Finally there’s the compounds. Every single one of Satellite Reign’s missions involves breaking into one of these compounds, which is a huge problem because every single one of these compounds is effectively the same. Oh, the game tries to change things up from time to time – each compound is littered with the alternative routes I mentioned earlier, and occasionally you’ll get a mission where you have to escort an NPC into/out of the compound, but ultimately it plays out identically: each compound is a restricted, walled-off, shoot-on-sight area with one or more ring of fortifications that are constantly patrolled by guards and drones. At the centre of the fortifications is a magic door. Your job is to get one of your agents (or the NPC) to the magic door. After they enter the magic door, they’ll steal some money and emerge with one or more technology prototypes in hand. Then you have to fight your way back out of the compound and back to a save point.
Satellite Reign tries to build flavour around the magic doors inside its compounds. This one is the main R&D facility for the Eternals, it says, and you’ll get some sweet shielding tech if you go inside! (The Eternals are purple guards who use lasers.) The Industrial district is the heart of Uzy Corp. (red guards, plasma guns) and if you hit their weapons manufacturing plant you’ll get prototype miniguns! The problem is this is all just words in the mission description. No matter what Satellite Reign says you’re doing, at the end of the day it will boil down to your agents shooting their way into a compound and entering a Magic Door to get some new tech for you to research. There is almost no variety; occasionally you get told to assassinate or bribe a random civilian but this is something you can accomplish in literally seconds, and so 90% of your time in Satellite Reign is spent skulking around compounds. Even robbing a bank is – you guessed it – blasting your way into a compound so that your Soldier can go through the Magic Door. It says they’re packing explosives to blast open the vault, but you don’t see any evidence of this when they go inside; they just go in and come back out again like they’re depositing a cheque. In Syndicate Wars you didn’t just blast open the vault, you demolished the entire bank with high explosives and picked the cash money out of the rubble.
This brings me on to possibly the thing I like least about Satellite Reign: its failure to attach an appropriate sense of scale and importance to your actions. Say what you like about Syndicate Wars, but that was a game that made you absolutely buy in to the idea that you had complete control over the resources of a futuristic global corporate entity. When you researched a new gun, you threw millions of dollars at it. When you fired that new gun, you could guarantee something suitably pyrotechnic would happen. When you installed augmentations on your agents, you got to see a nice CGI bionic limb go into their paper doll. If you replaced all their body parts with bionics their new metal skeleton would suddenly start breathing. And when you knocked over a bank, you sure as hell made sure everyone within a thirty block radius knew about it. It was a game that repeatedly reinforced that sense that you were chucking around weighty resources and that you were getting an appropriate payoff for using them.
Satellite Reign couldn’t be more different. Take your primary method of money acquisition, for example. Despite what I said earlier, it isn’t stealing money from banks and corporations via the Magic Door – this merely supplements your primary income, which is gained from money siphons your Hacker installs on ATMs dotted throughout the game. Let me say that again: your primary source of income in Satellite Reign is literally stealing money from cash machines. That’s something two guys with a pickup truck could do, and it’s not something that particularly makes me feel like I’m in control of a company with vast resources at my beck and call. Are they the cyberpunk equivalent of a tech startup that’s made up of a couple of guys “working” out of the local coffee shop? Have they ever heard of corporate finance? Seed capital? I guarantee you they’d get more money by walking in the front door of the bank and asking for a loan instead of hacking the sodding ATMs. Maybe then they could afford an actual R&D department that isn’t composed of seven random hobos you found on the street and slipped a couple of hundred bucks to to be part of your scrappy startup.
Research itself I don’t actually have that many complaints about (apart from the pathetic amounts of money involved); it takes place in real time as you carry out missions and is faster or slower based on the number of researchers/amount of cash you’re willing to invest. There’s no tech tree in Satellite Reign: instead, you can only research the weapon and equipment prototypes that you’ve pulled out of your compound assaults, which is your primary motivator for hitting them in the first place. At first glance it looks like there’s a decent range of weapons, but that’s just because they’re split out into three types: ballistic, lasers and plasma. Ballistic weapons are all-rounders, while plasma and lasers are particularly effective against armour and shields respectively. There’s plasma and laser versions of the standard assault rifle, plasma and laser miniguns, a plasma shotgun, plasma and laser pistols etc. etc., but what soon becomes apparent is that there are no explosive weapons in here. All of these guns fire bullets, or bullet equivalents. In fact the only moderately destructive item you’ll have access to for most of the game are the Fragmentation grenades you can unlock via the Soldier’s skill tree. This is staggeringly unimaginative. It’s not until about halfway through the game (later if you take a roundabout route like I did) that you get access to the Plasma Cannon, which is somewhat explodey, and satchel charges only unlock in the final area. I find this lack of decent toys tragically ironic for a game that’s named after a signature weapon in Syndicate Wars that involved using a targeting laser to drop hypervelocity tungsten rods from an orbiting satellite down onto your target’s head, which incidentally incinerated an extremely wide portion of the surrounding area.
(Satellite Reign misses another trick by having its bionic augmentations be simple stat/ability upgrades that fill in boxes on your agents’ stat sheets instead of being reflected visually in their appearance in any way. I’m not asking for them to do any expensive modification of 3D assets here, I just wanted something a little more significant than a tiny icon that the project artist knocked out in five minutes.)
I think the game’s reluctance to let you play with anything truly destructive is linked to two things. One is that the City is decidedly non-destructible; it looks great, but is 100% a collection of static, immutable objects. It’d be a bit dumb if you fired satellite weaponry at a building and it didn’t explode, and so I do sort of understand if they didn’t want to get as silly about it as Syndicate Wars did. That would be giving the developers the benefit of the doubt, however, as I suspect the real reason you’re not handed any explosives is because it would make combat absolutely trivial. Even the Soldier’s grenades – which only have a moderate radius and won’t kill anyone who isn’t a light guard unless you catch them right in the middle of the blast zone — are game-breakingly powerful because the guard AI loves to cluster up. Explosions knock guards prone, and when they’re prone they lose any cover bonuses they might have had, making it very easy to finish them off when they’re on the ground. Soldier grenades are at least limited; if you had anything more plentiful or with a wider blast radius you’d just blow everything up all the time.
Even now I’m not convinced that would be a bad thing, though, because as tough and numerous as they are the most difficult part of Satellite Reign’s combat isn’t fighting the guards, it’s fighting the bugs in the combat control and line-of-sight systems. As an example, when your agents are right next to guards they’ll hit them with a punchy melee attack instead of shooting them when you right click them. And when they are right next to guards this is fine. Unfortunately Satellite Reign has a very broad interpretation of the phrase “right next to” and chooses to believe this includes guards up to twenty feet away from the agent in question. If they’re not close enough to melee the guard they’ll leisurely jog out of cover to do it while the guard shoots them in the face.
I have a simple solution to this problem that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Satellite Reign developers: if, when the player right clicks on an enemy, the agent in question isn’t close enough to melee said enemy, just have them shoot the fucker instead. That’s probably what they want to do anyway. There’s also bugs where the game doesn’t register clicks on abilities, bugs where sometimes when you try and hide your squad behind a piece of cover it’ll decide to leave one facing in the opposite direction so that they can get shot in the back, bugs in the pathfinding when you use abilities such as the Infiltrator melee attack that result in the Infiltrator getting “lost” on the way to the guard you’ve targeted. Worse are the line-of-sight issues, where a guard will be behind cover shooting your agents while they unerringly guide their return fire into a lamppost that’s ten feet in front of them, or the poorly-communicated range of your weapons, which is sometimes shorter than those of the weapons the guards are using and which will result in them (again) gamely trotting out of cover to get into range, often weathering a storm of gunfire to do so. It’s insanely frustrating to see a guard sending out an alert, telling the squad to focus fire on him, and them being unable to bring him down in time despite their sheer firepower because of some quirk of the scenery or the agent behaviour.
Ugh. Despite appearances, the main reason Satellite Reign makes me so angry isn’t because it isn’t Syndicate. There are some fundamental philosophical differences between me and the game but I try not to be too harsh on it for that since that’s a completely subjective disagreement. What bothers me about it is that it actually does an awful lot that’s really, really good. Or could have been really, really good, given an additional few months of polishing and balancing. The agents are great. The City looks great. I think the combat, as painful as it is now, could really go somewhere if they ironed out the bugs. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of the compounds, they just need the time and resources to inject them with a little more variety and individuality and not have every single one finish with a Magic Door. Playing it now, though, it doesn’t quite come across as a mess, but it is disjointed and very much unfinished. And that is a real shame, because I have a haunting feeling this is the only swipe somebody will take at redoing Syndicate for a very long time; Satellite Reign doesn’t seem to be doing well enough to justify a sequel or anyone else getting in on the action, and so it’ll probably be left to languish in the annals of history. In a way, that’s the worst thing about Satellite Reign: even behind all of the bugs, limitations and hurried design choices, it proved the concept still worked well, and it could have been amazing. Hopefully the devs will patch out the worst of the issues and the game will do well in the Christmas sale; as it stands, though, Satellite Reign is a tragic missed opportunity.