A few years ago, Electronic Arts released a first person shooter (FPS) called Syndicate, which met with a rather mixed reception. Critics were luke-warm in their appraisal of it at best and viciously scathing at worst. The game bombed on release, selling around 150,000 copies globally and EA moth-balled the IP.
A large portion of the negative reaction to Syndicate was doubtlessly due to the fact that Syndicate was the latest example of a massive publisher trying to imagine a beloved PC strategy classic as an FPS (see also: The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, which went the way of dust on release).
Players who remembered the tension-filled and compelling Syndicate and Syndicate Wars couldn’t fathom why EA hadn’t just produced another isometric top-down Real Time Strategy (RTS). Their objection was simply, “if Syndicate wasn’t broke, why fix it?”, a complaint borne out by the success of FirAxis’s XCOM games, which stayed true to the structure and spirit of that franchise’s origins.
Perhaps the success of XCOM sent a signal that rebooting a top-down strategy franchise while keeping its core appeal is certainly possible in an age dominated by the FPS genre. Developed by 5 Lives Studios, Satellite Reign is the first stab at bringing the world of the original Syndicate games, complete with its RTS gameplay, to current PC platforms. It’s no surprise then, that 5 Lives has Syndicate Wars director Mike Diskett on its staff.
For the uninitiated, Satellite Reign is set a rain-slicked, neon-encrusted cyberpunk dystopia in which corporations rule, poverty is rife and the streets are essentially a combat zone in which kill-or-be-killed is the order of the day. Players join one of corporations as a kind of squad overseer and then use a team of cybernetically enhanced soldiers to accomplish a set of goals laid out on a map. That, in essence, was the narrative and gaming premise for the Syndicate games and Satellite Reign recreates it faithfully.
Satellite Reign review: Mechanics
Here’s where it goes off-piste – or rather builds on its foundations. Unlike the Syndicate games, in which the Agents that the player commanded were all pretty similar in their abilities, Satellite Reign’s troops are all from different classes with an array of varying abilities that can be levelled up.
The levelling system has a two-pronged effect on how Satellite Reign plays out. First off, players are encouraged to use their individual squad members to accomplish certain tasks and, this in turn, compliments different styles of play.
For example, if you want to take the stealthy approach is worth having your Infiltrator lead from the front, since they can use cloaking abilities and ziplines sneak past guards. Soldiers are for the more direct approach – since they can manipulate cameras, turrets and entrances and they are more heavily armoured than their compatriots. Naturally, all four agents have equipment that the player can upgrade.
Second, it makes the player’s approach to every mission a lot more exacting. Since every member of their squad has different abilities, players will find that the best approach to each mission involves playing each of their squad members in way that makes the best use of their powers. They have micro-manage each agent, making sure they’re exactly where they need to be, accomplishing tasks they’re best suited to. Run-and-gunning will only get the player so far.
Satellite Reign: Cyberpunk sandbox
The second major departure from the Syndicate series is the fact that Satellite Reign is set in an open-city map – according to 5 Lives it’s the biggest of its kind generated by the Unity engine. There’s something wonderfully atmospheric about trudging around the future-noir landscape, pounding the rain-soaked pavements and evading the corporate cops on every block by mingling with the crowds of pedestrians.
It all looks absolutely gorgeous, too. The visuals recall the moody ambience of films like Blade Runner, The Matrix and Cyber City OEDO 808. Rain spatters down from permanently overcast skies, smearing the pavements in a sheen that reflects the neon lights and giant digital billboards that surround the player’s trench-coated cyber warriors. It’s an environment one could spend hours exploring, soaking up its dystopian beauty and cybernoir atmosphere.
That having been said, the developers have wisely included fast-transport beacons that allow players to have their squad navigate the metropolis quickly. There isn’t really much to do in the city, aside from ride ziplines, breach buildings and ride in some elevators. There aren’t any pedestrian NPCs to interact with or open world mini-games to play, so the sense of it being a living breathing world is somewhat lost.
Satellite Reign: Future imperfect
Combat is also a little disappointing. There’s just none of the weight or heft to any of the player’s cyber squad’s attacks to really make them feel like their dishing out copious amounts of damage. Further more, gunfights are hardly visceral, tense affairs. Rather, the player’s agents and the AI enemies fire streams of bullets into each other with nary a hint of visible damage occurring until the lesser of the two bullet sponges drops.
There also isn’t much of a plot to speak of; beyond bringing down the rival corporation that the player’s four operatives are dropped into, there’s not a lot going on in the game’s narrative. Given how rich, atmospheric and compelling its sprawling urban backdrop is, Satellite Reign is criminally shallow in terms of its lore.
Satellite Reign: Verdict
Still, it’s easily one of the more engrossing RTS games on release at the moment, even if it is a little rough around the edges. In a way, its shortcomings mirror the problems facing the world it inhabits; everything in Satellite Reign doesn’t always work to the best advantage of those in its environment, even if everything about that world looks achingly cool.