Sunday 18 October 2015

Satellite Reign

The world is controlled by ruthless megacorporations, the most notorious of which is Dracogenics. A group opposed to Dracogenics drop four skilled agents into their largest city, with a simple mission: build up the resources needed to destroy the corporation for good.

Satellite Reign is a real-time tactics game set in a cyberpunk city, some 200 years in the future. You control four agents, each representing a specific class (Soldier, Hacker, Support and Infiltrator), and have a mission to take down and destroy an enemy corporation. Thanks to resurrection technology, your agents are functionally immortal, but each time they regenerate they lose some of their abilities. Fortunately they can be restored by cloning citizens (and, eventually, enemy soldiers), but this comes at its own price of morality, time and the risk of discovery.

The game takes place entirely on one massive map divided into four districts. At the start of the game you are restricted to the Industrial District and have to undertake missions for local criminal gangs and your own bosses. These can involve rescuing someone from custody, assassinating targets or (most commonly) stealing enemy inventions. You can research new technology, such as weapons or augmentations (implants), or equipment such as better armour or energy shields. All of this requires money, which you can obtain through doing missions or hacking ATM machines. This is essential because as you complete missions and move onto new districts of the city, the objectives become tougher, the enemy gain better equipment and the odds start stacking up against you. Research and development is key to you maintaining an edge over the opposition.

Missions can be accomplished in multiple ways. You can sneak into facilities through stealth, perhaps through an air vent or hacking the security cameras and blast doors. You can send in all four team-members or hold some in reserve and send in your infiltrator (complete with his insta-kill melee weapons and cloaking device) alone. You can mind-control enemy soldiers into helping you out by opening doors or providing a diversion. Or you can wade in with all guns blazing and overcome the security forces through superior firepower and tactics. A combined stealth/cover system is employed to help this. Combat is in real-time and can get quite frantic, although an optional bullet time mode can slow things down and allow for more relaxed use of tactics.

Graphically, the game looks gorgeous with some excellent neon-lit buildings and a strong aesthetic style. When you zoom in things get rather less impressive, but you'll spend most of it zoomed out to a reasonable level. The game also features some amazing rain effects, ambient sound and low-fi music, not to mention a cyberspace view which transforms the game into Tron.

The gameplay is generally excellent, with your agents controlled through simple mouse commands and keyboard shortcuts. Like all the best games, Satellite Reign's systems are individually straightforward, but when combined can lead to some splendid sandbox moments, such as when an infiltration goes horribly wrong and you find yourself trapped in an alley, but then the automated turret you hacked on a whim a few minutes earlier suddenly opens up on the enemy and scatters them. It is extremely satisfying to recon a target location, formulate a plan and then successfully execute it, dealing with problems along the way. But it is more fun when things go awry and you have to improvise. The game is tough (especially at the start) but fair. When things go badly wrong and your party is wiped out, you generally know exactly why, how and how you can learn from the experience to improve next time.

There are a few minor issues. The story is pretty much non-existent, relegated to briefings on data consoles and an occasional transmission from your off-screen support. This makes some parts of the game (particularly the eyebrow-raising ending) resonate less strongly than they should. Research is also solely time-dependent, which means if you want to level up and get ahead of the opposition, you can simply spend a couple of hours standing around completing research projects one after the other without actually doing anything else. There's also a few buggy moments, such as when a character passes through a solid door and ends up trapped on the other end, or can't traverse an airvent without getting stuck in an animation loop. These latter issues are very few and far between, especially now the game's received a few solid patches.

For the most part, Satellite Reign (****½) is tremendous fun. Its freeform gameplay, satisfying combat and tremendous sense of atmosphere combine to create something extremely appealing and strategically satisfying, which doesn't outstay its welcome. The game is available now on GoG and Steam.

Comparison with Syndicate

Almost every review of Satellite Reign I've read has commented extensively on its comparisons to the 1993 cyberpunk classic Syndicate, one of my favourite games of all time. I didn't raise this in the main review because I suspect vast numbers of people (the probable majority) playing this game have never played Syndicate and indeed may not have been born when it was released. However, these are my views on how the two games stack up.

Satellite Reign shares a similar visual aesthetic and control scheme to Syndicate, but is much more sophisticated. Satellite Reign has hacking, stealth and cover systems, all lacking from Syndicate. Syndicate is more limited because its missions really revolve around either combat or persuading someone to join you. A few missions could be completed without a shot being fired but these were few and far between. Syndicate was also played on fifty different maps, each supposedly part of a different city, but these were very similar with no major shifts in visual style to differentiate the cities. Satellite Reign has more character and variation in its one city than Syndicate, its expansion (American Revolt) or sequel (Syndicate Wars) combined. Satellite Reign's class system also works better then Syndicate's "four identical people, each toting eight miniguns" approach.

On the other hand, the originals did do a few things better. Syndicate allowed you to use vehicles and its weapons were much punchier. The Persuadatron was ludicrously good fun, and much better than Satellite Reign's more limited person-hacking mechanic. Returning to base between each mission, allowing you to re-arm and research at leisure, was also more enjoyable than the stretches of Satellite Reign when you're just standing in an alley waiting for your shields to recharge or for that new gun to unlock through research. Syndicate Wars also had fully-destructible scenery and allowed you to rotate the camera 360 degrees. Satellite Reign's inability to rotate it more than a few degrees is just odd.

Overall, Satellite Reign is the more sophisticated, varied and compelling game, but there's a few things the old games (can still be picked up from places like GoG) still do better. Certainly Satellite Reign is a more than worthy successor, and a must buy for anyone who was a fan of the original games.

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