Once upon a time, I was but a young child and I had no money. However, by the grace of my extended family’s finances, I received a gift which changed my life – a 386 PC with a 2X speed CD-ROM. To show off the raw processing power of this beastly piece of machinery, my father purchased for me a shareware compilation disc from one of the computer trade shows in the area, regularly hosted at the county convention center.
That CD was amazing. It contained literally hundreds of shareware games. For a young man with very little access to methods of buying games for himself, it was a godsend. Shareware was more or less the 90’s version of Early Access in PC gaming. They normally contained only the first “episode” of a game (yeah, isn’t episodic gaming considered to be a fairly new concept; why is that, anyway?), and once you got your first free taste, your friendly neighborhood developer pusher man would solicit you to buy the rest of your fix. Although shareware titles were but a mere section of the finished product, by some of today’s length standards *cough*Trine3*cough*, they could be considered full games.
Amongst the various freebies on display was a shareware copy of a game called Syndicate. Today, Syndicate is well-regarded as a cyberpunk cult classic, and the godfather of real-time squad-based combat on the PC. One may ask themselves: “The godfather, eh? Hm, how many real-time squad-based combat games can I name, on the PC or otherwise?”
The answer is, well, not many. Syndicate was and is unique. Even as an acne covered larvae, I knew I was playing something new. Since then, the Syndicate name has been invoked by various publishers and developers over the years to rake in some of that sweet nostalgia cash. Unfortunately, the consensus abroad is that none of those reincarnations have done the original concept justice, including a reportedly god-awful FPS rendition released in the current generation.
Enter spiritual successor to Syndicate, Satellite Reign by 5 Lives Studios. I’m no authority on the matter, as my recollections of the game are seen through the lens of an adolescent pupae, who played it damn near 20 years ago, but thanks to my stellar memory (and the modern miracle of YouTube videos), I’m confident in saying that Satellite Reign is basically Syndicate 2015 in everything but name. This is good news.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Satellite Reign has the player simultaneously controlling four cybernetically enhanced agents. They’re guided around a wet, drizzly neon city on a corporate funded quest to take down a rival mega-corporation which has a monopoly on human resurrection technology. The atmosphere is thick with cyberpunk tropes, corporate war, and private espionage. The story is familiar, but not identical to Syndicate’s. The plot makes for an intriguing diversion and is central to the flavor of a few game mechanics, such as the agents being replaced by clones as they die, but is not an essential feature of the game.
Satellite Reign evolves Syndicate’s concepts where it counts. Rather than being four customizable cyber-everymen, the agents are specialized this time around, bearing the titles Soldier, Support, Hacker, and Infiltrator. Although the titles are laid out, a well-designed character progression system allows one to customize how exactly each of those roles is defined. For example, an Infiltrator can be an invisible assassin, or a bad ass sniper who blasts basketball-sized exit wounds in the back of people’s heads; the Support agent can indirectly assist by healing the team and collecting recon info about the game world, or they can provide a more direct leg-up by slowing down time, and marking targets for higher damage susceptibility. Different weapons, equipment, and personal augmentations can also be assigned to each agent to further specialize their use in the field.
This level of customization across the four agents makes for some truly interesting and devastating combos. Somehow, the developers have managed to make every feature perform how one might hope it would to satisfying effect, and yet the game still feels plenty challenging.
It’s worth mentioning that Satellite Reign’s retro sensibilities do extend well past its source of inspiration. The narrative of the story is almost entirely told through text. Walking around can get a little tedious, and sometimes the game could do with a 2X time toggle. Admittedly, some of the aforementioned challenge may stem from some of the things that the game did not update for the 21st century. Those evolved gameplay features are accessed through a decidedly 90’s style interface. Although the game lacks a built-in tactical pause feature, the Support agent does have an upgradeable ability to slow time exponentially. However, in order for this to work, the Support agent must be alive, the ability must be cooled down, and the agent must have energy to spend on the activation. This is a design decision which has caused no small amount of controversy in the player base, as some consider such a feature essential to controlling a four-unit team in real time. It should be noted that the developers have now included an option to start a new game with the time-slowing ability unlocked and already fully leveled, but this method is still susceptible to the drawbacks mentioned above.
The game is also not without its glitches. Pathfinding is solid for the most part, but agents sometimes go a bit brain-dead when being ordered through doors and other types of passes. If some agents emerge ahead of others and new movement orders are issued, only the agents already through the passage will obey, while the others stand around, presumably picking their nose. Sometimes, if a patch of terrain on the other side of a door is clicked rather than a door itself, the agents just bunch up against the door jamb and don’t go anywhere, even if that door is the only way out of the current area. The context sensitive cover mechanic is not always entirely reliable, either. There were a few perfectly good walls that I couldn’t crouch behind for no discernible reason. In the interface, some changes to the Research and Loadout panels sometimes won’t update until the player exits and re-enters the screens.
Bugs aside, these bits of retro DNA are really a matter of individual player preference. If a gamer is looking for a streamlined, smoothed down interface, they might find Satellite Reign’s setup irksome. For me, being the old coot that I now am, it was a bit like a breath of fresh air.
Where Satellite Reign is truly and most undeniably successful is in its execution of an open game world meant to foster adaptive, emergent gameplay. Not since the first Deus Ex have I felt the freedom to approach areas and scenarios in so many different ways. There are some obvious paths, but the player is never forced to take them. There are always enough tactical decisions presented in any given area that it can almost lead to option paralysis.
There was a moment where I felt like a tactical genius as I positioned my Infiltrator in a tower overlooking an enemy compound, sniping targets and drawing enemy fire as my Soldier ran from cover to cover below, blowing out enemy brains with a silenced pistol. My Hacker lay in wait at the base of the tower, hijacking the brains of any punk guards who came running to flank my Infiltrator, sending them running back out into the compound to fight their former comrades. My Support agent kept my Infiltrator company in the tower, safely triggering the team-healing ability when needed from behind a stack of crates. It sounds like a perfect scenario, as if the level was designed with that approach in mind, but I could have handled it at least five other different ways, thanks to the open and dynamic design of the environment.
Satellite Reign, despite its flaws, is truly a worthy successor to the Syndicate pedigree. More importantly, it stands as a good game on its own volition thanks to tactical freedom, compelling squad-based combat, interesting and well executed character customization, and the best gritty cyberpunk atmosphere to be seen on the PC since the last time you popped “Blade Runner” into the Blu-Ray drive.