I’ve been dreaming of murderous cyborgs, dystopian futures and electric sheep of late. Twilight cheese binges and far too much Syndicate (obviously I’m referring to Bullfrog’s 1993 classic, not EA’s blasphemous 2012 reboot) is a lethal combination, but it’s all been in the name of researching my previous article. And placating my inner sociopath. Oh what I would give to own a persuadatron in real life. Or a minigun. Or better still, a squad of obedient cyborgs… armed with persuadatrons and miniguns. And maybe guass guns, for good measure…
Anyway, it was all inspired from playing Satellite Reign, an early access game I’ve bought into recently on Steam. It’s being heralded as the “spiritual successor” to Syndicate. Like the original Syndicate games, it’s a third-person tactical shooter that puts you in charge of four cyborgs with big guns. Indeed, the man behind it, Mike Diskett, worked on the Amiga conversion of Syndicate and was lead developer on its sequel, Syndicate Wars (1996). The title is even a blatant reference to one of the weapons available in Syndicate Wars. And it’s set in a neon-bathed sci-fi world run by malign corporations and populated by cyberpunks, where it never seems to stop raining. Sounds like a Syndicate game to me. As Diskett proclaimed to Red Bull UK, “Satellite Reign is very much the game I would be making if I was still at Bullfrog and EA had asked me to make an official sequel to Syndicate Wars”. Unfortunately, his company 5 Lives Studios simply don’t have the budget to acquire the rights from EA, having just £460,000 to develop the game, which they raised through Kickstarter from 15,000 backers in the summer of 2013.
Reassuringly, the basic mechanics of Satellite Reign will feel very familiar to Syndicate fans. From an isometric viewpoint (with limited tilt and rotation), you control your cyborgs via a relatively simple point-and-click interface. With them, you navigate a reactive sandbox cityscape, tackling objectives at your own leisure – if you keep your weapons out of sight (surely the only reason for owning a trench coat?) and avoid restricted areas you’ll be left in peace, but where’s the fun it that? There’s even a nod to the first two Syndicate games in the design of some of the cursor icons (e.g. the claw icon for picking up ammo from corpses).
But it’s not just a straight clone of its “spiritual predecessors”. There’s much more depth to the gameplay and a far stronger emphasis on strategy and tactics. For example, it features a more involved RPG element: each of your cyborgs has a unique role within the squad, and experience points earned in the field can be spent on unlocking/upgrading class-specific abilities as well as increasing more general character traits such as health and damage.
The soldier is brute force of the squad. As the name suggests their abilities are focused around guns and explosives, but they can also hardwire doors and power generators – a kind of less subtle form of hacking. The support is the medic of the team but also has a key role in reconnaissance. His scans reveal targets and VIPs, as well as where doors and cameras connect to terminals and power generators. Usefully, he can also bribe targets for information and pay off guards.
Perhaps the most useful of the squad, the hacker can temporarily disable cameras, open security doors and set up siphons on ATMs. They can also hack the neural implants of civvies, placing them under your full control. Conveniently all the plebs carry a pistol, which permits for some mischief (yay!). The infiltrator is both a sniper and a stealth operator, being able to temporarily cloak themselves and perform powerful melee attacks.
Another key difference is that enemies are much tougher and more varied than in the Syndicate games, and installations are well protected by cameras, security doors and guard patrols. Reconnaissance, planning and patience are crucial to success – simply trying to shoot your way through the main entrance will usually end badly (it’s still fun to try!). You can bribe, hack, sneak or murder your way into secure areas, but most probably you’ll end up doing a combination of all four. It makes for more versatile gameplay, though the pace is a little slower than Syndicate fans might be used to. Personally, I don’t feel that’s necessarily a bad thing.
In the current build there’s just one map, the bustling downtown area of a sprawling metropolis. Not to worry though, it’s pretty big and there are multiple objectives and sub-objectives to sink your cybernetic teeth into. These can be attempted in any order. Some provide rewards and perks on completion that will help with more difficult assignments, so it’s worth considering them first. For instance, by breaking into some places you will acquire prototype weapons, gadgets and augmentations, and robbing the bank will provide the funds necessary to research and eventually supply them to your boys (and girls); completion of other missions will slowdown the response time of the CCTV network or police reinforcement.
The standout feature of Satellite Reign is the game’s environment, an immersive tech-noir world of perpetual night. The incessant, gusting rain lashes down in fluctuating sheets that collects in puddles and streamlets, sodium lights and neon signs reflect off the water-slickened surfaces, steam pours out of vents and fan ducts. The cityscape is an intricate labyrinth of grimy alleyways, rundown buildings, littered pavements, and gaudy plazas filled with shops, restaurants, food markets and seedy night clubs. Adverts, movie trailers and holographic trees illuminate the dank streets. Cyberpunks swagger along the sidewalks, hover cars swish past, cops patrol, bums sleep amongst the alleyway debris. It’s a mesmerising feast of sight and sound that skilfully captures the aesthetic and ambiance of the film Blade Runner. Over the years many a game has tried to mimic Ridley Scott’s ageless vision, but Satellite Reign feels like the first game to really nail it.
So how’s it faring? Well, for a pre-alpha build, not bad. Not bad at all. As you’d expect, there are a lot of bugs to address and issues with the AI and pathfinding to iron out. Not to mention a lot of placeholders and missing features at present, and no doubt much optimisation, tweaking and balancing will be needed as the game evolves. But they’ve got a solid platform to build on and they’re steadily drip feeding us bug fixes and new content. Plus we can look forward to some interesting features being implemented in the future, such as a reputation system where, based on your actions, citizens will either be friendly, neutral or hostile towards your agents; and persistent agent characters that can be saved in a data bank and downloaded into a new clone.
In short, I’m quietly optimistic. Fingers crossed it will get finished. Right, back to my cyborg cheese dreams…