Satellite Reign: Hands-On With Cyberpunk’s Rising Star

Back when I interviewed Syndicate-veteran Mike Diskett about his plans for Satellite Reign, I was buoyant with excitement: he spoke of systems, not scripting, and of sprawling cyberpunk cities playing host to mad shoot ’em freedom, just like we were promised in the old days. Now, having spent some time with the “pre-alpha” test release that the team have put out to backers, I can say that this excitement was, mercifully, a precursor to an even deeper feeling: intense anxiety.

Anxiety? Yes, because this early, incomplete build demonstrates that the 5 Lives team know exactly what they doing, and all we can do now is wait, nervously, to see if they pull it off for the full game.

Aiie!

The “pre-alpha” build is, as the denomination suggests, far from complete, but it’s already looking like its own game. Sure, the legacy is front loaded, and it’s that of the Syndicate games, but immediately you can see that Satellite Reign is setting out its own stall, which is actually a sort of augmented genre hybrid. In some respects it’s closer to being a sort of open-world ARPG than it is the tactical shooter than the Syndicate games were, despite having much the same “feel” as those games. This is not some blind attempt to clone the past, but a healthy extension and an original expression. Satellite Reign takes on inspiration from past glories, it does not dwell on them.

And so we find ourselves in a neon-lit alley, with standard RTS controls for the group. You can split a guy off, or control the squad as a unit. Each of the chaps in your squad has distinct abilities, and you can take care of an work with each of them individually, as well as storm about as a full squad. The infiltrator has higher stealth, the support guy keeps everyone medic’d up, and the hacker accesses doors or ATMs. The soldier, of course, soldiers. Even in the first moments of fiddling, and seeing what they are for, you can see the bubbling potential in this way of doing things.

Then moments later, you’re panning across the enormous Downtown city map, and realising what this is going to be like: a sort of sprawling, freeform action-tactics thing, where you can tackle multiple objectives and find your way in the milling megalopolis. (In my head Syndicate was like this, but I know it now seems impossibly crude against what’s being done in 2014. And anyway, I suspect for a generation younger than me the reference won’t matter a jot: this will be their taste of what this kind of gaming can be like.) This district has a huge amount of stuff in, and will play host to a bunch of potential missions. You’ll learn the city and its alleys, make use of them.

The first mission is to find the fourth member of your team, and it’s fairly straightforward: keep guns holstered and hidden as we travel through the city, so as not to draw attention from security types or CCTV, and get inside the police station to rescue your soldier. There’s a special camera mode that allows you to see things from a sort of “matrix” perspective, which enables easier picking out of hostile elements, which is neat, but I actually found myself cooing more at the the super-subtle way the camera span just a few degrees as it hovered over streets and alleys, to give you a better view. Slick.

It feels like you should seldom have to resort to violence. You can hack and sneak, even pay off guards. It’s versatile, and will doubtless generate one off events that we’ll want to breathlessly report post-play. Once things do kick off, though, and you’re spotted in one of the “red” zones where cameras search and guards patrol, you gain a wanted level, which can only be shed by laying low in the city for several minutes, GTA style, and avoiding contact.

The combat feels early, of course, but entirely solid – and perhaps it’s just because this is early in the game development and early in the experience of the game, but it seems like it would hardly matter if it didn’t progress much from here, and I do suspect will be it will be iterated upon rather more (particular with regards to balancing). That said, there’s already quite a lot there, with environmental cover use, and the potential for enemies to employ special weapons. Having a grenade lobbed into my squad (and the resulting blast) was a heart-in-mouth moment. I also particularly liked how you can be arrested and non-violently booted off the premises if you are caught red-handed but unarmed.

The Downtown area is one of several areas of the city that the game will ship with, and I was surprised by the size of it. Perhaps I am still just comparing it with the maps of games from twenty (ugh, old man) years ago, but it feels like a sprawl, in exactly the right sort of cyberpunk way. You don’t get to see any interiors – unsurprisingly – but buildings can be accessed via unlocked doors and your team can move rapidly through them. Hacking is of course one option for gaining entry to places you shouldn’t otherwise be.

The character dev stuff – weapons, augmentations and all that – isn’t in there yet, so it’s hard to see how much that’s going to matter to the overall direction of the beast, but from what 5 Lives have said and done so far, I can see it mattering a great deal within the full scope of the game. This game isn’t about four identical and disposable agents, these chaps are more like RPG characters to be invested in and specialised over time.

As a sample of the art direction, too, this test build gets it just right. It has the same three-quarters view as the Syndicate game, but the depth and fidelity benefits of modern 3D, with the visual extras that allow the rain-slick streets to actually look like that noir future-fantasy of the city. It’s bang on.

And all this leads me to that anxiety: there’s so much that could go wrong. There are serious limitations that the tech faces with the amount of stuff the game is throwing into this huge city, including the all-important crowds on the street. Then there’s the overall flow and balance of the game. It’s a precarious piece of design that will demand serious balancing care to be the game it needs to be. I’m not saying it’s likely to go wrong… just that it looks and feels fantastic so early, that it must now NOT GO WRONG. Do you understand?

Ultimately, of course, this is just an early build. I can’t call it a Kickstarter success story just yet, but just maybe… Yeah. AI behaviour is way off being what you’d want to play a full game with, and lots of the systems – like persuasion of citizens – remain to be implemented. It is the first iteration of what will doubtless still be a long and murky road. That it shines so brightly now, however, is a reason to be genuinely excited.

And in the cyberpunk backstory that is the real world, we always need those.

Satellite Reign has no set release date.

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48 Comments

  1. Guvornator says:

    “lots of the systems – like persuasion of citizens – remain to be implemented”

    Goody, one of my favorite things in Syndicate was having a tooled up mass of humanity ready to do my bidding…

    • Philopoemen says:

      collect a mass of humanity…and then minigun or flamer them so you send an expanding mass of on fire civilians spiralling outward…

  2. Crainey says:

    I backed this one way back when for its dreamy steampunk world and the passionate team behind it, seems I may won’t be disappointed, those environments look incredible.

  3. Philopoemen says:

    Some of my best Syndicate memories were assassination missions, and how many ways there were to accomplish them. Gauss Gun crossfire, vehicular hit and runs, timebomb spam…

    This sounds like it’s going to be similar to Shadowrun in that you have a lot more non-combat options than traditional Syndicate. Which is more cyberpunky, but hopefully doesn’t eliminate the pick up and play nature of of it’s predecessor.

    • Hex says:

      I really hope they manage to implement a robust ambush mechanic. It would be nice to be able to set up a sequence of commands to play out once you trigger an “execute ambush” button or something, after some careful planning. That’s a feature that would work wonders in anything from a Dragon Age to a Wasteland 2 to a this, but I generally find myself fighting the game to try and manage to get ambushes to work.

  4. eggy toast says:

    >>Sure, the legacy is front loaded, and it’s that of the Syndicate games, but immediately you can see that Satellite Reign is setting out its own stall, which is actually a sort of augmented genre hybrid. In some respects it’s closer to being a sort of open-world ARPG than it is the tactical shooter than the Syndicate games were, despite having much the same “feel” as those games. This is not some blind attempt to clone the past, but a healthy extension and an original expression. Satellite Reign takes on inspiration from past glories, it does not dwell on them.

    Aaaaand glad I didn’t Kickstart it, hoping that it would actually be Syndicate 2.1

    • eggy toast says:

      >>Even in the first moments of fiddling, and seeing what they are for, you can see the bubbling potential in this way of doing things.

      Yay class based systems? :(

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        Harlander says:

        Hey, what do you know, the thing I predicted in the last post about Satellite Reign happened.

        At least you didn’t end up kickstarting something you don’t think you’d like. That’s better than the opposite, like when I ks’d Planetary Annihilation and ended up not liking it.

        • eggy toast says:

          They (pre-) sold this game based on it being “like Syndicate” so grumbling that it is, in fact, a party based ARPG instead seems fair, to me.

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            Harlander says:

            Granted, though I think calling it a “party based ARPG” is a bit of a jump at the moment. “Like Syndicate, but with class-based agent roles” still has your criterion phrase in it and is probably more accurate.

      • epmode says:

        link to kickstarter.com

        From the project description on the main Kickstarter page:

        “A real-time, class-based strategy game, set in an open world cyberpunk city, from the creator of Syndicate Wars.”

        None of this is a surprise.

    • imperialus says:

      I wonder how they’ll deal with stuff like character death? I mean if your soldier takes a sniper rifle round through the eye do you just automatically get another soldier? Do you have to build a new agent from the ground up?

      • Tuhalu says:

        Their plan is for the corporation that you are running to use a ressurection technology. If someone dies, you can put them in a new body (one that you’ve stolen for the task!) using a backup of their memories. You’ll lose any weapons or cybertechnology that the character died with, unless you can salvage them from the scene or do a run to recover them. Also, the memories are probably not going to give the new body as high a level as the previous body had. Because memory transfers are a one-time only deal and have some degradation, if a high level character dies a lot, they could become low level fairly quickly.

  5. Laurentius says:

    You know what improvement over Sydicate I want this game to have ? No escort missions. You hear me devs ? Don’t implement escort missions, just don’t.

    • PostieDoc says:

      God, they were tedious.

      • GiantPotato says:

        I want to see a mission where you have to escort someone through the flooded sewers of the city. The challenge will be to keep your oxygen level up and get the NPC to the end of the map before the timer expires. If you get seen by the guards then you have to restart from the checkpoint at the beginning.

        Then, by getting all of these requisite bad ideas out of the way in a single mission, the rest of the game is free to be great.

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          phuzz says:

          You forgot insta-kill enemies with random, unpredictable movement. Oh, and a fixed camera that points the wrong way at important moments along with some difficult platforming.

  6. Morte66 says:

    Day one backer, and feeling good. :)

  7. Phantasma says:

    Wow, the excitement is almost contagious.
    That goes for the anxiety bit as well…. thank you very much :-P.

    I don’t even mind most of the surprising (for me at least) additions, that were never featured in the originals.
    But i’ve always got a soft spot for RPG tidbits and class systems, so i may be biased.
    I’m glad the team is confident enough to tweak the formula and not “just” deliver a 1:1 replica for nostalgic reasons.
    That means, more could go wrong, but IF it works…… oh god, pleasebegoodpleasebegood etc.

  8. Vexing Vision says:

    Hmmm. Fixed character classes? :(

    • TheWabbit says:

      “Fixed Classes”

      Yes and no. Only the Hacker can hit the ATMs, open locked gates, and shutdown CCTV cameras, but I’ve switched the laser pistol between the Soldier and Hacker with no problems. The Infiltrator starts with the sniper rifle but you can get more of them.

      This isn’t much different than Syndicate for me. I always designated Agent 1 as my ‘leader’ who would get the Level 3 Brain (along with Legs, Chest, and Heart). He would always carry the Persuadatron. I would use Agent 2 as the sniper with the updated Eye. When I eventually had enough cash flowing, they would all get the updated parts.

      I’ve made a few videos of me playing Satellite Reign.

  9. voorsk says:

    Syndicate and Commandos.. two series that have been gone too long. Glad SR is filling the gap!

  10. jonahcutter says:

    I alpha backed this and was kind of blown away with how good it looks and solid it plays. Gameplay, graphics, map size… I’m pretty much in 100% agreement with Jim. The ambition (so far met) on display here is impressive.

    One thing, and I know it’s not Syndicate purist, but I’d like some sort of pause function to issue orders. I’d enjoy it even more if I could focus mostly on tactical thinking during combat, with the need for quick clicking minimized.

  11. AlienMind says:

    Nothing beats experience. That and willpower. Guess those people aren’t too old for this shit :-)

  12. Radiant says:

    I still don’t understand the need for a mega corporation to hack an ATM.

    “Shit I don’t have my wallet…”
    *puts down minigun hacks atm*
    “They don’t do fives! We’re fucked lads”

    SATELLITE REIGN

    • Radiant says:

      In a cyborg farming dystopia.

      SATELLITE GRAIN

      • Radiant says:

        In an all female cyborg dystopia

        SATELLITE JANE

        • Radiant says:

          An uphill battle against a cyborg menace.

          SATELLITE GAIN

          • Radiant says:

            In a one legged cyborg dystopia.

            SATELLITE LAME

          • Radiant says:

            In a fiery cyborg dystopia

            SETALITE REIGN

          • Radiant says:

            In a cascading sequence of errors leading to a cyborg dystopia.

            SATELLITE BLAME

          • Radiant says:

            If you changed your mind in a cyborg dystopia

            SATELLITE HAIM

          • Radiant says:

            In an increasingly nondescript cyborg dystopia

            SATELLITE PLAIN

          • Radiant says:

            A marked murderer in a cyborg dystopia

            SATELLITE CANE

          • Radiant says:

            When you make a one post joke 12 times in a cyborg dystopia

            SATELLITE WANE

          • Radiant says:

            In a cyborg dystopia where your counting is bit shite

            SATELLITE SHAME

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            Sleepymatt says:

            Hehehe

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            Phasma Felis says:

            In a cyborg dystopia set in America’s Pacific Northwest

            SEATTLEITE REIGN

            (Thought about working a Shadowrun reference in there, since Seattle is the default setting, but…eh.)

    • manny says:

      Makes a little bit of sense, in the future the only way to make money untraceable is to steal it.

      • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

        Are your characters still agents at the behest of a megacorp in this one? It seems like they’re four loners, which would be more in tune with traditional cyberpunk.

        Also I initially mispelled megacorp as ‘megacrop’. I think the Satellite Grain pun got to me.

  13. racccoon says:

    The game is the game! way cool & about time.

  14. SheffieldSteel says:

    Well, I’m not seeing the huge crowds of citizens milling about – on fire – that made the original Syndicate so very special, but I am prepared to be sold on this one.

    I hope it allows players to take a more laid back approach to planning and executing fights, but that’s just personal preference.

  15. BuckNasty84 says:

    No. 1 KS project I’ve got my eye on once Long Dark releases. I like Shadowrun Returns, but this looks to be a more fulfilling experience.