Wot I Think: Satellite Reign

When I consider Satellite Reign [official site] as a whole, a grand canvas spattered with raindrops, neon and bulletholes, I’m in love with it. Yes, it looks and feels a little like Syndicate, but 5 Lives’ Kickstarted RTS-RPG does not slavishly follow a model from the past. Its city is open, a series of district-hubs with opportunities and mission locations scattered across them, and there are many possible routes to victory.

Satellite Reign is, from the wide-scan satellite’s view, a thing of beauty and promise. But I’ve been down in the streets for the last few days to take a closer look at the city. Here’s wot I think.

To be wholly immune to the big picture of this cyberpunk cityscape, you’d have to be indifferent to the influences that are fused into the environment. Syndicate, yes, but also Gibson, Bladerunner, Mœbius and Otomo. It’s natural that a game set within a city that is such a convincing rendition of electric dreams made solid would instantly appeal to a huge swathe of those who have grown up with or recently embraced these particular flavours of science fiction.

Considered from street-level, where the citizens as well as the city itself must convince, Satellite Reign isn’t quite as impressive. My team of agents look more like the crowd of thirty-something punk-by-night office workers who were hanging onto their youth by hanging around with teenagers at Jilly’s Rockworld back in the day. Over-eager cosplayers looking to make their outfits pop rather than corporate agents engaging in a bloody battle for supremacy. That’d be fine if their dress sense helped them to mingle with the crowd but most inhabitants of Reign’s city look like drones rather than disco-goths.

It’s a small pill to swallow, that disconnect between place and (Hiro) protagonists, but together with some of the more fiddly aspects of the tactical combat and stealth, it prevented Satellite Reign from settling down as smoothly as I had hoped it would. As with the aesthetics, the widescreen, zoomed out view is of a game I admire, but the finer details are often frustrating and repetitive. The hours I’ve spent with it have been mostly enjoyable but many of the minutes within those hours have been spent on a form of autopilot.

At those times – when I feel I’m going through motions that I’ve learned rather than reacting to the motions of the AI and the setup of the security forces – Satellite Reign feels amiable rather than tense or exhilarating. There’s a comfort zone to be found in the calm between missions and even the occasional infiltration can seem like a sedate by-the-numbers operation. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of anxiety as the security of a site rises and hacked cameras tick back into action, but the more I play, the more often I find myself making challenges for myself, either by leaving members of my crew behind or setting artificial limits on the equipment and augs I’ll use on a specific mission.

The beauty of the game is that it allows you to play however you fancy. Want to take a solitary agent on a bank job using nothing but hacking skills and a silenced pistol? Smashing. And maybe you’d like to kick in the front door of a rival corp’s headquarters and mow every guard and employee down with a quartet of heavy weapons? As long as your eventual goal involves murder and/or theft, the city is your oyster, and you are Walrus and Carpenter Incorporated.

Satellite Reign is almost as much an open world urban crime game as a cyberpunk corp-war simulator. Your main mode of expression, as CEO-Commander of your agents, involves robbery, targeting ideas as well as cash. An introductory video, in the form of a news-flash montage, tried to make me care about the various entities and technologies of the world, but I found myself attached to the reference points rather than the creation itself. The central concept that differentiates this possible future from the others that it resembles is a form of information age resurrection technology, fused into the game’s mechanics through the presence of Relay Beacons. They’re checkpoint, respawn point, shop and equipment storage centre rolled into a single location, and they function as a link to the always off-screen HQ that supplies, trains and rebuilds your agents. Those agents are always either in the city or dead. If you decide to work solo, or with anything less than the full squad of four, the agents left behind will stand in the street waiting. They have no home.

I didn’t get along with the respawning. It’s not that it makes the game too easy; as I’ve already mentioned, the flexibility of approach allows for on the fly modification of the difficulty level. Being able to download an agent’s build into a replica body after ‘death’ reduces the consequences of risks taken though, and also reduced my attachment to individual characters. Even though there are plenty of ways to mould each agent, they neatly slot into classes and I came to treat them more as highly specialised and powerful RTS-style units rather than characters.

A function of the open world and Relay Beacons is to make all things disposable. There’s rarely an impetus to act and while it’s easy to appreciate the breathing room when there’s such a rich location to explore during downtime, I found myself in need of distractions. Even late in the game, I didn’t feel as if my success or failure had any real impact – agents respawn, districts go on much as they were before the bullets flew, and missions are separate constructs, plugged into but outside the city.

Picking and choosing equipment before heading into a mission area is compelling and the interface mostly works beautifully to support whatever approach is chosen. Agents attach to cover and the UI informs you as they do so, a predictive overlay on the screen helping to ensure that a slight misclick won’t ruin your day. Combat involves a few too many bullet-sponges for my liking but I understand and appreciate the reasoning – the ability to endure exposure to gunfire allows for tactical adjustments during shoot-outs, as well as preventing every failed attempt at stealth from ending in immediate disaster.

Perhaps it’s greedy to wish that such a beautiful city was more reactive and that my own actions in it would leave persistent signs of change. I referred to it as a canvas at the start of this review and that’s precisely how I came to think of it – it exists to be acted upon and its inner workings are only evident where they directly impact on your efforts. Mostly. There are occasional interactions between police and citizens but the people of the world, like the invisible rabbit-hole interiors, exist to serve a function rather than to create a sense of credible chaos.

Like its interface and design, Satellite Reign’s city is a far cleaner and more controlled place than it first seems. Efficiency rules over emergent accident and emergency, and the game is tight and well-crafted. My favourite moments involved tense tactical infiltrations, using every agent’s skillset to temporarily disable cameras and locks. At its best, Satellite Reign has more in common with Commandos than Syndicate. It’s a splendid construct, built to endure and to sustain repeated playthroughs in various styles, but I can’t shake the feeling that, minute by minute, a little more chaos and unpredictability would go a long way.

44 Comments

  1. BobbyDylan says:

    I’m an alpha backer, but managed to avoid spoiling it for myself by jumping in too early (like I did with Wasteland 2). Started up the 1.0 last night to some very good impressions.

    One thing though, the game takes an age to load on my SSD. Makes Kerbal Space Program seem nippy by comparison.

    • stonetoes says:

      Agreed on the load times. I had my copy installed on my regular HD, not my SSD, and was sitting there for ages. I then had to go through those load screens again when ten seconds into the tutorial it disabled all the sound on my computer (somehow) and I had to restart.

      Does anyone know if your mind-controlled civies are supposed to vanish when you load a save game or if it’s a bug which will get fixed eventually?

  2. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    After a few minutes in the first mission I noticed how much map I’d covered, and started scrolling around to get a sense of the size of it. Wow, those maps are huge! And so atmospheric. Too bad Pip’s in-game weather storify was included a couple of days ago, or it would have been a long series of pictures of Satellite Reign’s dismal, weary rain.

  3. trooperwally says:

    “At its best, Satellite Reign has more in common with Commandos than Syndicate” – oh happy days! I backed Satellite Reign on kickstarter and have kept myself away from all but the tutorial so far so that I could enjoy the polished experience fresh. Plus I absolutely loved Commandos so I’m well excited for this.

    • trn says:

      Absolutely: Commandos with Syndicate aesthetics? I’m totally sold.

  4. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Right, right, that’s cool and all, but can you {i} dress {/i} your disco-goths? That’s all I wanna do.

    (here’s hoping I finally figured out RPS BBcode)

  5. hungrycookpot says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this game since I heard it announced, but one thing makes me a little wary of it; it’s a tactical action game where you control 4 PCs, but there’s no tactical pause option? Doesn’t this make it insanely difficult to manage your agents, and not have 1-2 “highly trained operators” standing there taking fire before you’re able to get around to moving him to cover?

    Or does the AI handle this sort of thing? Seems like a case of stubbornness from what I’ve read from the community, but I haven’t played it yet so I don’t know?

    • stonetoes says:

      I think this is solved by the “bullet-sponge” issue mentioned in the article. Wearing down enemies’ health takes a while and your own soldiers aren’t really in danger of being insta-killed either, at least in the tutorial I played. It’s much more forgiving than XCOM or Jagged Alliance in that way, so you probably have time to coordinate everyone.

      • hungrycookpot says:

        That seems like a very poor-mans solution. They want it to be more realistic and intense by not having a pause feature, and they make that plausible by making everyone into a cartoon character.

        Everything else sounds really interesting, but if a tactical combat game doesn’t have good tactical combat, I might give it a pass for now.

    • king0zymandias says:

      I’m wondering weather it would be possible to mod in a “combat pause” mode in the game. I don’t think otherwise I will be able to enjoy the game at all. I can deal with a lack of turn based combat, pillars of eternity for instance, but no pause is a total deal breaker.

      • Xzi says:

        I guess it’s a matter of personal preference, but I like all threecombat types: turn-based, tactical pause, and real-time. Titles that implement real-time and do it well are very few and far between these days, however, so I’m rather excited to play this one.

        • king0zymandias says:

          Absolutely, it’s a personal preference. I am of the opinion that in order to ensure the real time combat isn’t an APM heavy micromanaging nightmare the developers have to sacrifice depth of the tactical combat. With a fully real time game I think you can’t have it both ways, either it’s really about a lot of fast clicking or it’s too simple and casual. Which is what I don’t like about the idea. However I love how the game looks and I like the whole Bladerunner/Shadowrunner type theme going on.

          • gwathdring says:

            I disagree.

            You don’t have to sacrifice depth, you just have to slow it down in some other way. Giving the player time to think means just that–giving them time to think. You can do that my making the player’s units hard to kill just like in a turn-based game you can put pressure on the player with sharp timers even if those timers, too, are turn based.

            By slowing it down, you also make APM less useful. Clicking everything faster isn’t going to help if it takes too long to kite around enemies and just exposes you to their fire without giving you the ability to get shots off of your own. There are WAY too many variables in a game like this to break it down to “Real Time = Casual or APM.” That’s nonsense.

          • king0zymandias says:

            @gwathdring Of course you might be right, but looking at some of the gameplay videos the combat in this game sure does seem to be quite simple. But anyways why don’t you give me some examples of real time tactical combat done right, where it’s not all about APM, but at the same time the combat has a lot of mechanical depth and is very engaging? I would love to play them.

        • hungrycookpot says:

          I’m totally fine with real-time tactical combat, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done in a manageable way when you’re trying to control more than 1-2 PCs. A lot of the materials and reviews talk about how they didn’t want you to always have to move your team as one 4 man super-tank, but I don’t really see how you’re supposed to manage 2 separate 2 man teams when you have to traverse all the space in between them in real time to issue orders?

          • hungrycookpot says:

            Edit: Seen it done in a manageable way WITHOUT a tactical pause feature.

            Edit2: why the heck can’t we edit or delete comments RPS???

          • Shadow says:

            For the most part, “tactical” and “real-time” are somewhat mutually exclusive, without a proper pause feature.

            An alternative, perhaps, would be using that pause as a sort of resource. A bullet time-esque slowdown mechanic for tactical purposes which makes squad command more manageable without being a free, indefinite freeze.

          • Steelphoenix says:

            Actually one of the Support classe skills does just that.

  6. Grendel says:

    between place and (Hiro) protagonists
    Love for Snow Crash. Great! :)

  7. Simplex says:

    “disconnect between place and (Hiro) protagonists”

    I see what you did there!

    Neal Stephenson FTW :)

    • Premium User Badge

      Matchstick says:

      Any book there the characters have a mini-gun that won’t work properly till they install a beta firmware update has my vote :)

      • stoklebury says:

        That brought a tear to my eye.. Reason.. hahahaha! Snow Crash was magnificent!

  8. Jakkar says:

    I think about my most recent replay of Syndicate Wars, I read articles like this, I watch gameplay videos, and I feel…

    Nothing.

    I never asked for this/these are not the (an)droids I’m looking for.

    The wait resumes.

  9. Atomic Playboy says:

    So in 2015 we finally get this so called spiritual successor to 1996’s SWARS and the game doesn’t even have fully destructible terrain.

    Funnily enough “Environmental Destruction” was one of the Kickstarter Stretch Goals.

    link to kickstarter.com

  10. PancakeWizard says:

    First impressions, so far so good. I’m digging that they start you in the thick of it and you don’t have a ‘base’ to feel safe in because you have to build up your company first.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Don Reba says:

    How is the writing in the game? Story, dialogues, world building? The trailer makes it look very shallow.

    • Minglefingler says:

      I’ve not played much of the game but so far any writing is limited to tutorial hints and mission descriptions which for primary missions seem to be all voiced whilst secondary tasks appear to be text only. Functional. The city does look great though and the soundtrack seems to be fantastic.

    • marlowespade says:

      There’s actually a decent bit of worldbuilding in the emails, logs and such you get when hacking data terminals, but overall the whole thing is pretty light on plot IMO. There’s enough there for me, though.

      (Weirdly, in that terrible “reimagining” of Syndicate a few years ago, there was actually some great writing and worldbuilding in the same places, even in the item descriptions. Too bad none of it was in the actual gameplay proper.)

  12. Zephro says:

    Aahhhhh Jilly’s Rockworld! How I miss thee.

    • banski83 says:

      Heh, me too. Had some good laughs there. Isn’t it a Tesco’s Express now, or something similar?

  13. geldonyetich says:

    Generally, I steer clear of RTS because having four dozen Dune 2 clones under my belt is enough.

    But I shelled out for Satellite Reign yesterday because this is a significantly novel marriage of small scale RTS (you only ever control four units) with an open world. That kind of do-anything platform has appeal: what mischief can a fellow get up to with for cyborgs in a big city being run by the manniest of The Man?

    So far, the pacing is slow and I am not overly impressed, but the game is still early.

  14. Kosmo says:

    The game has a lot of good/enjoyable aspects most of which are in the article, however there is a significant (for me at least) issue that is not mentioned. Guards respawn indefinitely, at least in the larger missions. Also, I don’t know which version Adam was playing but I didn’t find the game even remotely as easy as he describes (making challenges for himself).

    Basically my experience was something like this: you get a short but quite efficient tutorial with a couple of guards and a couple of cameras which you avoid/dispatch easily. Then you get out in the real world and enemy compounds have guards and cameras everywhere. Stealth is not an option because there is very little room to maneuver and many of the patrols have unpredictable patterns, and fighting is not an option because the moment you backtrack a few meters the guards have respawned (that’s assuming you managed to kill them all in the first place because some times they just keep coming forever). It all made it feel very… gamey and I found it very difficult to get immersed.

    Of course YMMV, I might be playing this completely wrong and the game is definitely not all bad. I actually enjoyed it a lot until I run into these issues. But if you are the kind of player you gets put off by things like these, at least beware before you buy.

    • geldonyetich says:

      I think the trick behind thwarting unlimited guards is to flee and hide until your alert level subsides, then try again without falling into the same situation.

      • Kosmo says:

        Well that was part of my problem as I usually had nowhere to flee to, the previous section of the compound which I had just cleared was now immediately full of guards again. It felt at times like the gameplay designers and the level designers didn’t talk to each other much. I did enjoy building up the team though, recruiting scientists and doing research and all that stuff, and the freedom to approach objectives in a variety of ways.

        • geldonyetich says:

          I must confess a certain naivety here, as I am still fairly early into the game. However, I sort of respect the unlimited guard spawns on account of how they enforce the idea that taking the world head-on is asking to be backed into a corner. Besides, if I get despawn technology, so should they.

          The key to avoiding them turns out to be stealth: guards caught unawares tend to not get replaced because the system is unaware of their absence.

          But, if you want to go in armed to face down every guard on the map, it gives you an option. I look forward to trying once I get my hands on some serious hardware.

    • dirtrobot says:

      That’s a little hyperbolic, guards do not respawn when you backtrack a few meters, and certainly no one respawns in your LoS. I’m pretty sure the respawning is tied to leaving the mission area. and respawning is done so that it’s actually challenging if all your guys die, then you respawn and go back in. The emphasis of the challenge isn’t on killing everyone, it’s surviving the raid from start to finish.

      BTW shoot the cameras, it’s the best tactic because it only spawns a guard or a small group of guards. It can also be used as a distraction.

      I love the game otherwise, it’s a little overwhelming and it can be tricky to get used to ‘dying is ok’ but there’s an enormous amount of tactical options in every situation.

      Definitely check out the steam forums for tips.