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.
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.