Bullfrog Productions was without a doubt one of my favorite game development studios of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their innovative mechanics allowed them to bring new genres to life despite the hardware limitations of the time. My love of god games, simulations, and of “bossing imps around” all date back to the works of Bullfrog. Another highly regarded title of theirs, Syndicate, allowed me to experience life in a dystopian future defined by corporate greed, questionable morals, and at times mindless carnage. In short, it was good fun, but fun that was hampered by the hardware limitations of the time. This is why the Kickstarter campaign for a clear spiritual successor, Satellite Reign by 5 Lives Studios, peaked my interest when it was announced.
Back in January, we brought you an Early Access preview of Satellite Reign. At that time, only one of an eventual 4 city districts were available and many systems still felt a bit rough around the edges. In the many months since then, they have certainly put a lot of effort into fleshing out the content and adjusting the UI as I had hoped. Now in full release, Satellite Reign stands as proof that the studio could deliver on its promise. All of the zones have been added, and as far as I can tell, no promised features have been cut. In fact, some of the stretch goals originally listed, such as “The Grid” city district and the Industrial city district were added despite not being met during the initial campaign.
The rich corporation known as Dracogenics, which is run by a man named Steven Dengler, has created a new technology called Res-Tech that is capable of reviving the dead. Perhaps preserving the memory of the dead is a better way to put it, as essentially they are able to download and then upload people from one body into another. Unfortunately, this technology requires bodies, and the easiest way for the rich to obtain bodies is through the exploitation of the poor.
Your mission is to take Dengler down and gain control over Res-Tech in order to throw off his reins of oppression. To do so, you are given a squad of 4 specialists and access to an older prototype of Res-Tech. Your squad consists of a soldier, a support, a hacker, and an infiltrator, each with a selection of shared as well as unique abilities to unlock and level up. You are also provided a handler who is there to help guide you through this journey, and she is in communication with a mysterious benefactor who is providing additional information. As you begin, your team is ill-equipped to handle the threats posed by Dracogenics. It is only through the use of strategic operations and careful planning that you will be able to become powerful enough to take them down.
Ambiance and Setting
Satellite Reign’s cyberpunk setting is exactly what I expect from the genre. It can be a difficult task to pull off an interesting looking cyberpunk city due to the bleak and rather grim nature of the setting. The games does feature the expected, a dull, dark world filled with big buildings, holographic trees, and seemingly endless amounts of rain, but it also delivers much more than that. Much to developer 5 Lives Studios’ credit, they have managed to keep the game’s aesthetics interesting through some of the best use of color, lighting, and ornamentation I’ve ever seen. As you travel about the city, there are a wide variety of different advertisements, neon signs, and businesses that make it feel more alive. Throughout the game you will encounter different factions, and while some of these do feature a similar look, each has something that makes it feel unique. For example, Uzy Korp makes use of vibrant reds and yellows and a more industrial look while the Eternals feature a nice shade of purple and a seeming emphasis on preserving what’s left of nature.
A city is more than just a bunch of brick and mortar though, it’s also a place of people. There are seemingly no shortage of these to be found either. Poor people can be found wandering back alleys and standing near fires trying to stay warm. There are various faction corporate security patrols wandering the streets and cameras monitoring nearly every street corner. As you wander along, the occasional radio chatter and gun fire you hear in the distance makes you realize that not everything that happens in the city is because of you. There are others being arrested or at times even gunned down. It’s not up to AAA standards in creating a true sense of a “living world”, but it does a good job for a game made by a smaller studio.
Do you have a need for speed?
As mentioned in our preview, Satellite Reign, like its inspiration Syndicate, is a completely real-time game. While the game will pause in menus, it is otherwise always in motion. It is worth noting that one character, the support, has access to a team stim ability which can slow down the action dramatically. This ability generally needs to be unlocked a little way into the game, but in a post-release update the developers added an option to start with this ability fully unlocked.
The game can be very hectic at times. Fans of primarily turn-based games will find this quite jarring, especially at first. The support ability mentioned can be upgraded to slow the action down to 10% of normal speed. This is a dramatic difference and definitely makes things slow enough that you can make all the decisions you like without issue. I found this quite often to be helpful, but it bears mentioning that it can also be a bit of a burden. There is one key reason for this and it is that the ability has a 4 second cool-down. The issue is that operating in this mode for any length of time, even a single combat engagement, is simply too slow to offer any enjoyment. This means it is best used to issue commands and to then be disabled. There are times where you may have a need to immediately re-pause, for instance because a grenade has unknowingly been thrown at you, or because your agent has made a very poor pathing choice, and you simply can’t for those few seconds of the cool-down. Also, while the visual effect introduced when this mode is active may be thematically appropriate, it also makes it harder to see what is really going on.
Any way you want it
Satellite Reign features a district structure which helps guide the player in a specific direction as they work towards their final goal, but it ultimately leaves the decisions up to the player. The safest exit to these districts requires some legwork, but it is possible to bypass these restrictions and plan to proceed guns blazing instead. Numerous side missions are provided in each zone that offer additional benefits and advancement opportunities to the player. Most will provide at a minimum an opportunity to gain some much needed currency, but many will also provide equipment prototypes or a chance to make things easier for yourself in the zone by reducing patrols or camera efficiency. Of course, if missions aren’t your thing, you could technically just wander around randomly breaking into places and shooting people, but this would get old quite fast.
Each mission comes complete with a description of what you need to do. These sometimes contain multiple steps, but are often quite simple. There are a few that involve finding specific individuals to bribe or assassinate, but most of them involve breaking and entering within a specific facility. Each facility has multiple points of entrance and this provides an opportunity to approach them in several ways. There are ventilation shafts, ziplines, and back doors that can be used should a stealth approach be up your alley. Furthermore, the infiltrator has access to a cloak ability and other agents can be provided cloaking capabilities with a specific piece of equipment. If you prefer a more direct approach, which is an approach I often found more fun and actually easier, you can instead barge in the front gate, shoot out the cameras, and march to your objective guns blazing. While a grenade is a great way to open a locked gate, there are several other more creative ways to get into places you shouldn’t be that come in quite handy.
The heart of the game
The game’s biggest strength is clearly its sense of character progression and advancement. This includes the individual agent abilities, which you can level up over time as you earn experience, but also the in-depth equipment and research system. Without these aspects, the repetitive nature and similarity of the different missions would have really diminished my enjoyment of the game. There’s just something about approaching a mission with a newly minted weapon or a brand new ability that makes it freshly entertaining.
The agents are all useful in their own way. The soldier is the group bruiser. The soldier can use heavy weapons without penalty and knows how to both dish and take copious amounts of damage. Surprisingly, the soldier is also the group engineer in a sense, and is the only one who is able to manipulate power substations and power boxes. The infiltrator, in addition to being exceedingly sneaky, can also samurai sword some people down or snipe them from afar as they please. The support has the aforementioned slow-down ability, but is also able to provide their squad with increased statistics and rapid healing. What’s even more impressive is their world scan ability which allows you to see things that aren’t meant to be seen. Things like power and camera connection points as well as the capabilities of your fellow humans.
I left the hacker for last because the hacker really is the most interesting class in the game. Yes, the hacker can hack into security systems and shutdown cameras as you’d expect. This isn’t their best trick though. The game’s absolute best and most useful feature is hijacking. I’m not talking about the hijacking of automobiles here, no, I’m referring to the hijacking of the brain. Your hacker is your most important team member not because of hacking, but because of hijacking. The hijack ability allows your hacker to completely take control of a random citizen or even an enemy. If built high enough, you can hijack any biological unit in the game. The usefulness of this is hard to overstate. Any unit you hijack can be sent back to be cloned, and this allows you to provide enhanced statistics to all of your agents by re-cloning them into these new bodies. Not only does this provide different stats, but it also changes the physical appearance of your agent. I’ve made an effort to avoid any gender specific references as you can quite simply convert any of your agents to any race and/or gender that you prefer. Typically you’ll choose based on which offers the best stats, but the choice is yours in this regard.
Before you start sending everyone off to their death in order to provide superior vessels for your agents, keep in mind that these hijacked individuals are yours to control. When hijack’d, the unit in question essentially becomes an additional member of your squad only without the ability to be customized or advanced. At high levels, you can hijack 3 or 4 units at a time, literally doubling your squad size. If you’ve hijacked powerful enemy units, your squad can become a devastating force. Keep in mind that hijacking a unit not only adds to your squad, but also takes one away from the enemy, which is a dramatic swing when you think about it. If you’re truly diabolical, you’ll even hijack enemies within locked facilities and then walk them over to the door to open it for you. I can’t count the number of times I used this ability to waltz right into the enemy facilities. In addition to the hijack, there is also scramble. Scramble makes the unit go crazy, shooting randomly and then imploding in upon itself. It’s not as useful as hacking, but is very effective at creating a distraction or for removing an enemy from the fray.
Blinded With Science
Research is a very expensive endeavor but is critical to your success. The core game system relies upon the player stealing prototypes of advanced technology and then developing them into reproducible products. While it is possible to use that freshly stolen laser rifle prototype, you’ll be putting it at significant risk. If your agent is killed, the prototype will be lost forever. A better approach is to research these items, but science is expensive. You’ll need researchers, and if you don’t have enough in your employ, you’ll have to hire outside help at a premium price. Thankfully there are researchers out in the world just waiting to be found, and others that are waiting to be rescued from their current employer, that will offer a much cheaper option. Aside from the expense, research is a quick and easy and simple to understand that rewards those who are patient enough to wait for their latest toy to be developed.
Speaking of toys, the game includes lots of them in 3 major categories: weapons, gear, and augmentations. Weapons include everything you’d expect in a cyberpunk game, from handheld pistols, to rifles, all the way up to massive energy weapons. There are also attachments that can boost weapon effectiveness by increasing things like ammo count, damage, or accuracy. Gear includes defensive measures like armor and shields, utility items like zip claws to use zip lines and cloaking devices, and auxiliary weapons like fragmentation and smoke grenades. There are even drones that you can purchase that will fly alongside you and fire lasers at your enemies. Augmentations are provided for specific body parts that can present a range of options from simple stat and health boosts or unique abilities that allow your agents to emulate actions that are typically exclusive to others.
A polished experience… for the most part
The game feels polished overall. There are certainly some quirks and kinks to it, but it was very stable and without any game breaking bugs in my experience. I made it through the entire game without experiencing a single crash. I did have one occasion where one of my followers (not one of my main agents) got stuck inside of a building space that should have been inaccessible, but I was able to leave the area and finish the mission regardless. That was the closest I ever came to needing to reload a save to correct an issue.
The AI does a respectable job at investigating noises and disturbances and puts up a reasonable amount of fight. Later in the game I found the AI to be a bit easy to deal with at times, but with all the tech and experience I’d gained this is to be expected. The pathfinding AI leaves a lot to be desired at times as your agents sometimes wander into paths that put you into unnecessary danger. This can be an issue due to the real-time nature of the game. Another major deficit that doesn’t help the real-time aspect of the game is your agents inability to act on their own most of the time. Despite a fire fight happening all around them, they simply won’t shoot at a target unless ordered to. When that target dies, you have to target the next or they’ll stand idle once more. This is a rather major pain point.
One thing that is more nitpicky is that there are a few missions I was never able to clear off my mission list, despite completing all of them, and this was due to some unnecessary assistance not being used. It would have been nice if these were marked as completed when the mission they were attached to was completed, if only to satisfy my desire to see everything marked as done.
A Good Effort
Satellite Reign offers a solid take on the cyberpunk genre and is a worthwhile spiritual successor to Syndicate. The setting and ambiance is spot on, but the best part about the game are the character abilities and equipment research systems. These alone offer a strong reason to press on in your mission to take down Dracogenics. Unfortunately, the variability provided by the missions works in opposition to the key systems mentioned, as these missions can feel repetitive in their structure and can be solved without any necessity for strategic or tactical decision making.
The real-time nature of the game is at times a boon as it makes you feel a real sense of pressure under fire. On the downside, it also makes tactical and strategic choices much more difficult. It can be very hard to successfully position your units in good positions while simultaneously worrying about how you time your moves between camera sweeps and patrols. I found this led me to simply select all of my units, agents and hijack’d subjects, and move them all at once. We focus fired every unit one by one as I kept everyone highlighted at nearly all times. Had the game been turn-based, at least in combat, rather than real-time, I feel tactics could have had a more meaningful approach akin to something closer to XCOM. Instead, my units felt like a massive cannon I’d point in a direction the vast majority of the time. I’d love to see a follow-up from 5 Lives that incorporated some of these suggestions, but for now, I’ll accept Satellite Reign as the solid first effort it is.
Space Sector score:
– Does an excellent job presenting a cyberpunk setting
– Character advancement and research system present a true sense of progression
– Multiple approaches are available for the game’s missions
– Hijacking ability offers a lot of creative options
– Real-time nature of the game leads to some issues
– Missions can get repetitive
– Pathfinding and Agent AI needs improvement
Keith Turner, also known as aReclusiveMind here on SpaceSector, has been an avid gamer ever since he first laid his hands on a Commodore 128 in the mid 1980s. He enjoys multiple computer game genres, but his primary interests are in deep strategy games, 4x games, rpgs, and action rpgs. He enjoys writing and hopes to contribute with additional reviews, previews, and informative AARs to the community. See all Keith’s posts here.Subscribe RSS
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