I’ll start this review by saying I’m a huge fan of the original Syndicate and Syndicate Wars, games that Satellite Reign is intended to be a spiritual successor to, so much so that I did actually contribute to the Kickstarter for the game and my copy of it came as a reward for that contribution. Though there are backer specific bonuses for the game I didn’t play with those on, so my experience of the game should be on par with the general consumer.
Anyway, that out the way, how about that there Satellite Reign?
I feel like I should start by just talking about my very first impression of the game, after booting it up and actually getting into the game itself: and that’s just to say good lord, this game is beautiful. Very, very beautiful. From the environments, to the UI design, to the individual character models, everything looks beautifully crafted. Everything oozes cyberpunk, so much so that at times I found myself getting a little lost just scanning round the city looking at all the sights.
Each new area of the city has a distinct visual style – from the grimy Industrial Sector, made up of pollution-spewing factories and cut with sharp corners, all painted from a dull palette of varying browns; to the more genteel Grid Sector where a palette of soft blues seems to dominate, and the architecture is sophisticated and artistic, reflecting the more upper-class nature of its residents. As well as this though each area of the city has it’s own distinct, sometimes named, buildings – restaurants, diners, small businesses, clubs, bars; and though as the player you’re never actually able to interact with any of these establishments for their intended purpose the fact you don’t see the same restaurant or convenience store thirty times everywhere you scroll is enough to make it feel a lot more like a real city.
I’d say this for me is probably the game’s greatest achievement, as at least design-wise the city really does look amazing. My opinion on the citizens is a little more nuanced though, I would say in general they’re alright – they loiter around the city much like you’d expect, you can see the odd market stall here and there, and there’s also a few homeless people in back alleys and suchlike – basically it’s enough to make it feel as though there are people there, but at the same time they are a little soulless. There aren’t really any events that happen and people don’t seem to have much of a life outside of loitering – you won’t see people having conversations on the street, or watch protests unfold, or even stumble upon rival syndicates conducting business meetings; which I think is a shame, it’s those little touches that really bring a game world to life.
Sound design in the game is nice, I’m a little sad your agents don’t respond when you click on them with a monotone ‘ready’ but nevertheless the game sounds really nice – the gunfire, the security alerts, even the screams when the shit hits the fan sound good. Along the same lines the music seems to fit the game, setting a nice ambience; I won’t say it’s blown me away but it fits the mood of the game well.
Gameplay is something of a mixed bag, it’s not that it’s not enjoyable – firefights can be quite tense and there’s plenty of opportunity for you to try to outsmart or out-maneuver the enemy but after about the first ten or so hours I did start to find it a little repetitive. You do have to think about what you’re doing a lot though – correct use of cover is essential, as are explosives during the later sections of the game; I didn’t really see much benefit to the class-specific special abilities, though I did find some of the gear items quite useful at times.
Even so, the combat did start to grate a fair bit, a lot of the time if I did get into a firefight I either seemed to quickly wipe out the opposition or just get swamped by enemy reinforcements. I imagine this is in large part because of the way the game is designed – it’s more like a sandbox experience than a series of scripted interactions with the world for the player to go through; as such though I did get the sense that the more of the game I completed the greater the array of enemies that were being thrown at me were, the mechanism behind how and why those enemies are thrown at you essentially stays the same, so regardless of where you are in the game the same frustrations can become apparent.
Outside of combat the mission objectives can start to feel pretty repetitive after awhile as well, again it’s not that the gameplay is bad per se but just that there’s not all that much variety in it. There are a handful of mission types and though the locations change, and in some cases the enemies up-class, you do essentially the same thing over and over again – running into a facility, either fighting or avoiding guards, cameras and turrets, then running into a building to reach an objective before you run out of the facility again.
This sort of repetitive gameplay issue isn’t a new problem for real-time strategy games though, or games in general, FPSs have had to deal with it for a long time – making a 10-15 hour long experience of doing pretty much the same thing over and over again seem continuously fun can be hard but it’s possible. I feel as though if there had been a few more actually scripted story events here and there, and maybe a few, very location-specific enemy types or encounters then that could’ve lead to the gameplay feeling a lot less repetitive. Again, other games have had this issue and resolved it, I’m actually pretty sure Syndicate and Syndicate Wars both had this problem and managed to resolve it.
The talk about a lack of scripted events does lead onto my next big issue with the game though: the story. Though the story in Satellite Reign isn’t bad there’s really not enough of it for me to have much of an opinion on. You have a brief intro cutscene detailing how one company dominates the game world and then you’re thrown into the game as a single soldier agent and given objective after objective to complete, until you’ve unlocked the full gameplay experience and can work through all the missions.
The mission texts you’re given and the in-game logs you can find do add some dimension to the world but it’s really not enough, and even the ending to the game is pretty light; the game really could’ve benefited from a much stronger story – it’s a shame as well because their initial Kickstarter pitch did include some very cinematic footage that if replicated and expanded upon to push the story at times in the game would’ve really helped.
I think that’s mostly it for my major criticisms of the game though, honestly those and the occasional minor bug aside the experience was really solid and the game quite enjoyable. I do have some minor quibbling points I want to touch on though:
I am a little disappointed in the customisation options in the game. You can change your team’s colour and also the two-tone colouring of their clothing, and you do also have the option to make pretty much anyone you can find on the streets into an agent – with a range of different faces, hats, visors and skin colours available, which is nice, but I was hoping for a little more. Maybe some alternate outfits for the different classes so you can give your team a distinct ‘feel’, maybe old-school syndicate, or zealot style, etc as options; and I was also hoping you’d have more ability to pick and choose how your agents look once they’re on your team, but the options basically boil down to either you removing whatever hat/visor the citizen was wearing before you hijacked them, keeping said item of clothing or just using the default class item. So you do have some ability to pick their look, but it is very limited.
I also found the augmentations a little lacking, I miss the visual display of the mods from Syndicate and Syndicate Wars, which they did initially show off but obviously scrapped for whatever reason. Aside from up-armouring my agents I didn’t really see much use to the other augmentations, which seemed a shame, as none of them gave a massive ability boost and playing aggressively combat-orientated meant I needed all the armour I could get.
Somewhat connected to this, and also my earlier comments about frustrations with the gameplay, I found the way equipment and weapons unlock a bit head-scratchingly confusing. Basically you unlock equipment (read: augmentations, weapons, gear) through completing missions and collecting prototypes if you escape successfully. Which initially works fine, it’s actually quite a nice system as you feel as though you’re being rewarded for all that hard work getting into the facilities.
However the balancing of it does start to get a bit weird closer to the end of the game, perhaps it’s just the way I played (since you choose which missions to complete and in what order) but there were certain items that I felt as though I should’ve been rewarded with a lot sooner than the game gave them to me – the minigun for example, is a beast early in the game, and to unlock that would’ve been a huge coup at about the 1/3 mark in the game but I wasn’t able to unlock it until the 2/3’s mark – possibly even the 3/4’s mark, by which time it was relatively useless, especially since I unlocked its laser and plasma equivalents (not to mention a super weapon) shortly afterwards.
I also seemed to have trouble unlocking any plasma or laser weaponry right up until near the end of the game, when suddenly I unlocked them all pretty much at once. Which is especially annoying when you consider the game works on a sort of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ combat system – with kinetic, laser and plasma weaponry opposing one another in a triangle, so to fight back against the soldiers it helps to have a range of weapon types to hand. Again, I’m not sure if this is me and the order I chose to play the various missions or the game but it really felt like all the best goodies were dumped on me right at the end of the game, and I was just stuck grinding for absolutely ages to get to them.
Overall I’d say Satellite Reign is a really well-made game that suffers from some repetitive elements but shows just how much a small team of talented developers can do with a capable engine. Recommended if you’re somebody who loves cyberpunk and would like to explore a sandbox city that they can shoot up and destroy large parts of; not so recommended if you’re someone looking for a strong narrative-driven cyberpunk game, because this ain’t it.
As critical as I’ve been of the game I do want to say I enjoyed it a lot and will be replaying it, I’m really just hoping they do release some sort of DLC or addon that adds more structured content and maybe more customisation options, as that’s really all it would take to make the game a lot more fun for me.