Satellite of love.
Satellite Reign is the spiritual successor to the classic isometric real-time strategy Syndicate games of the ‘90s. I imagine those who played the originals will have high expectations for a game 20 years in the making. I went into Satellite Reign with little knowledge of the original Syndicate and its sequel Syndicate Wars, and especially not the modern FPS remake that everyone apparently hates, yet I came away beguiled by its rain-soaked, neon-lit streets and its open-world, tactical gameplay.
Developed by 5 Lives Studios, an indie studio composed of veteran developers behind the original Syndicate games, Satellite Reign places you in charge of a small squad of four agents traversing through a city oppressed by a violent government regime, with it bearing more than a faint resemblance to the perennially damp streets of Blade Runner, albeit with less of the formidable architecture featured in Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi film and more strip clubs and ATM machines. It’s one of those video game worlds you may want to live in but would be actually terrifying—a crumbling society with a beautifully detailed cyberpunk aesthetic.
The city is free for you to explore, though you will unlock more of it as you progress by completing missions which allow you to break down the barriers between each of its districts. These and the rest of the game’s missions are non-linear, meaning that you can pick and choose which of them you would like to confront as you see fit, with the majority of them falling into the category of collecting/stealing items from a manned enemy facility.
As such, Satellite Reign essentially sees you guiding your agents through a series of heists, each of which can be tackled in a variety of different ways. You can use your hacker agent to open up the back gates to a facility and proceed to sneak your way through, leaving all enemies still breathing, or you could stealthily take out each soldier one-by-one, or simply go in with the intention of brazenly taking out every bad guy standing in your way with your arsenal of weaponry. There are also a variety of abilities your agents have at their disposal, from health buffs through to cloaking devices, while tools and gadgets such as ziplines and hackable drones open up a multitude of ways for certain scenarios to be tackled.
This may sound derivative of practically all open-world games, but the joy of Satellite Reign is in the nail-biting intensity of its missions. With each heist comes a high level of unpredictability, with your premeditated plans rarely working as you had intended, forcing you to think on your feet in order to make it out of each situation alive. While this could be deemed frustrating if put in the hands of a less capable developer, in the hands of veteran supergroup 5 Lives Studios it only leads to exhilarating moments in which you can carefully maneuver your squad around the glare of security cameras and duck and weave between guards… before you’ll inevitably find yourself trapped in a corner surrounded by the city’s police force after a small, flying drone was alerted by your presence.
This presents an incredibly high level of challenge, with it only taking one misstep for a fleet of armed guards to come storming after your squad guns blazing. However, the difficulty level is reduced by virtue of the enemy AI, with them cleverly flanking you the one minute but going back to twiddling their thumbs after you stay out of their line of sight for a relatively short period of time. The police of Satellite Reign take a very Grand Theft Auto approach to your criminal behavior, which is less surprising when you consider that 5 Lives Studios’ members worked on GTAIV. Regardless of what activities your squad gets up to—be it breaking into a government compound and stealing confidential materials, or assassinating a police officer in front of his colleagues—if you run around the world long enough, your “wanted meter,” in this case a small bar that appears alongside each of your squad members’ information alongside the bottom of the screen, will diminish and leave you to innocently carry on with your business without consequence.
It’s not exactly realistic, but it works perfectly within the context of the game and allows you to keep on plowing ahead with a mission even if you’ve managed to drop yourself into the deep end. There are a variety of rewards you can potentially earn by successfully infiltrating and escaping an enemy facility, from the end-of-mission rewards you receive such as weapon prototypes that you can use to add more gunpower to your arsenal, to the various items you can pick up within the compounds themselves. But it is up to you whether you want to investigate every nook and cranny or if you want to do the bare minimum to increase the likelihood of your squad escaping with their lives intact. However, given the randomized element of its open world, you’ll be forced to change your goals frequently for each mission on the fly, as you watch your plans unravel at the hands of a guard who inexplicably stumbled onto one of your squad member’s hiding spots without you realizing.
This high level of freedom the player is granted in completing each mission is amplified by the game allowing you to choose which squad members you want to take with you. While some missions will allow you to purchase further information that will give you hints on which classes are best suited to them, you can still choose to do things in your own way; you can bring in your soldier for their heftier firepower, your support to make use of their healing abilities, hacker to take down barricades and security cameras, or your infiltrator with their various stealth gadgets. Or, of course, you can take all of them with you, which adds an extra degree of challenge in that you’ll then be tasked with controlling the movement of all four units, but it will give you more of a chance of dealing with enemy attacks if you’re spotted.
Across the game’s missions I never had the same scenario present itself to me twice, finding myself constantly making brand new mistakes which then led to me having to make brand new decisions to rectify my errors. Perfectionists will likely struggle to grasp the concept of a game that goes out of its way to make it nigh-on impossible for them to be perfect, but that isn’t the point of Satellite Reign. 5 Lives Studios wants you to make it out of each mission by the skin of your teeth, and whereas other games would be inclined to give you very clear paths to your objectives, you’ll have no such pleasure here; each enemy compound has no ideal route which you should take, with them instead featuring multiple branching paths that come with their own perils, traps and dead ends.
Successfully completing missions will award your squad members XP, which grants them skill points that can then be used to level up abilities specific to their class. However, you don’t necessarily have to keep the same squad for the duration of the game, as the hacker has a hijack ability that allows you to create clones of civilians that may naturally have better stats than the rebels currently under your control. This isn’t the sole use of the ability, though, as it can also take control of up to a maximum of five enemy guards, with them then being placed under your control and you being able to use them to clear out a compound before you send in your own squad.
Give the compelling gameplay and downright cool world, it’s a shame that there isn’t a decent story attached to tie it together at the seams. Instead, we get the typical plot revolving around a big, bad government doing big, bad things, with clones, drones, and mechs being thrown in there for good measure. With the whole thing being conveyed through text logs and the occasional voice clip, I swiftly lost all interest in paying attention to the reasoning behind me storming these facilities to obtain sweet loot, but Satellite Reign isn’t a game for you need to have a vested interest in its narrative to remain engaged with it. It’s a game in which you’ll come away with your own stories to tell, whether it be that time you sent your squad down a zipline only for them to fall to their deaths inside enemy territory, or when you successfully managed to take down an entire army of bad guys with just a hacker and infiltrator, making it out alive with a laser minigun prototype attached to your back.
If you remember the original Syndicate games, then I should imagine that purchasing Satellite Reign would be a no-brainer, but even for newcomers to the series such as myself, this is a highly recommended purchase. Through its wonderfully dynamic gameplay which mixes methodical forward-planning with glorious, chaotic scrambles out of dodge, Satellite Reign has taught me that being a perfectionist is actually dull—the real fun begins when you make a mistake.