I'd been led to believe that Satellite Reign was a modern-day Syndicate. Turns out it isn't. Phew.
I mean, I love Syndicate as much as the next person who loves Syndicate, in that I grew up thinking it was one of the best games of all time. I still find its filthy, cyberpunk art style to be among the best in video games, regardless of its age.
But let's be real: Syndicate has not, visuals aside, aged very well. It's confusingly frantic and brutal as fuck, and that's before you get to the point where it sucker punches you with one of the word endings in video games.
So a game that that's "Like Syndicate, only prettier" is not something I would have enjoyed. I have, however, been thoroughly enjoying Satellite Reign.
The Syndicate comparisons are there, of course. Satellite Reign is set in a cyberpunk city, you control a team of cyborg agents, the viewpoint is isometric and there are civilians everywhere. There's a very clear respect and admiration for Bullfrog's classic in almost everything that this game does. But it's where Satellite Reign differs from the subject of its love letter that things get more interesting.
The first thing you notice is that your units can be attached to the terrain and take cover, XCOM-style (above). You can do this when controlling them individually (and yes, you can complete missions with a single agent if you want) or as a group. It's useful for combat, but also for stealth, as it lets you hide and avoid guard patrols.
The next thing a Syndicate fan will pick up on is an even bigger change: this new game is open world. There are no truncated levels. Instead, the action takes place across a massive future metropolis, which is split into a few regions to which you're slowly introduced. Here's the map:
It doesn't look that big here, but maps can be misleading. This isn't a driving game, so ignore the limited road network. Let's take a closer look....
There we go. See all those little lines ? Those are walkways, and stairs, and walls, and barricades, and clearings, and marketplaces. You can walk in and around most of these. It's a grimy labyrinth of urban design, and it's an absolute joy to explore. You'll feel like a kid playing with the most badass action figures you could ever have owned, set atop the biggest playset your imagination could handle.
Despite the presence of very generous fast travel beacons, there's just something satisfying about trudging through this city, hiding your agents amongst crowds of civilians and walking past enemy guards unnoticed. This isn't a game that's 100% action; shooting only starts when you draw weapons or enter a secure compound, and even then, you can make GTA-like getaways by running and hiding (complete with Satellite Reign's own "wanted star" system).
Just don't expect there to be much to do with this city. Just because it's an open world doesn't mean this is Los Santos 2276: you can jack some ATMs and door controls, enter a few buildings and some elevators, ride a few ziplines and... that's it. If you were hoping for interesting conversations with NPCs, distracting games of cyber-poker or visits to robo strip clubs, you're outta luck.
Satellite Reign is a surprisingly tactical experience. Each of your agents is a specialist, and the big map and environmental controls mean that you can approach your objectives in any number of ways. The game supports the old-fashioned run-and-gun, and that's an enjoyable enough way to go, but the real pleasure comes from splitting your team up and executing complex stealth infiltrations and takedowns.
Satellite Reign's ambition and technical achievement don't come without some flaws. A high profile product of Steam's Early Access system, it feels like the game is still not quite there, a project needing a few more months of fine-tuning and polish when it comes to the little details expected of a game at final release.
Example: As fantastic as the city itself is, and as fun and expressive as the missions can get (you really can tackle them any way you like), the story driving it all is a sterile thing, presented solely through briefing screens and checklists of tasks. Amidst a long session playing the game, the dry story stuff can make things feel like a bit of a grind.
The AI can also be messed up, or at least it was in the build I was playing for review, which wasn't quite the same as that which will be available on August 28. Sometimes it worked wonderfully, with guards swarming around me, taking cover and calling for reinforcements. Other times they got stuck in open gates and left cover to stand right in front of my gun barrels. This unpredictability made combat, which should have been a consistent and taxing affair, often as much about dumb luck as it was about tactics.
A lot has changed since Syndicate was released, and I'm glad Satellite Reign's designers had the sense to change with the times. Cyberpunk cityscapes and cyborg agents were all well and good in 1993, but 2015 needed something a little slower and a little smarter.