Satellite Reign Review!

by on November 9, 2015

                I’m one of those
gamers that got to play a lot of old school games, but wasn’t born early enough
to catch all the great classics in time therefore never really managed to play
all of them (I’m working on this). Syndicate is an example of a video games
series that made history and it’s imprinted in the memory of many gamers, but
such is not the case for me and because of this the review won’t serve as a comparison
between old and new.
                Satellite Reign
comes as yet another Kickstarter project set on rekindling the magic of the
older and tactical games that didn’t break through into the new era of gaming.
With the creator of Syndicate Wars on board, 5 Lives Studios aims with Satellite
Reign is to deliver the atmosphere and gameplay of the Syndicate series adapted
for the current time period, serving as another spiritual successor that we so
got used to see nowadays.
                Satellite Reign’s
action takes place in a flashy neon cyberpunk city separated in a few major
districts which are under severe surveillance and control of various powerful
corporations. A rather dystopian and bleak landscape for a future that is
brightened up by the city’s commercial panels instead of an improved quality of
life that should come with better technology.
In this world immortality has been achieved through a system which can
upload one’s mind to a new body. This unnatural technology sets up the main
goal for the game as it’s currently controlled by the Dracogenics Corporation
making it the number one power in the world and of course the main enemy in the
game.
                The player takes
control of a squad of four mercenaries that are dropped into an open ended
world with the ultimate goal being to infiltrate into the Dracogenics Tower and
putting a stop to this corporation’s reign of power. How and when you get there
is up to you.
                I would like to
have more to write about the story, but that’s about it. The story is
minimalist and doesn’t do much besides setting up the action of the game while
describing some of the working wheels behind this corporate world opening up a
playground that has the means for the players to create their own story. It
sounds like a good idea in theory, but the world doesn’t have much to it in
order to make this concept work and the story ends up being what you get at the
beginning and at the end of the game with few information and radio communications
in between.
                Even if the story
isn’t the main focus of such a game, its lacking adds for a disappointment
factor that keeps growing throughout the game. I didn’t expect the in depth
non-linear choices focused on moral conundrums story of an RPG, but considering
the number of factions in play I felt the need for more context than having to
stop an evil corporation and others that stay in my way through means that can
only be described as evil themselves (the road to Heaven is paved with bad intentions?!
Hmm… this doesn’t sound right).
Satellite View
Only if such messages where better represented into the game…
                With the story
being on a tertiary level much of Satellite Reign’s focus goes into the game
mechanics that shape the overall gameplay and for the tacticians out there this
might sound like a blissful dream (hold your horses!).
                After choosing
the game’s difficulty, completing a short tutorial and gathering some of your
group’s agents, the game has you jumping into this rather massive world without
knowing where to start and just having a blurred idea about where it will end.
The beginning is overwhelming since the game mechanics are not something you
see in the more common isometric tactical games of today and while learning
them doesn’t take long, progressing into the game doesn’t come so natural.
                The game’s world
is open and split into multiple districts with each district requiring a pass
to enter. The districts are unique in architectural style and layout and none
of them are free of the corporate shadow that engulfs this world as a whole.
Private patrols are roaming the streets, surveillance cameras are forever
watching and much of the area of each district is private and heavily guarded
to keep safe the secret researches and protect the ton of money that these
corporations maneuver.
Money plays a big role in this world (what a surprise!) and with this
comes one of the steepest economies I’ve seen this year in a game. While this
doesn’t say much considering the examples (Pillars of Eternity, The Witcher 3,
etc.), gathering the resources necessary to move on pose a challenge and
considering the dizzy beginning this task would definitely feel scary for a
while.
The future is bright!
Religion still exists.
                The player’s
group of four agents has to make it through this hopeless world which is
befitting for their aptitudes. A soldier, a hacker, a support and an
infiltrator each specialized in tasks according to their class name are the
agents that the players have at their disposal to deal with any potential
problems and while these agents cannot be changed they can be constantly
improved through a cloning and conscious transfer process. This unnatural
technology not only allows the transfer of the agents mind into more powerful
bodies, but also grants them a sort of immortality as their mind is never lost
but also such is the case with the fear of permanently losing an agent.
As part of the process of improving the agent’s physical capabilities,
better cloning bodies have to be provided and in order to do so the player has
to take control over the mind of people found on the streets, being civilians
or the corporate goons. This entire system is a good touch with the game’s
reality, reminding the players that the line between moral and immoral has been
wiped clean leading to a controlled world where the most important thing is the
struggle for power in order to climb in the hierarchical ladder. This is an eye-opening
matter for those that think there is a battle between good and evil in this
game and when realizing how things work, the game mechanics are the limit.
                Through the
agent’s classes system and the intricate level design Satellite Reign’s
gameplay supports a wide variety of play styles that can make each new
playthrough a completely different experience. Stealth and nonviolent
approaches are as much of an option in this game as is full out war.
                The agents
synergize extremely well with one another but the possibilities put at the
player’s disposal make their importance to the group vary according to each
player’s approach. This system opens up all kind of crazy strategies from the 4
man army that goes in with the weapons blazing to having one agent sneaking by
himself and hacking his way to the corporation’s base core. The variety in
gameplay is one of this game’s strongest points and it shines because of the
world design which offers multiple ways of solving a mission. Climbing through
the ventilation system, using the terrain as cover to sneak around and even
sliding on zip-lines from one building to another are some of the conveniently
placed weak spots in each heavily secured area which provide the tactical
freedom required in such a game. But this complexity and freedom of movement
comes with a severe price that was paid in mission’s quality.
My zip-line specialist.
Looks toxic
                Saying the missions are repetitive could be an
understatement as Satellite Reign seems to be this year’s champion at
repetitive content (the competition was fierce). Almost every mission resumes
at infiltrating in a corporation base as each player sees fit to steal intel,
blueprints or money and to make matters worse in an ironical way, each
objective door looks identical. But as with The Phantom Pain, the missions in
Satellite Reign could be looked at as a good way to test the better game
mechanics which are the focus of both of these games. Even if the use of repetitive
missions is a common practice in open world game, Satellite Reign doesn’t even
try to break out of the repetitive trap it’s stuck into and continues in the
same way for almost the entirety of its length.
A door.. every time…
                Getting back on
the track of positive things, the great world design has a lot to offer but
this wouldn’t be enough to build a higher gameplay quality if the players
didn’t have the proper tools to exploit this world. In order to do so, there is
an agent’s progression and a research system that expands the game mechanics by
providing new ways of dealing with various situations.
                Each of the
agents has a unique set of skills specific for their specialization. These
skills can increase the passive stats of the agents, but also provide abilities
that make the agents more efficient in combat or non-combat situations based on
their proficiency. To reinforce the character progression system, Satellite
Reign has a lavish research system which provides much more depth than
expected. The players can choose to research various cybernetic augmentations
or equipable gear, but what stands out is the good number of weapons and
upgrades available.
Death from afar!
                The research
system is extremely progressive coming with few available possibilities in the beginning
but their number increases drastically as the player steals more prototypes
from corporation’s facilities or buys them on the black market.
Researching new items is extremely resource consuming, not only the
time required to unlock something is measured in gameplay time but a lot of
money are needed to keep the research running until is complete and then again
to purchase the newly researched item. This is where the steep economy of
Satellite Reign comes into play. Researches and players choices make the
economy important not only in the beginning but for the most part of the game
and considering the cash inflow is well balanced (but exploitable) unlocking
new items through research always feels rewarding.
I’ll blow off with you then come back!
BFG!
                This whole level
of complexity that is achieved through intelligent level design, clever game
mechanics and a strong character progression system should serve as great tools
for Satellite Reign’s combat, if only the combat was that good to be worth all
this trouble.
                Satellite Reign
has a real time combat system in which the player can control four or even more
characters at a time during battles. While the number of controllable units seems
a joke compared to what is seen in Real Time Strategies, for a game like this it
is more than enough to complicate things in an unnecessary way.
                The choice of
making a real time combat without a pause mechanic weighs heavily on the
gameplay and the combat system itself making each fight when the agents are
outnumbered a challenge, but not in the good way. In theory it shouldn’t be too
hard to micromanagement four important units, but the reality is shockingly
different.
I used to play Starcraft 2 at a casual competitive level (if I can
call it that way) and I had difficulties dealing with my group of agents in
this game. Abilities pile up as the game progresses and the enemies become
stronger as well and while in the beginning there are a few commands to use in
order to deal with the enemies, by the mid game that situation changes. Having
to use each agent’s abilities, while having to select each agent’s weapon,
while having to position each agent in cover and select their targets it’s a
cascade of micromanagement hell that can turn even an easier fight into an
absolute nightmare. It doesn’t help that the character control is extremely
sluggish and the queue movement that was put at the player’s disposal is not as
accurate as it should be.
                The multitude of
problems that come from heavy micromanagement and unpolished character control
shapes the available options for strategic play into unwanted ways making the
engagement much more important than the real fight itself. Having to deal with
all these problems made me avoid combat as much as possible focusing more on
two agents stealth play while running like crazy between heavily armed guards
when things went wrong.
Lasers power!
Traffic stopped for a mild inconvenience.
                The stealth
gameplay is good but inherits the clunkiness that comes with a bizarre
character control. But compared with the combat situations, this problem can be
overcome much easier when sneaking around. Moving from one cover to another and
sneaking behind a patrol to take it down silently with a pistol makes up for satisfying
stealth gameplay in an isometric game. But even the stealth has its
shortcomings that take away from this enjoyable experience. The lack of a
crouch or prone option is inexplicable and piles on the number of complaints
related to character’s controls, but these missing features are nothing
compared with the enemies AI which doesn’t behave properly in stealth
situations.
This wasn’t a bulletproof plan.
                The AI doesn’t
shine, it has its moments when patrols react properly putting an abrupt end to
a bold sneaking move or they assault the player’s group vantage position
putting destroying a courageous attack, but more often than not the AI causes
troubles through high numbers and advanced firepower instead of intelligent
behavior.
As Satellite Reign is an indie game that was made possible through a
Kickstarter campaign, my expectations for the AI weren’t that high to begin
with, but I’m still bothered by the fact that the AI is missing on behaviors
that should be mandatory for a game mixing combat and stealth mechanics. The
fact that the enemies react to weapons and shooting sounds but are not alarmed
by dead bodies not only simplifies the game, but these unplausible situations
break the immersion. And speaking about immersion breakers, the city of
Satellite Reign is in a continuous motion yet it’s one of the most lifeless
settings I’ve ever got to experience. The NPCs move in all directions following
somewhat logical patterns and are alarmed by combat or shady activities while
the cars stop so pedestrians can cross the street or even jaywalk, yet it still
doesn’t feel natural. The problem comes from the lack of details for the AI
behavior. There are no dialogues or activities, every NPC is just going into
its set direction creating a general feeling that they are moving aimlessly
just because they have to be moving as part of the decor.
Corporation troops fighting each other.
One of those moments when the AI hits a wall.
                Despite the
things I’ve said above about the combat system those of you that love to see
some tactical action in video games aren’t going to be fully disappointed with Satellite
Reign. The combat might be problematic through controls, but unlocking the
grenade makes things much easier because it’s so powerful that it manages to
streamline the tactics reducing some of the more difficult situations in the
early and mid-game to a pyrotechnic show (I haven’t had so much fun with a
grenade since Deus Ex). I’m not saying this is a good answer to the problems
but it does bring the combat balance back into the player’s favor in a fun way
without having to stress out with each fight. By the end of the game when more weapons,
augmentations and gear have been researched it gets easier to engage in combat,
leading to a point where the most effective options is to go in gunning
everything in the way.
An explosive plan!
                There is a lot of
potential wasted with the combat system and the final fight comes as a cruel
reminder of how poorly some of the combat features are implemented while
teasing the players of how much more engaging and challenging this game could
have been if everything was done right. I feel that the pause mechanic seen in
RPGs with real time combat would have come in handy here. In all fairness during
difficulty selection the players can choose to have a time slowdown ability
which makes the combat a lot easier because it gives room for micromanagement.
This ability can be obtained manually in the game through one of the agent’s
skills and while it’s useful and has a redeeming quality is still not enough.
                In its majority,
the gameplay of Satellite Reign is solid offering a ton of options that add
greatly to the replay value especially if combined with the Iron Man difficulty
mode. The game steps off when it comes to combat and controls and it doesn’t
help that the missions are madly repetitive, but it wasn’t such a turn off for
me as I was expecting it to be (I might be a farmer undercover) and none of
these problems stopped me from finishing the game.
                For its
shortcomings in every aspect I’ve mentioned until now, the graphics in
Satellite Reign are impressively impeccable for a 3D isometric perspective.
Some of the details might wash away when zooming down bit it’s unrealistic to expect
much more from an isometric game being AAA or indie. It feels like the bulk of
resources that 5 Lives Studios had was mostly invested in the map design and
its graphics details leaving little to the rest.
                The colorful neon
art style of the city covered in screens depicting futuristic commercials is
befitting for a cyberpunk and quite an eye candy view if powerful colors don’t
cause you nausea. The rain pouring down the city creating reflections on the
asphalt amplify even more the illumination of a city that looks like a futuristic
Vegas during night time. It is a play on color, light and shadows that make
Satellite Reign one of the most beautiful games of the genre and if the city
didn’t have such a lifeless feeling the overall view could be truly majestic.
The only things that could wake you up from the trance state that this
dystopian yet so lovely looking city can put you in are the performance
problems that Satellite Reign which includes freezes and fps drops, common
issues for 3D games using the Unity engine. Much of the problems seem to be
triggered by the game’s physics, which besides making the game unplayable for a
short period of time add up to the technological beauty and the available
tactical options. Bugs are also common in
Satellite Reign with weird things happening like ghost cars passing through
other cars or even characters, but this was to be expected.
Dracogenics are everywhere.
Flashy stop point.
                The background
music works perfectly with the city atmosphere and the cyberpunk theme of the
game inducing a techno dreaming state that blends with the state projected by
the neon graphics. The futuristic sound effects serve the game well despite not
delivering the highest standards of quality that we got used within the latest
years. The sound design might be fuzzy at times but it works for the induced
atmosphere and not against it.
Something went wrong…
I don’t think red means friendly.
                Satellite Reign
is in a paradoxical state of being a disappointing game despite being pretty
good. Its extensive potential is sadly (once again) limited by an indie
development which didn’t allow squeezing more quality because of a tight budget
and so another great opportunity goes away just partially explored. Its
gameplay mechanics feel unpolished and incomplete at times while the need of
more production value is visible at every corner. Despite being flawed,
Satellite Reign stays strong with its liberty of action reinforced by great
level design and in depth mechanics which allow the players to approach the
game in their own unique style.
                The strains of
indie development might stop Satellite Reign from achieving the greatness it
deserves, but surely don’t stop it from being a cyberpunk delight that the fans
of this setting are going to consume despite its problems. 

(This
article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)
Pros:
+ Amazing neon cyberpunkish style graphics
+ Great level design
+ Suitable music
+ In depth character progression and research system
+ Plenty of tactical options
+ Interesting game mechanics
+ UI design
Cons:
– Repetitive missions
– Problematic combat system
– Sluggish controls
– Performance problems
– The story needs way more development
– The city feels lifeless
– Lots of bugs

 

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