Satel­lite Reign



Driv­ing rain. Neon skies. The hum of plasma in the air. The warmth of a nos­tal­gia stretch­ing back to Syn­di­cate (the 1993 game that in­tro­duced a gen­er­a­tion to the joy of cities as play­grounds, not the quickly for­got­ten 2012 shooter). On the sur­face, Satel­lite Reign looks like the se­quel fans have been wait­ing for since 1996’s Syn­di­cate Wars, and in many ways this Kick­started spir­i­tual prog­eny is just that. In ex­e­cu­tion, though, some­thing fun­da­men­tal has gone miss­ing – and it’s not just the ad­verts for Ghost In The Shell.

What Satel­lite Reign does well is dream­ing up sys­tems. Me­chan­i­cally, it’s in­trigu­ing and only gets more so as new tech­nolo­gies un­lock, bol­ster­ing your stan­dard team of Soldier, Hacker, In­fil­tra­tor and Sup­port with new ways to break into en­emy com­pounds and ei­ther sabotage their ef­fec­tive­ness or walk off with their best tech. It’s at its best when the pieces come to­gether or­gan­i­cally. The mo­ments, for ex­am­ple, when the team’s on its last legs, clutch­ing a stolen pro­to­type, try­ing to hold out just long enough for the Hacker to respawn and un­lock the door. Or you trig­ger an alarm only to hack into the elite guard who emerges, mak­ing him tem­po­rar­ily part of the crew. Or you bring up the De­tec­tive Mode-style view that shows how things are wired, mak­ing it easy to de­ac­ti­vate se­cu­rity cam­eras or cut the power rather than launch­ing what’s usu­ally a sui­ci­dal charge against a bet­ter-equipped en­emy fac­tion.

These mo­ments are where Satel­lite Reign shines, up­dat­ing the for­mula into the men­tal im­age fans have, as op­posed to recre­at­ing ’90s re­al­ity. Where Syn­di­cate re­ally came to­gether, though, is where Satel­lite Reign fails: mak­ing any of it mean­ing­ful. The most ob­vi­ous case is the new map. Syn­di­cate was mis­sion based, while this is an open city split into dis­tricts, with scat­tered com­pounds to in­fil­trate more or less as you choose. Break into an ar­moury and you’ll emerge with a stack of pro­to­types to re­search. In­fil­trate the se­cu­rity ser­vices and cam­eras across the city will be slower. Need money? Rob a bank. In the­ory, this is a great idea. There’s al­ways a wide se­lec­tion of things to do, with the fo­cus of the game be­ing a struc­tured but still or­ganic cam­paign to get to a par­tic­u­lar tar­get – evil fu­ture-cor­po­ra­tion Dr­a­gogen­ics – and tool up enough to take it down.

Where it starts go­ing wrong is the re­al­i­sa­tion that there’s no strate­gic layer, no threat or wider chal­lenge push­ing back against your suc­cess. Money comes in a steady drip from hacked ATMs, so you can never be broke for more than a few min­utes. Your agents respawn af­ter ev­ery death, and can be end­lessly thrown into the fire with lit­tle real con­se­quence. In fact, Satel­lite Reign is pos­i­tively ter­ri­fied of reper­cus­sions. Your sins are for­given on death, guards quickly for­get faces, you can’t make a prob­lem­atic pur­chase, and the num­ber of respawn points (which dou­ble as fast-travel hubs) even spares you long walks. It’s a far cry from the openly cruel Syn­di­cates of old, and quickly turns the ac­tion into a slow and repet­i­tive se­ries of for­mu­laic heists: find the green door at the back, get a prize, and es­cape through more en­e­mies. There are vari­a­tions on the theme, such as buy­ing in­tel, brib­ing staff to clear the way, or es­cort­ing a char­ac­ter to a lo­ca­tion/their in­evitable death, but rarely any­thing that breathes life into the ba­sic progress loop. It also doesn’t help that noth­ing of in­ter­est ever hap­pens out­side of en­emy com­pounds, mak­ing the open city lit­tle but a glo­ri­fied mis­sion­s­e­lect screen with the oc­ca­sional amus­ing traf­fic bug. This sets an un­for­tu­nate pat­tern. Noth­ing in Satel­lite Reign is ever as sat­is­fy­ing as its com­po­nents prom­ise to be. The com­pounds of­fer flex­i­bil­ity and op­tions, and the city it­self is a beau­ti­ful cy­ber­punk dystopia. The switch to ded­i­cated spe­cial­ists rather than generic agents is ef­fec­tive. It’s Syn­di­cate in many of the right ways, while throw­ing out the bits that, if we’re hon­est, weren’t much fun in the ’90s ei­ther. There are still a fair few an­noy­ances, es­pe­cially with pathfind­ing and the fid­dli­ness of the world, but lit­tle that stands out as wrong­headed or even poorly im­ple­mented.

It’s just so life­less, so bland, so end­lessly cold that af­ter a while there’s no rea­son to care. No char­ac­ters stand out to give the game any verve, and Draco­gen­ics does noth­ing to in­spire ef­forts to take it down. Fail­ure can be frus­trat­ing, but suc­cess is so rarely sat­is­fy­ing. Your re­ward for beat­ing a tough en­counter is usu­ally a pro­to­type for a not-par­tic­u­larly-in­ter­est­ing new gun or an aug­men­ta­tion that’s usu­ally less use­ful than any­thing bought from the Black Mar­ket. Af­ter that, it’s right onto the next smash-and-grab, while you be­gin the long, ex­pen­sive wait for your science team to let you play with your prize. What starts as a re­fresh­ingly open cam­paign soon be­comes lit­tle but a re­lent­less slog.

What made Syn­di­cate spe­cial was how it har­nessed two key sen­sa­tions: trans­gres­sion and power. It was about be­ing The Man, look­ing down from your air­ship as you crushed na­tions. It was about the so­ciopa­thy of dis­tance, mixed with the abil­ity to squish any­one un­der your thumb at any time. Satel­lite Reign never taps into that sense, nor finds some­thing to re­place it. In­stead, this is a world where you can hi­jack brains and turn peo­ple into meat-sleeves for your squad, only to have to cut sci­en­tists a cheque to work for you. A world where be­ing bad never feels par­tic­u­larly good. By the point both Syn­di­cate and Syn­di­cate Wars had em­bed­ded them­selves in gam­ing history and started dan­gling their most ex­cit­ing toys on a string, Satel­lite Reign has long worn out its orig­i­nal warm welcome and lost all the mo­men­tum its struc­ture de­mands. It’s not a bad game, but nor is it ever more than the shell of a great one – it’s cry­ing out for a soul be­hind the screen that both Syn­di­cate fans and its own sys­tems de­serve.

No char­ac­ters stand out to give the game verve, and Draco­gen­ics does noth­ing to in­spire ef­forts to take it down

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