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