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Satellite Reign (PC) artwork

Satellite Reign (PC) review

"All style and no substance."

Satellite Reign is a real-time squad-based strategy game set in an open-world cyberpunk city. It is also the spiritual successor to Syndicate, developed by some of the same Bullfrog guys who worked on that game back in yonder 1993, which is totally awesome. I was excited for this game, as were the legions of Kickstarter backers who funded it.

This is a game about corporate warfare, of sorts. In the future, nation states are a thing of the past, and corporations vie for power and control. You command four cyborg clones whose apparent goal is to take over a city inch by inch, and you do this by hacking systems, infiltrating installations, stealing sensitive hardware, and killing anyone who stands in your way. All of this is prep work for an eventual coup d'état against the evil corporate overlords who rule over it.

Make no mistake, though - you aren't the "good" guys. You are simply a rival corporation who wants to knock off a big competitor with a highly successful product. The product in question is ResTech, a technology that allows people to transfer the entirety of their consciousness into an artificially-grown host body. This means that the rich and powerful get to live forever, while the poor remain as mortal dirt under their heels. Your employers want this technology bad, and are willing to do just about anything to get it. It is a compelling premise, and Satellite Reign has some competent writing behind it to make it somewhat believable.

Satellite Reign (PC) image

This is helped by the fact that the game, aesthetically speaking, is extremely well designed. The city has a hand-crafted feel, and every street and alley is unique. Rain washes over the oppressive concrete structures ceaselessly, punctuated by the brilliant glow of neon lights. Unique logos for lesser corporations and products shine brightly in contrast to the trash littering the streets and the bums living in-between the dumpsters. It is a convincing dystopian cyberpunk setting that has obviously been crafted with care.

However, great aesthetics do not always make a good game, and I am sad to say that Satellite Reign is a piece of crap in almost every other way. The gameplay is simply not very polished or fun. Most of the game is spent sneaking around and shooting people, and this would be fine if these things were implemented well, but unfortunately they're not. The controls are clunky, the AI is ridiculously stupid, the cover system is glitchy, the stealth system rarely works as intended, and most importantly, it lacks a tactical pause feature.

That last point alone is a huge problem, because you control your agents entirely in real-time, and when things go wrong they lack the brains to react smartly to anything that's happening to them. If bullets are raining down on them, they will probably just stand there. They might elect to get into some nearby cover, or they might not. Rarely they might fire back, but probably not. Why? I dunno. Probably for the same reason that your agents will refuse to get into cover positions that are right in front of them when ordered, the same reason tnat throwing a grenade will make your PC hang for a few seconds, or the fact that this game will often crash for no reason. It's glitchy as fuck, that's why.

Satellite Reign (PC) image

But even when you aren't experiencing glitches, you will likely find yourself frustrated by the fact that your agents require constant babysitting at all times. You must provide them with precise orders for everything, whether that is to move, fire, change target, draw their weapons, put their weapons away, get into cover, use their skills, pick up ammo, hack a terminal, et cetera. That might sound fine on paper, but it is utterly impossible to manage all of this when your characters are taking fire from three or four different angles and dodging incoming grenades.

The band-aid solution to this is the "Team Stims" skill, which causes time to slow to a crawl, allowing you to queue up some orders and perhaps get a handle on things. The only problem is you have to grind the game for many hours to unlock it, and when you finally do, you will discover that it is not actually a proper tactical pause at all; it drains your Support agent's energy and won't work if he's unconscious or dead. They have fixed this in a patch, sort of; it is now possible to start a new game with the Team Stims skill already unlocked. However, it still drains energy, still sucks, and still isn't a proper tactical pause. It also provides your agents with damage and accuracy buffs while active, which feels a bit like cheating in the early game.

That aside, the game's structure is very one-note and just plain boring. Whether you are infiltrating military bases, surveillance stations or techno-cultist hideouts, it makes no difference, the objective is always the same. You must find a specific door and get your agents through it. There are slight variations to this, such as escorting an NPC through that door instead, but it's always about finding that damn door. Upon successfully walking through it (and momentarily walking back out of it), your agent usually has a prototype on hand, which you need to take back to safety so you can reverse engineer it and make copies to equip your agents. Sometimes you also steal money from these doors. And then you scratch that mission off your list. That's the entire game, right there.

Satellite Reign (PC) image

As for how you get to these doors, it is "open world", so it's up to you, but generally it boils down to doing different combinations of the same stuff. You can hack things like cameras to turn them off, or reprogram sentry guns to get them on your side, but mostly you just sneak from cover point to cover point and occasionally shoot at enemies by clicking on them individually until they're dead.

After a while of this, I also became acutely aware that the game's overall narrative structure doesn't make a lot of sense. By taking over the city inch-by-inch, I had repeatedly pissed off the local security forces only to find that they would always forget about me if I ducked out of sight for a while. It didn't matter how many hundreds of cops or civilians I had murdered, or how many sabotages I had committed, or how many top-secret toys I had stolen, the authorities ultimately didn't seem to notice or care. There were never any security lockdowns, curfews, or enactments of martial law. In fact, there was very little escalation of the narrative at all, despite the fact that I had turned several installations into smoldering ruins in my wake. My extremely conspicuous agents were still able to walk down the street without fear of being hassled by the police as long as they weren't up to no good at that exact second.

With all of that said, there are a few cool things about this game. The "open world" is actually kind of neat, and works as intended most of the time. For example, if you disable a generator somewhere, it is a sure bet that an NPC will eventually be dispatched to repair it. However, all of the cause-and-effect stuff that happens within the city is calculated in real-time, and is probably one reason why the game has ridiculously high system requirements. Also, this living world does not always translate into interactivity. Aside from hacking ATMs to get more money and kidnapping people to harvest their genes, there is very little to do in the city aside from completing the missions. This begs the question as to why the open world format was necessary at all.

Satellite Reign (PC) image

In that same vein, the character progression is pretty well designed, but has its own share of problems. There is a high degree of customizability for your agents, including skills, weaponry, upgrades, gear, armor, shields, et cetera, and the overall process is generally pretty enjoyable. However, it is also extremely slow. The first ten hours of the game are absolute hell due to the fact that you basically have nothing but your guns and your wits, and this isn't enough to stave off the hordes of corporate troopers that will spawn every time the game's stealth system glitches out on you. At least when you finally get some high-level grenades, swords, cloaks, brain scramblers and other things, you will finally have more options at your disposal, but it takes a long time to get there.

So you see, even the high points of this game are counterbalanced by other aspects that suck, and I've really only scratched the surface. There is also the horrible research system,which requires you to wait literally up to half an hour (of real time) to unlock a single piece of equipment for your agents. There is also the fact that this game's competent writing is almost entirely hidden within collectibles that have zero relevance to the gameplay. Perhaps most damningly of all, there is the fact that this game has severe performance issues. Even if your PC exceeds the recommended system requirements, you will experience the aforementioned crashes along with crippling framerate lag in certain areas of the game, especially if a lot of activity is happening on screen.

For these reasons and more, I cannot recommend Satellite Reign in good conscience. It is a complete mess. It's a damn shame, too, because it has great ideas at its core. The concept of a living, breathing open-world cyberpunk city could be brilliant, but the execution here definitely leaves something to be desired. If you are in the mood for a cyberpunk fix, I would recommend sticking with Harebrained Schemes' Shadowrun series for now, or perhaps to wait for Cyberpunk 2077 to finally be a thing.


Nightfire's avatar
Community review by Nightfire (May 21, 2016)

Nightfire is a reclusive dragon who lives in a cave with internet access. Steam ID here.

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