Review: Satellite Reign

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I missed out on the Syndicate games in my youth, but know enough to understand the comparisons Satellite Reign draws to them. I also know now those aren’t favorable comparisons, despite efforts to imitate key parts of the design. Satellite Reign is very much its own thing though, a mix of real-time strategy, stealth, open-world exploration, and team management. It’s a bold and impressive mix, held together with a magnificent aesthetic but dragged down by flaws in its weakest elements.

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Dracogenics has perfected a cloning system that can essentially allow a person to live forever. Using this as leverage they’ve become the de-facto ruling body of the dystopian cityscape the game takes place in. Obviously not everyone is happy about this, and you happen to run a terrorist cell with access to stolen cloning technology. With your functionally immortal squad, you begin a long campaign to amass the hardware and resources necessary to infiltrate Dracogenics and blow their hold on society. And if that means burning a few research labs, gunning down a few hundred security guards, and kidnapping citizens for their genetic material, isn’t that the price we pay for freedom?

It’s important for cyberpunk games to nail not just the look but the feel of their setting, and Satellite Reign succeeds here admirably. You are very much not the good guy here for reasons that will be expanded upon in the mechanics, and that narrative integration with the game systems does a lot for immersion in a grim and gritty world. Corporate grips on the world are apparent from the vast tracts of private holdings you’ll need to infiltrate and the proliferation of company soldiers out on the streets. You’ll also catch glimpses of life in this dark future, like the desperate folks charging the district checkpoints without passes and being mowed down by the unyielding automated turrets.

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With the aesthetics well in hand we can focus on the mechanics, which are solid in their arrangement if not in their execution. The tutorial portion of the game helps you build a team of four agents, each with a specific role like hacker or infiltrator. Your agents gain experience to level up their unique skills both active and passive, everything from brutal takedowns and scanner sweeps to health boosts and zipline proficiency. They can be outfitted with weapons, armor, attachments, and cybernetic augments all customized to fit the type of soldier you wan to field. Gear is obtained as prototypes from successful raids, and can either be equipped immediately with the risk of being lost if the agent is killed, or researched for mass production.

Elements like funding and researchers are where the team management ties into the open world of Satellite Reign. Within the four vast districts of the metropolis are public areas full of citizens, data terminals, ATMs, and security forces keeping the peace. Your team can hack ATMs to provide a small but steady funding drip, building it into a deluge once you compromise most of the city’s banking. Scientists can be recruited from the crowds if you can locate them, usually by scanning. Scanning also reveals stats on civilians which links into the most interesting and darkest aspect of the game. Your agents are clones, and every time they die their base stats degrade. To get around this you can kidnap people and harvest their genes to create stronger, fresher clones to house your terrorists. This side task can be surprisingly engrossing, scanning and tracking prime specimens until you can isolate and black-bag them without alerting anyone.

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All of this serves to build up your team to take on the corporations, which means infiltrating their compounds and stealing their stuff. Secure areas are winding mazes of roads, alleys, catwalks, ziplines, air vents, and balconies separating you from the structures you need to raid. Your team is kill-on-sight in these zones, so you have the option of going in guns blazing or taking more stealthy avenues. Stealth is highly dependent on skills and can be a harrowing experience, as the map is designed more with realistic layouts and patrols in mind than clandestine access. On the other hand, once you’re spotted and the alarms go off you’ll be facing near-infinite waves of soldiers, making your infiltration more of a slog than a shootout.

This right here is the core problem with Satellite Reign, situated in the very heart of the gameplay and aggravated by every contributing aspect. The real-time combat engine lacks a real pause function (there’s a skill you can upgrade to slow time but it’s a poor stop-gap), leaving you with little time to exercise the fine control needed to execute stealth. That causes most missions to devolve into shootouts against crushing waves of enemies. To give you some wiggle room here, your agents are quite beefy once upgraded even a little and take plenty of sustained fire to bring down. But to balance this out, enemies are similarly beefy and take tons of shots to dispatch. Instead of intense tactical firefights, you end up stuck focusing one enemy down at a time and hoping they don’t melt your armor before you melt theirs.

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It’s not enough to sink an otherwise deep and stylish game, but it sure as hell is a major drag on it. After a few hours I began dreading new missions into the sprawling compounds, because try as I might I simply could not stealth the whole way through and always ended up losing an agent or two trying to pull everyone clear of the target. Victories felt strained and stolen, not hard-fought or masterful like they are in other tactical games. I absolutely adore stealth and tactical games but their combination here felt so much rougher and hard to manage than something like Invisible Inc, and it’s the adherence to the real-time control that does it. But even with a dedicated pause function you’d still be struggling against ever-present patrols and ridiculously armored enemies every step of the way.

Satellite Reign gets so many things right, it makes the one thing it gets wrong all the more painful. It’s got an amazing look, opting for the clean neon approach to cyberpunk but drenching it in melancholy rain and walling it off behind brutalist architechture. The sound design keeps up with appropriately crisp effects and a moody soundtrack. The writing is on point, the missions are many and varied, and the interface won’t take long to master despite containing tons of options and information. It’s only the infiltrations, the combat and the stealth, where the game stumbles hard, and that just happens to be the cornerstone of the gameplay. If you’ve got the patience to push through it and master it to a greater degree than I did, then perhaps you can fully enjoy the grim and glossy future to be found within.

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