Satellite Reign: Syndicate Wars Gets Spiritual Sequel - Games Weekly

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Satellite Reign: Syndicate Wars Gets Spiritual Sequel

Way back in 1996, PC gaming fans rejoiced when the subversive  Syndicate received a sequel; Syndicate Wars continued the story of a dystopian future of mega-corporations and citizens under mind control. Years later, Starbreeze Studios tried its hand at a first-person shooter reboot; the game met with lukewarm reviews and left fans of the original strategy title out in the cold. After years away from the franchise, Syndicate Wars’ lead Mike Diskett has brought together a new team at 5 Lives Studios to craft a follow-up to the two-decade lost cult hit, even if the name and setting are a little different.

Satellite Reign transports us to a similarly dystopian urban sprawl as its spiritual predecessor. “Governments have become nothing more than a façade,” says animator Mitchell Clifford. “The real power lies with mega-corporations, who bend society to their will via wealth, power, and brute force.” Players control an elite four-person team working for a smaller corporation, out to wrest control from its most powerful competitor, Dracogenics.

The game plays from a top-down isometric view. The in-fiction camera is a drone that gently floats above your characters, offering constant surveillance on their activities. Your squad freely roams a massive urban land-scape, and everything from terminal hacking to gunfights play out in real time. The city is alive with pedestrians, futuristic cars, and animated billboards.

Each of the four squadmates are distinct character classes, with further customization options as you level them up. A soldier is your front-line option, rolling into battle with heavy weapons and the ability to take a beating. The support role focuses on buffing and healing. The hacker taps terminals, shuts down cameras, and even takes control of civilian neural implants, heartlessly using them as human shields. Finally, the team describes the infiltrator as a stealth-focused “ninja-assassin.”

“The classes themselves are more of a starting point and a fl avor for each agent,” says designer Chris Conte. Subsequent upgrades shape your team, and physical augmentations further specialize each squad member. “If we just look at the chest augmentations, the player may be able to purchase an augmentation that gives better health regeneration and greater max health, or one that enables breathing in poisonous gas without taking damage, or perhaps one with a highly volatile core that detonates once the agent dies,” Conte says.

Satellite Reign’s most intriguing feature is its commitment to sandbox play and player-crafted mission progression. “You could theoretically go straight to the final encounter and attempt to take on the [Dracogenics] CEO, but you would be massively underpowered, underarmed, and under-augmented; you’d be likely to get your ass kicked,” says programmer Mike Diskett. “The whole game is about the player arming up for the final assault.” Players choose how to gather power and resources across the city, both through stated objectives and player-engineered situations. For instance, while it’s never a stated objective, a player could assault the central CCTV hub and temporarily bring down surveillance before an important mission.

I dug into an early build of Satellite Reign, and even the early minutes left an impression of quality. Smart, simple mouse-and-keyboard controls are intuitive. The city background art is neon-drenched and atmospheric. Combat puts a high value on using cover and smart character placement, but since everything plays out in real time, demands you think fast. The missions I confronted often included multiple incursion points, and numerous options in regard to how aggressive or sneaky I needed to be. There are even some fascinating opportunities to use public perception and propaganda to shape the city, hacking billboards to reveal corporate secrets, and turning the normally placid populace into an angry mob. With the citizens banging at the front door, your sneaky entrance through the back might go unnoticed. 

Satellite Reign is yet another small-team project that proves ambitious ideas don’t need to come from big-name publishers. I’m excited to explore the whole city when it hits final release this summer on PC, Mac, and Linux.

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