Monday, November 9, 2015

Satellite Reign Review!

                I’m one of those gamers that got to play a lot of old school games, but wasn’t born early enough to catch all the great classics in time therefore never really managed to play all of them (I’m working on this). Syndicate is an example of a video games series that made history and it’s imprinted in the memory of many gamers, but such is not the case for me and because of this the review won’t serve as a comparison between old and new.
                Satellite Reign comes as yet another Kickstarter project set on rekindling the magic of the older and tactical games that didn’t break through into the new era of gaming. With the creator of Syndicate Wars on board, 5 Lives Studios aims with Satellite Reign is to deliver the atmosphere and gameplay of the Syndicate series adapted for the current time period, serving as another spiritual successor that we so got used to see nowadays.
                Satellite Reign’s action takes place in a flashy neon cyberpunk city separated in a few major districts which are under severe surveillance and control of various powerful corporations. A rather dystopian and bleak landscape for a future that is brightened up by the city’s commercial panels instead of an improved quality of life that should come with better technology.
In this world immortality has been achieved through a system which can upload one’s mind to a new body. This unnatural technology sets up the main goal for the game as it’s currently controlled by the Dracogenics Corporation making it the number one power in the world and of course the main enemy in the game.
                The player takes control of a squad of four mercenaries that are dropped into an open ended world with the ultimate goal being to infiltrate into the Dracogenics Tower and putting a stop to this corporation’s reign of power. How and when you get there is up to you.
                I would like to have more to write about the story, but that’s about it. The story is minimalist and doesn’t do much besides setting up the action of the game while describing some of the working wheels behind this corporate world opening up a playground that has the means for the players to create their own story. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but the world doesn’t have much to it in order to make this concept work and the story ends up being what you get at the beginning and at the end of the game with few information and radio communications in between.
                Even if the story isn’t the main focus of such a game, its lacking adds for a disappointment factor that keeps growing throughout the game. I didn’t expect the in depth non-linear choices focused on moral conundrums story of an RPG, but considering the number of factions in play I felt the need for more context than having to stop an evil corporation and others that stay in my way through means that can only be described as evil themselves (the road to Heaven is paved with bad intentions?! Hmm… this doesn’t sound right).
Satellite View
Only if such messages where better represented into the game...

                With the story being on a tertiary level much of Satellite Reign’s focus goes into the game mechanics that shape the overall gameplay and for the tacticians out there this might sound like a blissful dream (hold your horses!).
                After choosing the game’s difficulty, completing a short tutorial and gathering some of your group’s agents, the game has you jumping into this rather massive world without knowing where to start and just having a blurred idea about where it will end. The beginning is overwhelming since the game mechanics are not something you see in the more common isometric tactical games of today and while learning them doesn’t take long, progressing into the game doesn’t come so natural.
                The game’s world is open and split into multiple districts with each district requiring a pass to enter. The districts are unique in architectural style and layout and none of them are free of the corporate shadow that engulfs this world as a whole. Private patrols are roaming the streets, surveillance cameras are forever watching and much of the area of each district is private and heavily guarded to keep safe the secret researches and protect the ton of money that these corporations maneuver.
Money plays a big role in this world (what a surprise!) and with this comes one of the steepest economies I’ve seen this year in a game. While this doesn’t say much considering the examples (Pillars of Eternity, The Witcher 3, etc.), gathering the resources necessary to move on pose a challenge and considering the dizzy beginning this task would definitely feel scary for a while.
The future is bright!
Religion still exists.

                The player’s group of four agents has to make it through this hopeless world which is befitting for their aptitudes. A soldier, a hacker, a support and an infiltrator each specialized in tasks according to their class name are the agents that the players have at their disposal to deal with any potential problems and while these agents cannot be changed they can be constantly improved through a cloning and conscious transfer process. This unnatural technology not only allows the transfer of the agents mind into more powerful bodies, but also grants them a sort of immortality as their mind is never lost but also such is the case with the fear of permanently losing an agent.
As part of the process of improving the agent’s physical capabilities, better cloning bodies have to be provided and in order to do so the player has to take control over the mind of people found on the streets, being civilians or the corporate goons. This entire system is a good touch with the game’s reality, reminding the players that the line between moral and immoral has been wiped clean leading to a controlled world where the most important thing is the struggle for power in order to climb in the hierarchical ladder. This is an eye-opening matter for those that think there is a battle between good and evil in this game and when realizing how things work, the game mechanics are the limit.
                Through the agent’s classes system and the intricate level design Satellite Reign’s gameplay supports a wide variety of play styles that can make each new playthrough a completely different experience. Stealth and nonviolent approaches are as much of an option in this game as is full out war.
                The agents synergize extremely well with one another but the possibilities put at the player’s disposal make their importance to the group vary according to each player’s approach. This system opens up all kind of crazy strategies from the 4 man army that goes in with the weapons blazing to having one agent sneaking by himself and hacking his way to the corporation’s base core. The variety in gameplay is one of this game’s strongest points and it shines because of the world design which offers multiple ways of solving a mission. Climbing through the ventilation system, using the terrain as cover to sneak around and even sliding on zip-lines from one building to another are some of the conveniently placed weak spots in each heavily secured area which provide the tactical freedom required in such a game. But this complexity and freedom of movement comes with a severe price that was paid in mission’s quality.
My zip-line specialist.
Looks toxic

                Saying the missions are repetitive could be an understatement as Satellite Reign seems to be this year’s champion at repetitive content (the competition was fierce). Almost every mission resumes at infiltrating in a corporation base as each player sees fit to steal intel, blueprints or money and to make matters worse in an ironical way, each objective door looks identical. But as with The Phantom Pain, the missions in Satellite Reign could be looked at as a good way to test the better game mechanics which are the focus of both of these games. Even if the use of repetitive missions is a common practice in open world game, Satellite Reign doesn’t even try to break out of the repetitive trap it’s stuck into and continues in the same way for almost the entirety of its length.
A door.. every time...

                Getting back on the track of positive things, the great world design has a lot to offer but this wouldn’t be enough to build a higher gameplay quality if the players didn’t have the proper tools to exploit this world. In order to do so, there is an agent’s progression and a research system that expands the game mechanics by providing new ways of dealing with various situations.
                Each of the agents has a unique set of skills specific for their specialization. These skills can increase the passive stats of the agents, but also provide abilities that make the agents more efficient in combat or non-combat situations based on their proficiency. To reinforce the character progression system, Satellite Reign has a lavish research system which provides much more depth than expected. The players can choose to research various cybernetic augmentations or equipable gear, but what stands out is the good number of weapons and upgrades available.
Death from afar!

                The research system is extremely progressive coming with few available possibilities in the beginning but their number increases drastically as the player steals more prototypes from corporation’s facilities or buys them on the black market.
Researching new items is extremely resource consuming, not only the time required to unlock something is measured in gameplay time but a lot of money are needed to keep the research running until is complete and then again to purchase the newly researched item. This is where the steep economy of Satellite Reign comes into play. Researches and players choices make the economy important not only in the beginning but for the most part of the game and considering the cash inflow is well balanced (but exploitable) unlocking new items through research always feels rewarding.
I'll blow off with you then come back!

                This whole level of complexity that is achieved through intelligent level design, clever game mechanics and a strong character progression system should serve as great tools for Satellite Reign’s combat, if only the combat was that good to be worth all this trouble.
                Satellite Reign has a real time combat system in which the player can control four or even more characters at a time during battles. While the number of controllable units seems a joke compared to what is seen in Real Time Strategies, for a game like this it is more than enough to complicate things in an unnecessary way.
                The choice of making a real time combat without a pause mechanic weighs heavily on the gameplay and the combat system itself making each fight when the agents are outnumbered a challenge, but not in the good way. In theory it shouldn’t be too hard to micromanagement four important units, but the reality is shockingly different.
I used to play Starcraft 2 at a casual competitive level (if I can call it that way) and I had difficulties dealing with my group of agents in this game. Abilities pile up as the game progresses and the enemies become stronger as well and while in the beginning there are a few commands to use in order to deal with the enemies, by the mid game that situation changes. Having to use each agent’s abilities, while having to select each agent’s weapon, while having to position each agent in cover and select their targets it’s a cascade of micromanagement hell that can turn even an easier fight into an absolute nightmare. It doesn’t help that the character control is extremely sluggish and the queue movement that was put at the player’s disposal is not as accurate as it should be.
                The multitude of problems that come from heavy micromanagement and unpolished character control shapes the available options for strategic play into unwanted ways making the engagement much more important than the real fight itself. Having to deal with all these problems made me avoid combat as much as possible focusing more on two agents stealth play while running like crazy between heavily armed guards when things went wrong.
Lasers power!
Traffic stopped for a mild inconvenience.

                The stealth gameplay is good but inherits the clunkiness that comes with a bizarre character control. But compared with the combat situations, this problem can be overcome much easier when sneaking around. Moving from one cover to another and sneaking behind a patrol to take it down silently with a pistol makes up for satisfying stealth gameplay in an isometric game. But even the stealth has its shortcomings that take away from this enjoyable experience. The lack of a crouch or prone option is inexplicable and piles on the number of complaints related to character’s controls, but these missing features are nothing compared with the enemies AI which doesn’t behave properly in stealth situations.
This wasn't a bulletproof plan.

                The AI doesn’t shine, it has its moments when patrols react properly putting an abrupt end to a bold sneaking move or they assault the player’s group vantage position putting destroying a courageous attack, but more often than not the AI causes troubles through high numbers and advanced firepower instead of intelligent behavior.
As Satellite Reign is an indie game that was made possible through a Kickstarter campaign, my expectations for the AI weren’t that high to begin with, but I’m still bothered by the fact that the AI is missing on behaviors that should be mandatory for a game mixing combat and stealth mechanics. The fact that the enemies react to weapons and shooting sounds but are not alarmed by dead bodies not only simplifies the game, but these unplausible situations break the immersion. And speaking about immersion breakers, the city of Satellite Reign is in a continuous motion yet it’s one of the most lifeless settings I’ve ever got to experience. The NPCs move in all directions following somewhat logical patterns and are alarmed by combat or shady activities while the cars stop so pedestrians can cross the street or even jaywalk, yet it still doesn’t feel natural. The problem comes from the lack of details for the AI behavior. There are no dialogues or activities, every NPC is just going into its set direction creating a general feeling that they are moving aimlessly just because they have to be moving as part of the decor.
Corporation troops fighting each other.
One of those moments when the AI hits a wall.

                Despite the things I’ve said above about the combat system those of you that love to see some tactical action in video games aren’t going to be fully disappointed with Satellite Reign. The combat might be problematic through controls, but unlocking the grenade makes things much easier because it’s so powerful that it manages to streamline the tactics reducing some of the more difficult situations in the early and mid-game to a pyrotechnic show (I haven’t had so much fun with a grenade since Deus Ex). I’m not saying this is a good answer to the problems but it does bring the combat balance back into the player’s favor in a fun way without having to stress out with each fight. By the end of the game when more weapons, augmentations and gear have been researched it gets easier to engage in combat, leading to a point where the most effective options is to go in gunning everything in the way.
An explosive plan!

                There is a lot of potential wasted with the combat system and the final fight comes as a cruel reminder of how poorly some of the combat features are implemented while teasing the players of how much more engaging and challenging this game could have been if everything was done right. I feel that the pause mechanic seen in RPGs with real time combat would have come in handy here. In all fairness during difficulty selection the players can choose to have a time slowdown ability which makes the combat a lot easier because it gives room for micromanagement. This ability can be obtained manually in the game through one of the agent’s skills and while it’s useful and has a redeeming quality is still not enough.
                In its majority, the gameplay of Satellite Reign is solid offering a ton of options that add greatly to the replay value especially if combined with the Iron Man difficulty mode. The game steps off when it comes to combat and controls and it doesn’t help that the missions are madly repetitive, but it wasn’t such a turn off for me as I was expecting it to be (I might be a farmer undercover) and none of these problems stopped me from finishing the game.

                For its shortcomings in every aspect I’ve mentioned until now, the graphics in Satellite Reign are impressively impeccable for a 3D isometric perspective. Some of the details might wash away when zooming down bit it’s unrealistic to expect much more from an isometric game being AAA or indie. It feels like the bulk of resources that 5 Lives Studios had was mostly invested in the map design and its graphics details leaving little to the rest.
                The colorful neon art style of the city covered in screens depicting futuristic commercials is befitting for a cyberpunk and quite an eye candy view if powerful colors don’t cause you nausea. The rain pouring down the city creating reflections on the asphalt amplify even more the illumination of a city that looks like a futuristic Vegas during night time. It is a play on color, light and shadows that make Satellite Reign one of the most beautiful games of the genre and if the city didn’t have such a lifeless feeling the overall view could be truly majestic.
The only things that could wake you up from the trance state that this dystopian yet so lovely looking city can put you in are the performance problems that Satellite Reign which includes freezes and fps drops, common issues for 3D games using the Unity engine. Much of the problems seem to be triggered by the game’s physics, which besides making the game unplayable for a short period of time add up to the technological beauty and the available tactical options. Bugs are also common in Satellite Reign with weird things happening like ghost cars passing through other cars or even characters, but this was to be expected.
Dracogenics are everywhere.
Flashy stop point.

                The background music works perfectly with the city atmosphere and the cyberpunk theme of the game inducing a techno dreaming state that blends with the state projected by the neon graphics. The futuristic sound effects serve the game well despite not delivering the highest standards of quality that we got used within the latest years. The sound design might be fuzzy at times but it works for the induced atmosphere and not against it.

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I don't think red means friendly.

                Satellite Reign is in a paradoxical state of being a disappointing game despite being pretty good. Its extensive potential is sadly (once again) limited by an indie development which didn’t allow squeezing more quality because of a tight budget and so another great opportunity goes away just partially explored. Its gameplay mechanics feel unpolished and incomplete at times while the need of more production value is visible at every corner. Despite being flawed, Satellite Reign stays strong with its liberty of action reinforced by great level design and in depth mechanics which allow the players to approach the game in their own unique style.
                The strains of indie development might stop Satellite Reign from achieving the greatness it deserves, but surely don’t stop it from being a cyberpunk delight that the fans of this setting are going to consume despite its problems.

(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)

+ Amazing neon cyberpunkish style graphics
+ Great level design
+ Suitable music
+ In depth character progression and research system
+ Plenty of tactical options
+ Interesting game mechanics
+ UI design

- Repetitive missions
- Problematic combat system
- Sluggish controls
- Performance problems
- The story needs way more development
- The city feels lifeless
- Lots of bugs


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