Thoughts: Satellite Reign Early Access

I’ve received an early Christmas present! And it’s a very welcome one at that: my most anticipated game of the year has unleashed its first public build via early access (sort of – it’s been available to high-pledging Kickstarter-ers for a while now, but I was a numpty and didn’t put enough money down to get in on that action). After the obligatory internal debate over whether or not to wait for the final release before playing it (HA!), I booted it up and let my lofty expectations have at it. Will it be a Win-dicate or an In-The-Bin-dicate?

GRAND OPENING
I’ve said before that the main drawcards of the original Syndicate were the cities themselves rather than the ultraviolence which raged across them. They felt like real places and I’d often ignore the missions entirely to wander around and soak up their surrounds, happy to be an extra on a stage full of of civilians wandering about, cars queuing up at traffic lights, and gaudy adverts beaming from gigantic wall-mounted screens.

Five Lives have clearly taken this sentiment to heart. All of the key signifiers of Syndicate’s future-noir sprawl are present and correct and it’s hard not to feel a rush of nostalgia if you played the original back in 1993. At the same time, it’s far from a slavish copy – Satellite Reign’s city takes Syndicate’s gun-metal gaunt and mixes it with Blade Runner’s neon-soaked nightscape to create a look which recalls classic eighties cyperpunk. When zoomed in, some areas even bring to mind Westwood’s much-feted-and-berated 1997 Blade Runner game – with dynamic lighting put to very effective use, it looks a treat. Apart from the vehicles, which in my playthrough were all rendered as glowing slabs of white, the game looks stunning and could easily pass as a finished product.

1ST RECON SQUAD
Upon begining my playthrough I’m immediately compelled to take my agents for a leisurely stroll around the city, just as I’d done with Syndicate twenty-one years ago. I’m very happy to report that it’s a much better experience this time around. Walking down a street full of nightclubs is so evocative that it’s frustrating not to be able to go inside for a quick drink. I begin to harbour fantasies of Five Lives putting a first-person walking sim mode in the final game, so that I might amble down these sci-fi streets forever.

That’s not what I’m here to do, though, and as alluring as the city is there’s work to be done. I bring up the job list and select the highlighted tutorial mission: sneak into the compound where my missing fourth agent is being held captive and bust her out. Extra information (for a price) reveals that the place has an unguarded rear entrance which sounds like exactly the kind of cowardly approach I can get behind.

ASSAULT THE FORTRESS

I group my agents together and head towards the compound – the original Syndicate is echoed again in the form of the iconic radar ‘ping’ on your map which highlights your current objective. The rear door is indeed unguarded and I’m able to slip inside easily where I have my first brush with a security camera and, by extension, with Satellite Reign’s new stealth mechanics. I’d been slightly worried that the introduction of sneakycreeps would veer too far from the classic formula of Violence + Violence = Syndicate, so it was a relief to see how well it fits in with everything else. Being spotted by a camera triggers what’s basically a cooldown timer – if you’re spotted you have a few seconds to get back into cover before the alarm sounds.

I order my agents to gingerly walk up to the edge of the first camera’s scanning range, then as it turns the other way I tell them to quicky run behind it. Hurrah! I am the baron of barely-noticeable. I scroll the map around to see where my objective is and it turns out that it’s only a screen’s length from where I am. This rear entrance is awesome.

Waiting for the camera to turn away again I make my agents sprint towards the objective, where there’s a small alcove they can use for cover while I decide what to do next. This is too eas– oh, cluttery-fuck. I didn’t check the other side of the clearing for more cameras. Now there’s an alarm going off and many angry security people headed my way.

I decide to keep running towards the alcove with the hope of making some kind of stand there. The running part goes as planned but henceforth things quickly go south. My agents – bless ’em – refuse to shoot back, even as the security guards gleefully perforate their vital organs (as well as, presumably, their appendices). One by one they collapse unhelpfully into unconsciousness, and although they can be revived with medkits none of my agents have thought to bring one. Operation HodgeWin has come to an unceremonious end.

STIR CRAZY
I restart the mission and try again, this time making a point of figuring how to shoot before being shot at myself. After much frustration and swearing at my on-screen orderlies (which, I must say, they took commendably in their stride), I finally discovered how to make them brandish their guns. It’s this little button here:

And again for clarity:

It’s obvious in hindsight as it displays the current weapon once it’s been activated, but before that there’s no indication of what it does.

(To be fair, the game apologizes at the start for the tutorial being missing.)

Never mind, I’ve got it sorted now and I quickly make my way back to the compound where I hope to do things properly this time. I order my agents through the rear door again but this time they just stare at it and won’t go through. That’s odd. Maybe the unlocked door is something that randomly changes with each playthrough? I check the mission notes…. nope, the door should definitely be unlocked. I chalk it up to pre-alpha glitchiness and use it as an opportunity to try something different.

I walk around to the front and wait for all the security guards to leave, then tell my hacker to unlock the front gate. I’m in! That was almost as easy as the other way. The only problem is I’m now at the wrong end of the compound and there’s a lot of security cameras between here and my objective. Shouldn’t be a big deal, though – I just need to be clever.

I decide to cleverly shoot out the first camera, to eliminate the possibility of being spotted and having the people with guns sent after me. As soon as I do this, the people with guns are sent after me. I don’t know if they heard the gunfire or if the camera itself has some kind of failsafe destructo-alarm but they’re coming at me in droves. I panic and run for the objective again, hoping that my ‘shoot back’ plan will work more effectively now that I can shoot back.

And it’s here that Satellite Reign’s unfinished state becomes achingly apparent, as the combat is still a big old mess. Your agents are slow to respond and don’t always go to the places you tell them to, while the enemy combatants have a tendency to to run into you. That is, literally into you, so that they glitch into one of your agents and can’t be hit, forcing you to abandon cover and run away from them in order to get a clear shot again (granted, not a bad strategy on their part, but still). The combat is also littered with visual goofs like agents teleporting in and out of cover.

AWOL
Despite all the confusion I manage to keep things together for a while, until finally my hacking agent is gunned down. Which is something of a problem, as they’re the only agent capable of unlocking the cell our friend’s being held in. Without a medkit I’m faced with two options: spend some money to respawn them instantly or wait until they respawn for free. This would be a great system, if not for the fact that the agent respawns back at the start of the level – which, in this case, is all the way over on the other side of the map. This means you have to try to keep your remaining agents alive with one man down while your freshly-minted replacement slowly waddles back to the action. In practice this is almost impossible, not least because the situation is only triggered in the first place because you were already losing in combat. And it’s especially frustrating that the pathfinding doesn’t work well yet, so you’ll wonder why your new agent is taking so long to join the others – only to realize they got stuck at the first corner and gave up. Nnnnnngh!.

Unsurprisingly, by the time my replacement Hacker makes their way back to the fracas one of my other agents has fallen, re-triggering the exact same scenario. And by the time that agent returns the hacker has died again. At this point I said “fuck it” and restarted the map to break out of the loop – this respawn mechanic is one thing I hope gets replaced with something better in the finished game.

(There are supposed to be places in the city where you can set up your own respawn points, but in practice I couldn’t find any – I’m not sure if that’s because they’re not in yet or because I’m a bit thick and couldn’t spot them. But either way I’d prefer it if each mission (or building, even) had its own respawn point set up a couple of blocks away or something. As beautiful as it is to wander around the city, it’s a pain in the arse to be forced to do it when you have more pressing concerns.)

SPRING CLEANING
Happily, my third time goes like the proverbial charm. I enter via the rear entrance (the door working again this time) and take the long way round to my objective, sticking to the walls and sneaking past the cameras. I find a stairwell which leads to a parapet of sorts, a high path which looks over the compound. The guards can see me, but my position provides excellent cover and I’m able to dispatch them easily. With that done, hacking into the holding cell and rescuing my comrade is a trivial task, and with my team now four strong it’s a cinch to fight my way back out.

Freed from the close-quarters glitchiness I’d experienced before, I finally get a sense of how the combat is supposed to work. It’s less hands-on than Syndicate was, being mainly a case of selecting one (or all) of your agents then telling them which enemy you want them to attack, whereupon they’ll dutifully maintain fire until either they or their target are dead. This makes it much easier to split up the group to perform different tasks – for example, having a couple of agents fend off opponents while your hacker breaks into a building. Cover is used automatically by walking an agent into it, much like in Firaxis’ XCOM game. The combat isn’t overly complex but on the whole it feels very satisfying to use (when it works). It feels like the combat system Syndicate always wanted to have.

The other big change which has raised a few eyebrows among the Syndicate faithful is the new class system, where each of your four agents is assigned a set role which can’t be selected or changed. Happily, it doesn’t seem to be as restrictive as some have feared, as there’s a leveling up system which allows you to buff each agent up in different areas. So even though your crew will remain firmly ensconced in their roles (and even this early on it’s apparent that the missions have been very much designed with those roles in mind), there should be nothing stopping you from creating a shooty hacker or a sneaky sniper. And indeed, there’s nothing stopping you bunching them all together and using them like a faux-Voltron block-of-four super agent the way most people did in the original Syndicate.

CARRY ON DOCTOR
Their mission achieved, I walk my agents around the city for one last tour of its splendor before bidding them farewell for now. I’ll check back in once Satellite Reign is released in its final form. As much as I enjoyed sharing the sights with them, the unfinished business of bugs and breakages has compelled me to take leave of the city until it can be enjoyed properly in its finished state.

It’s worth noting, though, that all of the encouraging things I saw were part of the game’s design, whereas all of the frustrations came from bugs or unfinished features – stuff which should be fixed once the game ships proper. That strongly suggests that the final version will indeed be something very special. I approached Satellite Reign with the highest of expectations, and playing this early access build has only made those expectations higher.