Release Date: 28/08/2015
Played On: PC
Available On: PC
Time Played: 33h
Progress: Completed Campaign + Side Objectives
Developer: 5 Lives Studios
Publisher: 5 Lives Studios

Remember the first time you installed Half-Life 2 and were forced to use that silly DRM launcher program called Steam? It was obtrusive and clunky; to the point that I found a hacked version of the game that didn't require it so that I was able to play Half-Life 2 without it crashing every time my internet connection dropped.

Thankfully digital distribution and online connectivity has come a long way since then, and allowed for better access to games that might never have made it onto store shelves. Steam and its competitors may be a questionable bit of DRM, but it's hard to argue that they haven't played a large role in getting smaller games into the hands of players.

Despite the occasional exploitative piece of garbage, there are now a plethora of small studios making games that would never have seen the light of day in retail stores. The range of niche, small, creative, and often cheap games available continues to grow and I can't get enough of it. If there was ever a downside, it would be too much choice, which is a nice problem to have.

Consequentially, I am one of those people with a huge library of games on Steam and other platforms, because I constantly pick up new titles in bundles and sales. Partly because I see new games and think "oh that looks cool", but also because I'm always eager to be surprised and find a new gem I wasn't expecting.

Satellite Reign is one of those gems that I had barely looked at until recently. I'm making a concerted effort to go through my backlog of games, but I'm starting by finishing off the ones I tried a while ago, but never got around to completing. I played about an hour of Satellite Reign sometime last year and saw enough to know I wanted to dive in, but enough to know that I needed some time to fully understand its systems and gameplay.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I restarted my initial progress and dived into the neon soaked world of Satellite Reign for the long haul. I didn't really know what to expect going in, as I've never played Syndicate (its spiritual successor) and haven't played many real-time tactics games since the Commandos series many moons ago. 

Suffice to say, I was pleasantly surprised and quickly racked up a bunch of time edging my way through the campaign. Despite starting out with that overwhelmed feeling of there being too many systems to understand; by the time the credits rolled I was confident that my super team of agents could take on any task with deft ease.

The nuts and bolts of Satellite Reign is that it’s an isometric real-time-tactical-role-playing game, which is a bit of a mouthful, but structurally sound. The entire experience is from an isometric perspective of a futuristic neon city where it's constantly dark and raining, but overall beautiful to look at and explore. There are no turns or grids, with all combat and movement conducted in real-time conditions for both the player and AI. Finally your agents earn experience for their actions and level up over time, earning skill points to be dumped into upgrades and skills. There's even an economical layer of researching better tech for your agents to equip like weapons and body augmentations.

All of that counts for only some of the systems at play in Satellite Reign, but I think if you're familiar with Syndicate, it should be familiar to some extent. It took me a while to acclimate myself to all the different options available to me, but eventually everything makes sense and becomes necessary to succeed.

The basic story is enough to keep the game moving, as you're some kind of organisation who is sent in to infiltrate and take out the CEO of some other organisation. It's playing with the corporations-own-everything sci-fi dystopia trope, which happens to be a favourite of mine, so no complaints there. Most of the story and lore is told through interacting with the city by hacking terminals for data, or through reading mission data to discover tasks and a bit of reasoning behind them.

More focus is put on the world than plot, which I appreciate, as I wasn't really looking for a narrative experience on top of all the gameplay systems. There was just enough to let me know what I needed to do, but not so much that I lost track of how to play.

In fact, most of the systems are like the story, in that they can be run in the background for most of the game. The city is divided into districts, which are obvious gates between difficulty, but ultimately open from the beginning. In theory you could fight your way to the final location immediately, but chances are you'd be done and dusted before getting through the checkpoint.

Effectively each are can be broken down into typical open world tasks. First you want to find all the quick travel points, then hack all the ATMs to increase your income, then infiltrate each key location in the district to complete missions and upgrade your gear.

Often missions will have multiple stages or optional ways to gather information and complete each task. Some of my favourite missions were later in the game, as they gave me the option of blasting my way in to complete the goal, or spend a bit of time preparing to make life easier. There's something ultimately satisfying about searching the city for an off-duty security guard, bribing them with some credits, hacking some terminals, then waltzing into a base with all its defences turned off as a direct result of these actions. 

Some missions can take a couple of hours to complete, but it really depends on how stealthy you want to be. There's always the option of opening fire and just shooting your way through each base, but the game definitely rewards you for stealth, so it pays to be methodical and careful. This pacing is probably the strongest narrative element in the game as it provides a real sense of moving through the living world with an elite group of agents.

Speaking of which, once you're past the first couple of missions, you're tasked with controlling four agents throughout the campaign. Each has a different specialty and skillset, which allows you to approach missions in different ways. The classes are fairly straight forward, but there's a good mix between a strong weapons expert, support healer, hacker, and stealthy sniper.

Early on in the campaign, I had to remember that there was no requirement to take all four agents into every mission. In fact, many times it would be dangerous to have a larger group as there are simply more bodies to control, which can get confusing as you're dashing between cover to avoid real-time enemy patrols. Sometimes all I would need is my hacker to sneak in alone and complete the objective, but the real jam of Satellite Reign is using your agents for different tasks in separate locations.

The game feels like an elite espionage and really gathers steam thanks to some of the base designs that have you controlling multiple agents across multiple locations. It feels good to infiltrate a base so that there are three agents ready to simultaneously hack three separate terminals that open a gate for your fourth agent to slip past undetected. Thankfully these sorts of strategies weren't too difficult to pull off, but required enough planning to make me feel like a bit of a bad-ass when it all came to fruition.

Unfortunately though, the downside is that by the time I reached the final (and hardest) district, I had upgraded my agents enough that it was no longer a huge benefit to spend hours planning a stealthy infiltration. Towards the end, each mission felt more like sneaking into a base and staying hidden until an enemy spots an agent and everyone opens fire. I quickly equipped all my agents with sound-dampening grenades, so that even in a firefight the AI had no idea where the shots were coming from.

A lot of RPGs struggle with the end-game conundrum of being completely over powered compared to the start, but it's not a deal breaker for me. I know I could have made it more challenging for myself by going for 100% stealth, but I often see the end-game power surge as a satisfying pay-off for all the early-game persistence.

Satellite Reign is one of those RPGs that falls victim to its own genre, as it seems to rely on a few key concepts that will make it easier or harder to play. Each time the penny dropped on a concept for me, I then found it a breeze to manage that element. For instance, I never took an offensive position and was going for stealth, until I found the sound-dampening grenades. Normally a firefight would mean every AI being alerted and running to your position, which would usually end in death for your agents. However, throwing out a sound-dampening grenade on top of the agents before they opened fire, meant that they could blast away at enemies without ever alerting the wider population. Eventually the loop became: enter base, move in until a patrol blocks the way forward, drop sound-dampener, open fire, move one.

Even though these are real concerns that eventually dilute the challenge of the late-game, they're not deal breakers for me. Maybe it's because I'm the kind of player who does all the side missions and levels up as much as possible before progressing, so I'm used to being over-powered. Perhaps it really is a case of those last missions being a nice easy reward for the earlier, more challenging ones. I suspect it's a bit of both, but I never felt like the game was letting me down. Instead the progression felt realistic and well-paced, as it became more about difficult bases to infiltrate, instead of strong enemies to overcome.

While all of this is happening, there are a number of little systems going on that will help or hinder progression. Each agent is a clone with certain base stats and attributes, which can be added to with carried gear, body augmentations, skill tree skills, and weapons. Hacking the terminals around the city and infiltrating each district's bank will earn a certain amount of credits every second. The credits get used to bribe NPCs for missions, buy gear, and pay for research.

Most missions yield prototypes of gear, augments, and weapons that can either be equipped for a one-time use, or researched to produce multiple versions in the future. Researching a prototype costs credits and takes time, but there are scientists around the city who can be bribed and enlisted to help speed up research. Essentially it boils down to a balancing act of ensuring that you have enough money coming in via hacked ATMs to pay for any active research projects. Finally you want to have enough credits saved up to buy that awesome Plasma Minigun you just researched, so it can be equipped and used by your agents.

Again, the economy and research systems are simply a matter of patience, as you can earn credits just by standing around and keeping the game active. Thankfully this is also well paced, as you earn credits fast enough that it's not a chore, but slow enough that you have to prioritise what you're going to spend cash on.

Weapons are the usual affair of pistols, shotguns, rifles, and heavy weapons like rocket launchers and miniguns. There are the usual sci-fi ammo types as well like standard ballistics, to plasma and lasers. Each weapon and ammo type has pros and cons as you would expect, but I found that I could handle everything easily with a few plasma weapons for armour damage, and a laser equipped sniper to break down shields.

Gear and augments are much the same as they enable different abilities and different approaches to missions depending on how each agent is equipped. Bases around the city have multiple points of entry, but some require special skills or augments like using zip lines or being able to reach high vents. 

Even the agents provide some choices, as you have the ability to scan and hijack any civilian wandering around the map. Doing so allows you to use them as a potential clone for your agents in the future. It's a nice way to offer different base stats and upgrade agents, which also changes their appearance whenever a clone is replaced. Whenever an agent dies, they are cloned again with degraded stats, so replacing them with new clones becomes part of the loop and a nice way to keep things fresh.

The main thing that agents carry over from clone to clone is their loadout of equipment and skills. Fortunately there are plenty of options when it comes to loadouts, which will change the way you tackle challenges and missions.

By the end of the campaign, there were many prototypes I hadn't researched, and a bunch of agent skills I hadn't bothered unlocking, because they didn't suit my playstyle. I had all my agents equipped to access high vents and zip lines, but none of them had stealth units to render them invisible for a short time. I only had one heavy weapons user, but everyone had sound-dampening grenades. It's really great to see how changing each agent's loadout can affect how each missions is approached, and a credit to the game for offering that level of depth.

I think that's a key reason behind why I enjoyed myself so much with Satellite Reign, as it offered a lot of depth that could also be ignored. There are still some things I don't completely understand, because I never approached a mission with that option in mind. It really let me play the game how I wanted to play, which is high praise indeed for any open-world RPG. It doesn't matter if there were a million ways to play or just two, because it always felt like I could choose exactly how I wanted to play.

Whenever I dig into my backlog of games and pull out something to try, I'm prepared to be disappointed and retire early. This is especially true when it's a game like Satellite Reign that can be overwhelming at the start when you haven't played many games like it. However, I'm pleased to say that after an initial learning curve, I thoroughly enjoyed myself all the way through.

This is the kind of game I look for online, as it's clearly a niche title made by a small team who are passionate about making something worth playing. I love how accessible it is, as I've been burned by tactics games that ask too much from a new player, or lack the depth of bigger titles.

Satellite Reign is beautiful to look at, interesting to learn, and full of fun obstacles to overcome. There's plenty of balance and options to keep it interesting and that feeling you get when finally infiltrating a base that's taken some creative planning to pull off, is worth every penny.

Maybe I'll try some more real-time tactics in the future and not be put off by the overwhelming learning curve. At the very least, I'll keep exploring the backlog to find more gems just waiting to be played. 
 

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