Satellite Reign: tactical action in a cyberpunk city

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"The environment artist is having a field day," says Satellite Reign lead, Mike Diskett, and it's no wonder. Satellite Reign is described by its 5 Lives as the "spiritual successor to Syndicate Wars," a tactical, squad-based RPG set in a dystopian futuristic city ruled by warring corporations. It's a city of eternal rain, streetlights, noodle bars and augmented rogues that draws inspiration from Blade Runner, Neuromancer and the the cyberpunk canon.

It also has an exciting, open-ended structure. "It's like the whole game is sidequests," says Diskett, "but with a storyline that is revealed through emails that you encounter, and the data you get to access throughout the game." As you go about your business doing deals for shady black market weapons dealers and dodgy backstreet surgeons, you gradually uncover an underlying narrative that puts your team in competition with the sinister ruling corporation. Diskett was lead programmer and producer on Syndicate Wars, and has worked on open worlds for Rockstar North and Mucky Foot. His passion for open environments and emergent narrative is hardwired into the project.

It's a city of eternal rain, streetlights, noodle bars and augmented rogues

"One of the things I really hate about computer games is when they're linear, and when they're scripted. When you can tell that you've just walked into a bounding volume and you've triggered an event and it's going to happen every time you do that, and everybody's playthrough is going to be exactly the same," he says. He describes the pleasure of avoiding missions in GTA to wreak havoc instead. "That's what I like to do in Satellite Reign. In creating the whole world, you're creating systems that can interact, and that the player can interact with."

Those systems are centred around VIPs—characters that have the knowledge or access that you need to complete a mission you've found. In a dark future full of hackers, militarised clones and organised crime, there are various ways to convince these marks to help your cause.

"There's a hijack thing where you can hijack into their neural networks and take control of them. You might take control of someone and walk them in and get them to return their keycard so you can use their keycard to enter a secure facility, or you can blackmail them. There's bribery, and there's threatening them.

"Blackmail requires that you have some blackmail material. Threatening them can involve directly threatening them with a weapon, or having the ability to threaten them through a third person, like finding a character's wife and holding them hostage."

Here Satellite Reign's ambitions surpass Syndicate's. Violence was your best weapon in the 1997 game, which resulted in what Diskett describes as a "kind of flat" experience. "All you can really do is kill people. We want to give more ability to interact with people in the world. That's why the classes got introduced, to give you more variation in what you do in the world, and how you interact with everybody and how you go through and complete your objectives."

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You control a squad of four clones that can be upgraded as your reputation grows. If they're melted by bank security or meet the wrong end of a gangster's club they can be resleeved in a new body. Fortunately, their unique skills survive that process, which means your soldier will retain his competence with firearms, and your assassin can still become invisible and dispatch guards with his blade.

As classes level, their roles diverge and overlap. Your supporting medic can deploy shields and attack drones, and your assassin can become a sniper. You deploy this tailored ability set against well-guarded facilities full of roaming guards and camera systems, which your hacker can burrow into, of course. A secondary vision mode highlights hackable machines and their respective terminals to allow for non-violent infiltration.

VIPs, mission-givers and objectives are spread throughout four large city sectors, heavily guarded by the city's corporations. You earn access to each sector gradually as you grow more powerful, but Diskett is keen to make sure that progression doesn't straight-jacket players. "In terms of mission design, I'm really bored of playing missions when everything's spoon-fed you," he says. "It's like 'go kill someone' or 'go get the briefcase' and you're told explicitly what to do. We're making it much more that the missions are in the city to be found."

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It's this that interests me most. The promising early videos show a world I want to investigate, complete with wavering streetlight reflections and neon storefronts. The team used prototype builds of Satellite Reign to produce its early promotional shots for its successful Kickstarter charge. Diskett sounds only slightly disappointed that the playable build "can only manage about ten thousand" rain particles in a given moment. It's a big test for the Unity engine, especially considering Satellite Reign's open-ended structure, but it's also a chance for Diskett and 5 Lives to return to the 1997 game he worked on and bring it closer to Bullfrog's original vision. "What we were trying to do with Syndicate was create a Blade Runner game, a Blade Runner universe, and we're still very much trying to recreate that world with that detail."

Playable alpha builds are just around the corner for backers, and we'll have some hands-on impressions for you soon.

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.