Satellite Reign: Lou’s review

Last updated: 3. Jan. 2017

So Satellite Reign has been out for a while, and I am finally sitting down to write a review. I have been following the development of the game rather closely between the launch of the Kickstarter campaign and the release of 1.0 and covered it on this blog and on twitter. After finally playing the game through, it is now time for my own review.

[If you are wondering why it took so long for me to write a review: The answer is a combination of reasons, among them the fact that my old PC couldn’t run the game well enough, work-related periods spent abroad and other “real life” things.]

The most important thing first: The game does in fact feel similar enough to Syndicate Wars to be considered a spiritual successor and it is quite a bit of fun. The squad of four agents, the cyberpunk setting, the isometric perspective (not really, but you know what I mean), and the soundtrack all evoke the feeling of the classic Syndicate game(s). Here you get a prime example of a development studio “getting” what a successor to a classic game should be like, rather than trying to force the franchise into some new direction in a misguided attempt to adapt it to “modern” needs (I’m looking at you, Syndicate FPS Shooter). And this is what 5LS deserves most credit for.

Overall I enjoyed the game, although it has some shortcomings which ultimately stopped me from getting totally hooked on it. It was definitely worth the money, but it was nowhere near the amount of fun I had with the originals, and sadly fell somewhat short of my expectations. In the following, I will go through the various aspects of the game and discuss both good and bad things.

Look and atmosphere
This is easily the strongest area of the game. The city looks very atmospheric and visually interesting. Brent, the environment artist, has done an outstanding job with the futuristic-dystopian atmosphere of the city. Nothing to complain about here.

Engine / Performance
Satellite Reign was from the beginning designed to be a Unity 3D game. This comes with up- and downsides. The upside is that the development is rapid, as a lot of components and tools are already there. A game of this scale from such a small studio would most likely not have been possible in this timeframe without such a high-level engine. Another upside is the cross-platform support (I played on Linux; support for Linux was much appreciated). On the downside, the biggest problem is performance. During the entire alpha/beta phase users have been complaining about mediocre or even downright poor framerates. It is true that things have improved towards the end of the development cycle, as more work was done on optimizations. Also, some of the users who complained loudly about performance issues turned out to suffer from specific bugs. But still, the performance at release was not great, and it has barely improved since. If you check the Steam forum you will see dozens of threads where people are complaining about low FPS and stuttering. Maybe for hardcore gamers who always have the latest tech it’s not that noticeable, but the reality is that many people can’t afford to buy a new graphics card every year and are stuck with poor framerates. Besides, considering that the game does not have particularly fancy graphics, it just *shouldn’t* run that poorly even on older hardware.

Another downside of this engine is the dependence on Unity to fix their engine bugs. Unity is a huge beast, and it has its own share of problems. I have observed more than one occasion during the development of Satellite Reign where a bug which players suffered from turned out to be a bug in the Unity Engine. At that point, the devs have no choice but to report it to Unity and hope their engineers will fix it. In other words, the game developers don’t have full control over all areas of the game.

Combat and Gameplay
I have mixed feelings about the combat. This is the area where I feel the devs have departed the most from the originals. Some innovations are positive, especially the cover system. But overall, the combat in this game doesn’t feel quite right: it is slow, boring and repetitive. This is especially regrettable because in my opinion the stand-out feature of the originals (especially SW) was its fast-paced, even crazy-hectic combat.

I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time why it is that the combat in Satellite Reign does not feel satisfying for me. One important reason seems to be the responsiveness and animation speed of the agents. Everything feels sluggish. Agents walk slowly, they turn slowly, they die slowly, they react slowly to commands. I am suspecting it may be an intentional choice to slow down the combat so that players have more time to issue commands (which is however completely against the design of the combat in the original games).

Most of the weapons feel underpowered. It takes a long time to whittle enemies down, even with late-game weapons. Four guys shooting miniguns at a single enemy from an arm’s length, and it still takes quite a while to kill him? That feels super weak compared to SW where you could mow down scores of enemies in seconds with miniguns. [A side note is that there is no interruption / knock-back from shots, which feels odd.]

Another issue with the combat is the lack of blood and gore. SW was notorious for its cruelty, both in a moral and a physical sense. Yet, in this one, enemies who get shot don’t even leave any blood on the ground. There is a little bit of particle blood animation, but it’s almost unnoticeable. Dead bodies disappear very quickly. All of this together gives the combat a sterile feel. Small things like injured agents leaving bloody footsteps could have added a lot to the atmosphere of the combat. [There are apparently corpse explosions, but only with some specific weapons in the late game. I have not observed this in my own playthrough.]

A different combat issue is about the autonomous behavior of the agents. A problem with this type of game is that you don’t always have time to micro-manage every agent. So the agents should show some degree of autonomous behavior (at minimum: reply fire). The difficulty is that if the agents are given too much autonomous behavior, the players feel like they lose control, but if given too little, the agents feel “stupid”, just standing there and taking hits. So it is a fine line to walk between both. If you check the Steam forums, you will see that it is a point frequently brought up by players. However, what really bothers me is that Syndicate and Wars had an ingenious solution for this problem: The drug sliders in the HUD. The drug sliders allowed you to drug your agents in various ways, to make them more or less aggressive. If they are in the aggressive state, they will become more autonomous, i.e. they will not hesitate to shoot at enemies and even hunt them down. If you turn the slider to the other side, they will become more passive. But for some reason, 5LS decided not to adopt this mechanic, although it would have been perfect to solve exactly this problem. This is a major oversight in my eyes. [There are the Rage and Team Stims skills, but they are not a full replacement]

Enemies, gear and weapons
What I really liked was the diversity and design of enemies, gear and weapons. There is a lot to discover (probably more than you can appreciate on a single playthrough). I especially liked the various mech enemies towards the end of the game.

Respawning enemies and combat rewards
One reason why the combat feels repetitive may also be the fact that enemies respawn infinitely and there is nothing to be gained from continuously killing them. It doesn’t feel like I can achieve anything by continuing to shoot the masses streaming from the enemy barracks. So a lot of times during my playthrough I actually just ran into the compounds as quickly as possible, ignoring all enemies, grabbed what I needed and ran out again. A part of this issue is that there is no real loot from dead enemies (besides ammo, which I rarely needed). If enemies would drop cash or weapons which I could pick up, it’d give me an incentive to actually enter into combat rather than just running through. [There is probably XP to be gained in combat, but the XP mechanism is quite obscure and we are never told how it is assigned.]

RPG elements
Another major change to the gameplay is the introduction of various RPG elements. The four agents have a class each, and they can learn skills and level up. There is also a lot more sneaking and stealth play in this game, which gives it more of a “Commandos” feel. Now while I do like RPG games, I feel these elements do not fit the Syndicate games. Syndicate has always been a shooter. Yes, there are some strategic elements in between missions, but the core gameplay was mostly fast-paced shooting. Adding these RPG elements for me personally was not an improvement, it slows the game down too much and feels out of place. It would have been better in my opinion to spend more time on making the combat satisfying rather than adding unnecessary RPG elements.

The reason for introducing classes was explained by the devs at some point during the development: Their goal was to avoid that players just bunch all four agents together and use them as one big gun. This reasoning is comprehensible, but I feel that forcing four fixed classes was not the right solution for this problem. Most of all, it limits my options as the “criminal mastermind” in charge. It would have been much better to let the players choose freely which specialisation to give to a certain agent and which agents to bring on a mission (any combination from the pool of available agents, as in X-Com). So for some missions, it would be good to bring four soldiers, but in others you’d want to bring a hacker to open some doors etc. The mission briefing could say “make sure to bring at least one hacker to infiltrate the building”, so we know what’s up before we go in.

The stealth mechanics by themselves are fun and open some new possibilities on how you want to tackle a certain mission. It feels a lot like Commandos (which is a good thing). However, an issue is that (unlike in Commandos) you can’t see the exact field of vision of enemies. So a lot of times you end up unintentionally triggering enemies, which can be frustrating.

Mission design
The mission design is OK. The vast majority of missions are of the ‘infiltrate a base’ type. This is fun for a while, but it becomes repetitive. There are also some assassination and escort missions, and “fetch/deliver a parcel from/to location X” missions. But there would have been a lot more options.

I believe the lack of diversity comes mainly from the fact that they wanted to stick to the “emergent gameplay” mantra, which was a selling point during their Kickstarter campaign. So enemy agents and police officers are programmed to show a certain behavior, but there is hardly any scripting. This works well enough in the “infiltration” scenario, but it doesn’t work for other types of missions. There are almost no unique events which happen during missions. I feel that the missions desperately lack some scripting to make them more unique and engaging.

Respawn timer and city transportation
A mechanism which I didn’t like very much was the respawn timer. I understand that there should be some sort of punishment for dying, but a respawn timer is not a good solution in my opinion because it forces the player to just wait. As a gamer with limited time, I don’t want to wait, I want to play. In fact I think that dying by itself is enough punishment (nobody likes to see his agent be killed) so that there is no need for an additional punishment. Besides, the fact that the agents walk so slowly and (when running) run out of stamina extremely quickly already forces me to wait a lot while the agents run back to where the action is. So there is really no need to make me wait further.

As there are no other ways to travel on the map than to either walk/run or use the beacon teleportation, I am already forced to wait a lot while my agents move from point A to point B. So in difficult missions where I had to retry a couple of times, I ended up spending a lot of my play time just waiting — either for the respawn timer or while my agents were walking from the nearest beacon back to the action. Being able to use cars or (as in Syndicate) trains could have helped to solve this issue.

Bugs and Glitches
The game has been fairly buggy throughout alpha and beta, and even at release time there remained a number of problems. I have experienced my own share of bugs during my playthrough (of the release version), including issues with a dual-monitor setup (there is an easy work-around, but still), achievements unlocking by mistake, an agent falling through the floor and disappearing, and a major problem during one play session where inexplicably all enemies became “non-aggro” and I could just walk through any hostile compound unharmed (this was fixed after I restarted the game). Nothing game breaking, but still annoying, and I feel that 5LS should up their QA game a notch.

The UI and HUD design is a weakness of the game. First of all, the HUD’s visual design is lacking. There is nothing atmospheric about it, nothing science-fiction-y, in fact there is nothing visually interesting about it. But more importantly, the HUD is a major usability train wreck. The clickable elements are way (like, waaaaay) too small, e.g. the weapon selection button which is just a few pixels wide on my screen. How players are supposed to be able to click on these reliably in the course of a hectic gunfight is a mystery beyond my imagination. The icons for the guns are also extremely small and non-iconic. Considering this is a game which is mostly about shooting people, aren’t the guns, like, the most important thing? Why would you make them so small then that you can barely see them without a magnifying glass? In comparison, Syndicate Wars had large weapon icons which were easy to click, as it should be, so this feels like a major regression.

What puzzles me even more is that they actually reversed some of the logic which the HUD had in SW. In SW you clicked on the gun to change it, which makes sense. But here you have to click on the tiny button next to it to change the gun. Clicking on the gun will rather cause the agent to pull out or hide the gun (toggle). I just wonder, if you are marketing the game as a spiritual successor to a classic game, why on earth would you change the logic of the UI in such an unnecessary and counter-intuitive way?

The menus are not great, either. They are overloaded and confusing. You will get used to it eventually but it’s not at all easy to get into. For example, why do we purchase weapons in the “loadout” tab, but “prototypes” through the “mission” tab? Why is the blackmarket even listed under “missions”, since it is not a mission at all? And under “loadout”, why do I have to choose “gear” or “weapons” first, and then click the agent, when it would be more intuitive to first choose the agent, and then edit his or her weapon/gear (like e.g. in X-Com)? Why can’t I go from the gameview directly to the full-screen map (instead I have to go through the “mission” tab each time)? They really need to streamline and simplify this stuff, so that the menus become more intuitive to use.

AI and living city
Considering that the “ermergent gameplay” and the living city were a major selling point in the Kickstarter campaign, the result did not impress me. The city actually feels pretty dead outside of the compounds which you have to infiltrate. Not much going on, not much to do. Strangely, you don’t even hear the people in the city talking to each other. The “living city” is pretty much restricted to people randomly walking around (and running away when they hear gunshots), (almost) silent traffic, and the fact that you can follow cables to take out certain installations like cameras or doors or access ATMS/data terminals.

The AI is limited, as well. Many players on the Steam forums complain about erratic behavior of the opponents. I have myself witnessed a number of cases where enemies were just running against a wall.

Tutorial and learning curve
The game is not easy to pick up. There are a lot of things which you have to figure out by yourself. This is not necessarily a problem if the mechanics are easy to discover and intuitively designed. Unfortunately, they are neither, which results in a steep learning curve. The tutorial helps, but it doesn’t cover everything and it is also a little frustrating because it is so slow and you can’t save.

A case in point is the management of clones. It is briefly explained in one of the early missions, but it took me a long time to properly understand how it’s meant to work. The “clones” page in the menus is one of the least intuitive ones in the whole game.

A sign of poor design is also that the game has a multitude of different ways of giving you instructions. There is TAG talking to you (only rarely – I wonder why?), there are messages in the top-right corner of the HUD, and there are messages in large print popping up in the middle of the screen (“Prototype acquired. Get to safety!”). In the tutorial there are many popup messages which appear all over the screen. Why not just settle on one way to give the player instructions, and do it consistently? (I would have liked to hear TAG’s voice more often)

A lot of information about missions can only be found in the mission screens (in the menus). It can sometimes be hard to discover, especially if new information becomes available during a mission and there is no indication that I am supposed to go back there to look for that information (placed among a lot of other mission text all strangely pressed into a narrow column in the middle of the screen).

Music and Sound FX
The soundtrack is very good, I enjoyed all of the tracks. On the downside, it is short and becomes very repetitive. It was actually a relief to reach the final mission in the game because it finally had a new music track after hearing the same few tracks over and over again during the campaign.

The sound design of the city is a bit lackluster. It feels pretty empty because of the absence of pedestrian chatter. Also footsteps, traffic noises or background sounds could have made the city feel more alive.

Cut features
There are some features which were originally supposed to be in the game, but didn’t make it in. This is not a huge problem, as we all know that things tend to take longer than expected and that plans change. Things which didn’t make it for the release of version 1.0:
– entering and using cars
– police coming after you in cars
– the augmentation screen which was in one of the Kickstarter videos
– localisations

The localisations have since been released, but the other things haven’t. I find it disappointing that after 1.0 they decided to work on multiplayer rather than delivering these skipped features.

Overall, I give Satellite Reign 7.5/10 points. The game is definitely worth getting and playing. It does in my opinion qualify as a spiritual successor to Syndicate Wars, although it does go its own way, and some of the changes lead too far away from the originals for my taste. The look and atmosphere of the dystopian cyberpunk city and the soundtrack are outstanding. The game does have some shortcomings and not all aspects of the game are well designed in my opinion, but it is a big achievement for the small studio. The major problems are performance issues, unsatisfying combat, lack of mission diversity, poor UI/menus, and too many bugs.

If I were to guess, I’d say the underlying issue was that the developers were overly ambitious and tried to do too many things with limited resources. It’s a big game in a big city, with a lengthy campaign, a lot of diversity of gear, weapons and enemies, featuring a variety of mechanics like combat, stealth, hacking, research, cloning, skills and combining various genres like shooter, stealth game, RPG, strategy. That’s a lot even for a big studio, let alone for the first title of a small, five-member indie studio. It seems to me that concentrating on fewer things, but making sure those are refined and polished well, would have been the better approach.

I wish the team good luck for the future, and hopefully we will see more Satellite Reign content (expansions, sequel) in the future!

Here’s my wishlist for improving the current game, Satellite Reign 1.13:
– add ability to drive cars
– make cops chase after you in cars
– add random events / missions around the city
– add augmentation view which was in one of the Kickstarter videos
– HUD and menu reworking
– weapon/cash loot from enemies
– better sound design, add pedestrian chatter etc.

Here’s my wishlist for a sequel:
– use faster engine (Unreal Engine 4?)
– hire more programmers who can fix bugs and a dedicated QA team
– better, faster and more satisfying combat
– more mission diversity, scripted events/missions
– less RPG elements, drop classes and leveling
– bring back drugging agents (through HUD sliders)
– add a base where you agents have a home when they are not on a mission
– city transport like trains etc.
– fully destructible environments, including buildings

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