Memory can be a strange thing. Especially with old games. We’ve all returned to a beloved classic to discover something unplayable and been unable to reconcile warm memories with the broken experience of something that hasn’t aged well. (For me it’s Resi 2, which is regularly reloaded and ditched within hours.)
This is why Mike Diskett, the “lead programmer and coffee machine fixer” of Five Lives studios, is honest about Syndicate Wars, the game he wants Satellite Reign to be a successor to. “We think people’s memory of [Syndicate] is that it was a much better game than it actually was. When it came out it was amazing [but] trying to return to it now? I find it almost impossible. There are things missing, and it’s simplistic in that all you can really do is kill people. There are no kind of real tactics to it.”
So the Five Lives team is aiming to recreate the memory of Syndicate, rather than the game itself. Building something that plays like, and captures the feel of, its four augmented agents in an oppressive future city. There’s clearly a demand for that memory too, Satellite Reign’s Kickstarter easily met its goal and a pre-alpha build is now in the hands of backers. I haven’t replayed Syndicate in years, but playing Satellite Reign is exactly how I remember it.
The pre-alpha build is basic - just a city district with a few missions - but you can see how Five Lives is selling those old memories. Wandering the streets as a ‘not at all obvious’ group of trenchcoat-wearing cyborgs plays perfectly on just about every cyberpunk and sci-fi trope you can think of. Blade Runner-esque advertising screens hang over steaming streets. Guards and cameras hover threateningly on the periphery of public space. People wander about in plastic outfits waving holographic wearables, while Fifth Element taxis float around. It’s not just selling itself on Syndicate Wars, it’s going after anyone who’s ever had a soft spot for sci-fi.
When it comes to the city, Five Lives is, again, trying to recapture the essence of something Syndicate Wars did, rather than recreate it exactly. “No other games at the time were trying to simulate whole cities” says Mike. “That was the crux of [Syndicate’s] gameplay: that you were unleashing four powerful agents in this cyberpunk city environment.” But where the original created the façade of a thriving urban environment, Satellite Reign is fleshing it out with simulated life, with things like better NPC AI and a functioning infrastructure to abuse. It’s possible to reveal an X-ray of the city’s wirings, letting you do things like hack cameras or doors by tracing wires to their source, or power down police stations by pinpointing the right generator.
“That was the crux of [Syndicate’s] gameplay: that you were unleashing four powerful agents in this cyberpunk city environment.”
Adding further layers to this simulation are the NPCs, wandering around with a range of needs. “There are stats for boredom, bravery, hunger,” explains Mike. “We’ve got ‘having a full bladder’ so people will actually drink, then need to urinate down a back alley or find a toilet. In fact they can get arrested if they’re seen urinating. They get bored and go off to find something interesting. They can get hungry and find something to eat. When I first put that feature in I didn’t stop your agents from getting hungry. So you’d be in the middle of a battle and one of your soldiers would go off and buy a burger, politely queuing up at a burger stand.” It’s a complex system, and Mike jokes that all it would take to make a cyberpunk Sims would be to take the agents out.
Having played the pre-alpha a few times I like where Satellite Reign is going. As it’s such an early build it’s too soon to really judge any of the deeper systems or progression (the UI for example is rudimentary, and full of placeholder pages). But that sense of what I remember Syndicate being, is there - lots of standing around in trench coats looking suspiciously cool, while probing the limits of what you can do with RTS stealth, hacking and shooting. During a few replays of the pre-alpha city district I hacked open literal back doors, deactivated cameras and dodged guards. And, when all else failed, shot everything.
The real meat will come from developing and specialising the agents. Currently, there’s not quite enough there to flesh it out fully, so the classes - soldier, assassin, support and hacker - are more promises than anything else. Each has an obvious unique ability or two, opening up broader options - the assassin can cloak and use ziplines for example - but it’s the longer game I’m interested in. Especially when Mike tells me that “each individual can be tailored. You can make your support guy more of a soldier if you want, depending on how you spend his skill points and go down the tech tree.”
Even with low level characters there’s an open world feel. You have a list of potential tasks, but the only primary objective is “to overthrow the corporation.” The structure is more about opportunities and choice, rather than a strict tick list. So you could choose objectives that get you better weapons or gear, or disrupt police responses and camera communications and so on. The next mission is the one that makes the most sense to you in your current situation.
With games like Wasteland 2 and Divinity: Original Sin showing there’s a lot of love for classic CRPGs, there’s definitely a space for Satellite Reign. Even Wasteland 2’s Brian Fargo conceded his sequel needed to be updated for modern tastes, so making the game people remember, not the one they played, seems like a smart move. There’s also no small amount of irony to a studio selling digital memories of a cyberpunk world full of brain implants and neural interfaces. If you want a new Syndicate then Five Lives can dream it for you wholesale.