Kidnapping, murder and meat shields: the grim cyberpunk world of Satellite Reign

Satellite Reign is being pitched as a spiritual successor to Syndicate Wars, and is being headed up by the 1996 game’s director, Mike Diskett. He tells us that he felt ”part of Bullfrog’s heritage was being diluted” with the 2012 FPS reboot.

In February 2012, fans of the classic, cyberpunk squad-shooter Syndicate let out the disappointed sigh that had been building for months. EA’s glossy reboot of the franchise appeared to confirm their worst suspicions: that the series had been bent out of shape to fit the Call of Duty mold, and that the isometric Syndicates of the 90s were consigned to stay there. The 2012 reimagining of Syndicate wasn’t a bad game – critically, it was largely well-received. But to the old guard, that didn’t matter. Syndicate 2012 didn’t do what it said on the tin.

“When the EA game was announced as an FPS, I was quietly relieved [at the fan reaction and demand for an RTS],” says Mike Diskett, director of 1996′s Syndicate Wars, sequel to the original Syndicate. “But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel annoyed that part of Bullfrog’s heritage was being diluted by creating an FPS, which is kind of the gaming equivalent of a Hollywood summer blockbuster.”

But with the Syndicate series now set firmly on its new course, fans of its forebears can take comfort in Satellite Reign – Diskett and 5 Lives Studios Kickstarted return to formula.

“All five of us were working at Sega Studios Australia when Sega announced they were going to close the studio,” says Diskett. “This immediately started a frenzy of ‘what next?’ for everyone, with lots of little groups forming outside work hours, planning ways to stay in the industry and in Brisbane. In my forward manner, I simply emailed everyone saying I wanted to Kickstart a spiritual successor to Syndicate Wars and who was with me? Chris [Conte], Mitch [Clifford], Dean [Ferguson] and Brent [Waller] were all fans of the original game and each brought their own speciality game development skills to the team, so off we went, hell for leather, the five of us putting together the kickstarter pitch in our spare time.”

The world the studio is building reads like a classic cyberpunk checklist: shady corporations, fringe science, human experimentations and a neon city as dark and gloomy as the story behind it.

The 5 Lives team, from from left to right: Dean Ferguson, Chris Conte, Mitchell Clifford, Brent Waller and Mike Diskett. Satellite Reign’s Kickstarter reached its £350,000 funding goal last summer, and has now raised over £460,000.

“The government is a paper thin layer with no real power – the corporations make the laws and enforce them,” says Diskett. “Joe Public has become so used to the status quo that revolution doesn’t really enter their mind as an option – but the arrival of your group can change this.”

This group of yours comprises four ‘agents’ working for a shadowy organisation to bring down the corporations for reasons unknown. These agents (which you control from the point of view of a fifth team member, remotely observing the squad’s actions with recon drones and relaying orders from base) can be ordered to battle the corporations’ security forces head-on, or – through manipulation of what the 5 Lives are calling the game’s “open, living metropolis” – effect revolution by more surreptitious means.

“One of our key motivations in the combat design is that the player can win by multiple means. We fully expect players to come up with devious tactics that we haven’t even thought of,” says Diskett. “Brute strength or stealth tactics are both fun, but theres always the possibility of hacking, bribery or ID theft that you can use, for example, to get into a secure compound, steal some important item and get out without firing a single shot.”

As the agent in command, you’ll have wide scope to develop your squad in whichever of these directions you like; either by researching new upgrades back at base, trading for supplies on the black market, swiping choice tech from the corporations or even kidnapping scientists and putting them to work in your lab developing augmentations for your team.

Human augmentation is commonplace in Satellite Reign’s future, and Diskett promises many different brands and variants competing for your ill-gotten credits. Some of these will be combat-focused, but more discerning (or cowardly) players will be able to outfit their soldiers for stealth, or with augs that can tweak the environment to their advantage. The Hacker Scan, for example, projects a mild electromagnetic pulse that reflects back off electrical circuitry like a sonar ping, highlighting power lines and electronics that the player can hack or destroy to tip odds in their favour – or perhaps avoid trading bullets with the authorities altogether.

If stealthy infiltrations aren’t underhanded enough for you, the team also promise you’ll be able to spin the media’s opinion of the corporations in your favour, spreading your own propaganda to make their illicit dealings more difficult, or even spur civilians to take up arms alongside your squad. But the press can also work against you: starting a firefight that ends with commuters bleeding out on the pavement will fuel the public perception of your agents as bloodthirsty marauders, rather than stalwart defenders of the people. On the other hand, hacking into a civilian’s brain-computer interface and marching them out to soak up bullets might not affect your public image at all – provided there are no witnesses left alive to report you.

“I don’t really think of it as good or evil,” says Diskett. “Its more like you are a totally amoral group. There are a few underlying motives [in the game]. There are the motives of the group that has recruited you to bring down the corporations, there are the agents themselves who exist purely to complete their specified goals, then there are the morals the player brings to the game. The player can wipe out civilians, bring them over to their cause to help them against the corporations, hack into them and use them as meat shields – even use them as suicide bombers.”

As with everything that 5 Lives is promising with Satellite Reign, these grizzly options are, as Diskett describes it, “like Syndicate Wars, but with more depth.” But maybe the more exciting thing about games like Satellite Reign is that developers are now free to build games that can include hot-button mechanics like kidnapping and suicide bombing without fear of making a publisher blanch. It’s early days for Satellite Reign, but perhaps the same fans who were disappointed by EA’s abandonment of Syndicate classic have more to be thankful for than they realise, as if Diskett and the rest of the 5 Lives team can live up to their vision the game’s grim future, Satellite Reign could be the full, adult evolution of Syndicate they wanted in the first place.