Satellite Reign Is The Syndicate Successor Gamers Deserve

Satellite Reign Preview
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Syndicate was a huge success for Bullfrog – and particularly Peter Molyneux. But it was the 1996 sequel, Syndicate Wars, which made me fall in love with the concept. Syndicate Wars was brash, riding the mid-90’s wave of the West’s newfound love of Manga and a fresh era for the Cyberpunk genre, and it took the original to new heights of moody ultraviolence, shot through with pitch black humor.

Unfortunately, beyond an ill-judged FPS reboot from EA, Syndicate has largely been stuck on a shelf in a high-tech vault somewhere for close to two decades, leaving hordes of older fans – myself included – praying to the digital gods for someone to come along and give us the modern successor we desired.

Satellite Reign Is The Syndicate Update Gamers DeserveThankfully, one other person who also wanted to play a new Syndicate game was the lead designer of Syndicate Wars himself, Mike Diskett. One successful Kickstarter and over a year in development later, we’re now able to see what a modern Syndicate might actually have looked like, had history unfolded slightly differently.

Satellite Reign is still heavy in development, but already Diskett’s spiritual successor to the Bullfrog classic is showing enough polish, atmosphere and smart gameplay that I keep going back to the Early Access demo. Partly to soak in the wonderful atmosphere of the world that Diskett and his team at 5 Lives Studios has created, but also because they have managed to update and refine the gameplay of the original so well that going back to the actual Syndicate games reveals just how unrefined and scrappy they actually are.

Syndicate is an isometric tactical game, where you control a small squad of corporate agents in real-time, waging war across city maps in a bid to bring down a rival corporation. It was fun, and incredibly violent (for the time) with a bleak sense of humor; but you could never accuse Syndicate of really doing justice to the actual tactical side of the real-time tactics equation. Sure, you could upgrade your agents to better levels of technology and acquire better weapons; but the upgrade path was rather linear – the toughest exoskeleton was always the toughest exoskeleton, and by and large your agents were all carbon copies of each other, with nothing beyond their weaponry and upgrades to set them apart from each other.

Diskett and his team clearly understand this, and as a consequence playing Satellite Reign‘s early build reminds me of another game from the 90’s: Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines.

In Commandos, your plucky team of Soldiers were sent on a series of missions deep in enemy territory and it was your job to work out how to accomplish your goal using the tools at your Satellite Reign Is The Syndicate Update Gamers Deservedisposal. With each member of your squad having completely different abilities – one could wear a disguise, one was a sniper, another was demolitions expert – each level wasn’t so much a gauntlet as it was one giant puzzle. Multiple solutions meant you weren’t screwed if you buggered up halfway through a mission – just as well, because some levels could take hours to complete; but by and large you were forced to approach each obstacle tactically and think outside the box, if you were to complete your mission with all of your squad mates intact.

Satellite Reign has a lot in common with Commandos. Perhaps, aesthetics aside, even more so than it does with Syndicate: each of your four agents has their own specialism, and how you combine their skills to overcome each situation is key to each situation. Do you get your hacker to shut down the nearby surveillance and sneak past the security cameras undetected? Perhaps you get the hacker to steal money from a cash machine, and use it to bribe an official into giving you the access codes to where you need to go? In public areas, your agents can walk around largely unmolested by law enforcement, but just make sure that you don’t have your firearms drawn, otherwise you’ll start a panic and before you know it, someone has raised the alarm, forcing you into an impromptu firefight.

The malleability of the game’s interlocking systems is impressive then, and the freedom to mix up playstyles and adjust on the fly is enhanced by the fact that everything takes place in one seamless environment. In Syndicate and Commandos the action all took place in enclosed locations, custom-designed for that mission. Satellite Reign gives that approach the middle finger, whips out its chain gun and tears it to pieces with hot lead. Hell, you don’t even have set objectives for the most part. While there are going to be missions in the game, Satellite Reign is being designed to give players as much freedom as possible to play it as you want, so there’s nothing to force you into playing through a set of linear objectives.

Instead, it’s going to be left for to you to decide how you want to spend your time in the city. Perhaps you’ll want to raid the bank where a rival corporation keeps a huge stash of its funds. Maybe you want to cripple their defenses by breaking into their security network or sabotaging their bases. Or you could always just start a riot in the streets and start taking potshots when the police show up. The open-ended nature of the game is refreshing, but I have some slight concerns that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, and some may find the freedom a little overwhelming, especially when you need to really have a handle on the various abilities of your team members.

Satellite Reign Is The Syndicate Update Gamers DeserveNone of this would count for much if the city wasn’t large enough, or interesting enough to hold your attention. Thankfully, based on what I’ve seen so far, it looks like Satellite Reign‘s virtual urban playground is going to provide more than enough nooks, crannies and secrets to explore. The current Early Access build consists of just a single section of the city, but it’s impressively large and packed full of detail. Many of the assets are reused, of course – tailoring each individual building and bit of graffiti or road section would be beyond the capabilities of even large-scale, big-budget endeavors. 5 Lives may have received nearly half a million pounds to fund its project – and that figure has no doubt increased thanks to Early Access backers and post-Kickstarter donations – but it’s still modest compared to some of the biggest Kickstarter projects, like Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity or Double Fine’s Broken Age. And Satellite Reign is being developed by just a small team of industry veterans, rather than an established studio.

But despite these financial and staffing limitations, Satellite Reign‘s city still manages to be both impressively large – at least, based on the demo – and with enough variety and atmosphere to keep you engrossed. Neon signs are everywhere, giant advertising billboards plaster the sides of buildings, and rain pours down out of the perpetual night sky overhead. Zooming in for a closer look is a frequent temptation, though on closer inspection you start to see a few rough edges – lack of detail on the character models, some rough textures.

Most of the gameplay also isn’t in there yet. You’re free to wander around the map and use your abilities – following a relatively smoothSatellite Reign Is The Syndicate Update Gamers Deserve linear tutorial; but so much of the underlying gameplay hasn’t been built yet, with the small selection of placeholder missions amounting to simply infiltration jobs. So much of Satellite Reign is still a largely unknown quantity then, and still a long way out of reach; but what is playable is a good demonstration that the team is more than up to the task, so long as they keep their eye on the ball and the scope of the game in check. The last thing I want to see is yet another high-profile tale of a small developer letting its ambitious gameplay aspirations get the better of it. But there’s no sign that 5 Lives is in any danger of that happening.

Sound at the moment is sparse, as is to be expected. A smattering of atmospheric effects lend character to the city, weapons feel meaty, and a great soundtrack layer on a sense of foreboding. The sound of the rain falling is a constant companion, as are sirens in the distance and the sound of people shouting in a foreign language in the streets, though there’s a slight disconnect between what you hear sometimes and what you see on the screen. Thunder rumbles, but lightning doesn’t flash – which is a shame, considering the lighting engine is absolutely fantastic.

My main bugbear at the moment is the UI, which currently feels a bit unwieldy, with icons being far too small and text being difficult to make out without sticking your face close to the screen. After one prolonged session I found myself suffering from a rather unpleasant case of eye strain, and the problem only gets worse as you increase the resolution, suggesting that proper UI scaling is yet to be implemented. The UI has evolved a few times since the early Backers’ version of the game, and it’s clear that Diskett and his team are still trying to nail down the best interface.

Of course there are the usual bugs, placeholders and crashes. Satellite Reign is a lot more stable than it once was, but as with any game at this stage of the development process, you can expect plenty of technical issues. The launcher sometimes stops responding, and while gameplay is seamless once you’re in the city, the initial loading time could do with a bit of optimization. Put up with the normal foibles associated with playing a game that’s still in active development though, and there’s a lot of fun to be had simply trying out new approaches and navigating the city.

5 Lives clearly wanted to nail the basics of gameplay before optimizing the core tech underpinning everything, and with the team currently transitioning the game to Unity Engine 5, I have my fingers crossed that the final game will be polished, satisfying and suitably expansive.

Based on what I’ve played so far, I can’t wait to get my hands on the finished game.

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Angband Retrospective – an exercise in typeface terror.

Angband Retrospective
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Originally Published on Continue Play

If you were asked to think of a fantasy RPG that was crushingly difficult, mechanically complex, obsessed with character statistics and utterly merciless when it comes to punishing the slightest mistake, then the chances are you’d immediately name Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls. And you’d be right of course – those two games, with a third due to arrive in March of next year, have gained a justified reputation for all of the above. How many other games would celebrate their difficulty with such pride that they ask you to “Prepare To Die” before you have even slipped the disc into your machine?

But what if I told you that there was another game, predating those two by over twenty years which makes them look positively lenient in comparison? You might balk at the idea, but such a game exists.

Welcome to Angband, a game so sadistic that after two decades there are still players who have yet to conquer it; a game that can bring you out in a cold sweat simply by displaying a capital D on the screen.

Created in 1990 by Andy Astrand and Alex Custer during their time at the University of Warwick, Angband belongs to the Rogue-like genre of games; a sub-genre of the RPG named after the game that spawned it, these games are best known for random generation, permanent death and presenting their worlds purely in ASCII characters. Oh – and for being very, very difficult.

The goal of the game is simplicity itself – descend to level 100 of the dungeon and slay the monster Morgoth. That’s it. There are no side quests requiring you to fetch 8 sacred pieces of some long-forgotten amulet, no relationships with other characters to be developed, no party to manage and no tracking of morality. There’s just your character, a town screen and 100 randomly-generated dungeon levels filled with loot, traps and monsters.

Beyond that, it’s fairly standard RPG fare – if a game this devious can ever said to be standard. You create a character, choosing gender, race (11 in total, each with their own unique racial traits, starting stats and attribute modifiers), and class. You can then choose to whether to let the game auto-roll your final attribute scores or to allocate them yourself using a basic points-based system. Finally all that’s left to do is choose a name for your hero and off you go.

Boot it up for the first time and you might scoff at how laughably primitive Angband looks. After all, it’s a game that makes the humble ZX Spectrum look like a graphical powerhouse. Modern versions of the game (even after all this time it is still receiving updates, though Astrand and Custer have long since moved on from the project) have a selection of tilesets to choose from but in my opinion they actually detract from the atmosphere. If you want the “pure” Angband experience, then you’ll turn the tilesets off and play the game in all of its original ASCII glory.

The reason for doing this is simple: this is a game that rewards imagination. Having those tiles representing everything is all well and good, but it’s best, in my opinion, to simply let your mind fill in the blanks. A small 8×8 tile of a mass of white worms will never be as horrific as what your mind can conjure up. It may just be a “w” on the screen, but in your imagination that innocent letter of the alphabet will be transformed into some disgusting, writhing mass covered in ichor and beady black eyes. There may be no sound coming out of your speakers but you’ll swear you can hear every time your foot falls on dank stone and the fluttering of your torch’s flame in the darkness. Playing Angband is like a trip back in time to when the power of imagination was far greater than what a computer was capable of rendering on screen. The irony is that it actually feels more real because of it.

After getting over the shock of the visuals, the next challenge in front of you is learning how to actually play. Everything you do in the game is performed via keyboard presses and selecting options in menus. Again, this might all sound basic, but Angband is as ruthlessly challenging and mechanically deep as any game you care to mention. Your first clue to how complex this game is will come with your first look at the command list.

The game utilizes 93 basic command inputs, so many that it differentiates between lower and upper case keystrokes. For a large number of those commands, tapping the key will simply open a sub-menu with a further list of options, which will then take you to yet another menu. If you’re first starting out in Angband, you’d do well to ensure you have a separate window open to keep track of what every button does (and thankfully there are a number of excellent starter guides available online).

While a few those commands are for system functions like saving and quitting the game, the vast majority will need to be used if you’re to have any hope of descending to the 100th level of the dungeon and slaying the vile Morgoth. Corridors need to be searched for hidden passages, mineral veins and collapsed rubble needs to mined and tunneled, potions need to be quaffed and traps need to be disarmed (assuming you spot them before it’s too late). There are separate keys for praying, casting magic, learning magic, wearing and taking off armor, throwing items, aiming wands etc. The list is mind-boggling.

If you’re worried about whether or not you’ll be able to remember all of those commands in the heat of the moment as you desperately try to escape from whatever alphabetical horror is chasing you down a darkened corridor, then don’t be – the one blessed concession granted by the game is that it’s entirely turn-based. The world won’t act unless you act first, so no matter how desperate things may seem you can take all the time in the world to consider your next move. That zombie might be mere inches away from sinking its teeth into your neck, but it’s still polite enough to wait patiently for you to respond.

Not that it will make a huge amount of difference, mind. As I said before, the game is tough. At least in Dark Souls, if you die you respawn at the last campfire you rested at, your inventory and skills intact. Angband has no such respect for you. If you die, the game promptly deletes your save and presents you with a crude depiction of a gravestone complete with your character’s name, level, how deep into the dungeon they were and how they died. Get used to that screen – you’ll be seeing it a lot. And your deaths won’t be noble; a sticky end awaits around every corner and is never more than a moment away. You’ll die of starvation (characters need to eat in the game, every action gradually sapping their energy reserves), you’ll die after being ambushed by monsters while resting (there are no safe areas here), or by casting a spell only to have it backfire and disintegrate you.

The loot you pick up frequently needs to be identified, but the scrolls required to do so are expensive. If you’re a Wizard and sufficiently high-level then you might have learned how to identify items magically, but casting the spell carries a high mana cost and you never know if there might be a monster just around the corner waiting to take advantage. Of course, you could identify an item by using it, but doing so is risky. That shiny new sword could be cursed, that potion could be poisonous, and that scroll could summon a swarm of monsters from the darkest depths of the dungeon to surround you. Even the loot has it in for you.

Even in town you’re not safe – urchins will sneak up behind you and steal your items, a mercenary might mow you down simply for getting too close and even the village idiot will follow you around trying to drool on you.

And when you descend the stairs back into the dungeon after a trip to the shops? The dungeon is generated all over again, the passages down so convoluted that it’s impossible to ever return from whence you came (unless you were lucky enough to have used a scroll of Recall to return above-ground).

Make no mistake, this game hates you with a passion.

But by God, it’s satisfying. After your first, brief, humiliating trips into the darkness below the town, you’ll learn to take it slow. Your first attempts at the game are unlikely to last more than an hour if you’re very, very lucky. But gradually you’ll learn to stock up on rations and torches (yes, you always need to ensure you have a light source in order to see the world around you) and you’ll realize that often the best way to progress is to retreat; the best way to survive a fight is to never start it in the first place. Slamming a door shut and running away isn’t cowardly – it’s downright essential and until you learn that you haven’t got a hope of even descending to the 5th level, let alone the 100th. Learn those lessons though and the game transforms into one of the most tense, rewarding and satisfying games you’ll ever play. There’s not many games that can make you let out a genuine sigh of relief simply for surviving after drinking from a bottle.

It’s this sense of incremental progress that will have you coming back again and again and again. You’ll die, you’ll curse and you’ll bang your head against the back of the chair. But then you’ll go right back and create a new character because this time you might get a little deeper down, or achieve that next character level. You’ll make daring hit-and-runs on levels deeper than you have any right of being in, simply to try and get some more valuable loot, before escaping back up to a higher level either with a shiny prize or a slither of remaining health. The game is punishing, but the fine balance between risk and reward means that it never feels unfair – every mistake is your mistake, every failure your own. Victory is certainly slim, but it never feels unattainable.

Few people have ever reached Morgoth. Fewer still have defeated him. I’ve never managed to get further than the 23rd level, after more than a decade of playing and the official forums are filled with similar tales of woe – people who managed to make a character survive for months before late-night exhaustion caused them to make a stupid move or one gamble too many finally saw the game exact its revenge.

But even now, twenty years later, those players yet to conquer the deepest levels of the dungeon are still staring at that gravestone, still rolling new characters, and still breaking out in a sweat when they see the letter D coming down a corridor created by hash symbols.

Angband is Open-Source and available to download for MacOS, Windows and Android at www.rephial.org. You can also download the source code from the same site.