Retouching a classic is always a risky proposition, the challenge being the act of bridging the gap between nostalgia and reality. Developer 5 Lives has realised this when creating Satellite Reign, a spiritual successor to Syndicate.
Many older gamers will fondly remember Bullfrog's classic Syndicate and its immediate sequels. For many it was the first taste of cyberpunk: trench coats, flashy neon lights, bionic limbs and the futuristic dystopia. Be prepared to lose your rose-tinted glasses though if you're planning on giving the original a bash via Origin or Good Old Games. The old master is surprisingly fast, streamlined and simplistic (and at times punishingly difficult) compared to what you might expect from a modern offering. 5 Lives has attempted to reincarnate the spirit of the original but implant that soul in an upgraded body.
The world-building and the story are all classic cyberpunk, with corporations taking over the world, technology advancing too rapidly for its own sake, and so on and so forth. The storyline is mostly about listening to audio messages and reading background information, it features few characters and the ideas being discussed aren't particularly noteworthy. The ends justify the means in this world, and anything from open street warfare to civilian brainwashing and hijacking is permitted. The player controls four agents from a corporation trying to rival the all-powerful Dracogenics, their goal to bring it down via espionage, sabotage and street fights.
Each soldier can take a hit like a champ and is able to sabotage vital power generators and mechanical targets. Hackers can hijack security systems, enemy drones and even civilians or soldiers thanks to their brain implants. Support is responsible for healing the squad and, more vitally, scanning the world for targets of opportunity or weaknesses in enemy fortifications. Infiltrators are basically ninjas who are able to get into areas others can't via air ducts and zip lines. He or she can also wield a sword or sniper rifle with deadly precision. Every agent is distinctive, and all the roles can be further enhanced as they gain more experience.
Your agents' efficiency is also affected by the clone's body statistics. Both the looks and physical attributes come from the body you've kidnapped and assigned to act as the "vessel" of the agents mind. The clone can be upgraded by assimilating a civilian or soldier, and the mind gains more experience even if the clone body is shot at all the time. The entire cloning technology is integral to both the plot and gameplay but the execution felt lacking a bit, mainly due to the convoluted user interface. The first moments with the cloning system can get somewhat confusing.
Similarly to body and mind, the weapons and gadgets are also open for experimentation and upgrading once you've snatched a few blueprints from armouries and warehouses. Better guns do more damage, have bigger clips and have different damage types. Gadgets include quad copters, cyber limbs, med kits and grenades that explode like a miniature nuke. The vanilla guns feel somewhat weak in the early game against bullet-spongy enemies. Fortunately both weapon and game updates rectify the issue, since a new version of Satellite Reign comes with a double damage option, dealing increased damage to both enemies and your agents.
The city is divided into several sectors with different themes ranging from industrial to high-end residential. Each has their own main and side missions to complete to help with bringing down Dracogenics and their allies. Nearly all require you to either sneak or shoot your way through enemy-controlled areas of the map (according to your preference or skill). Unsurprisingly the hacker and infiltrator shine with the silent option. Infiltrators can dispatch the bothersome patrols while the hacker breaks into security cameras and door subroutines. Enemy drones are especially juicy targets as they're free to fly around enemy strongholds and even destroy pesky cameras if no-one's watching.
There's usually at least two clear options on how to proceed with the infiltration, and several alternative routes with their own pros and cons. There's even an achievement for clearing an entire sector without shooting anyone, but that takes nerves of steel and a stoic temper with plenty of luck (and probably quite a few re-loads). The game can get rather hectic and chaotic when the shit hits the fan, with bullets flying everywhere and enemy reinforcements pouring in when you least want them to. A recent update added an option to allow issuing commands while the game's paused, which some might find helpful. The agents don't show much initiative on their own, so constant baby-sitting is in order.
AI pathfinding is somewhat of an issue for both you and the opposition. You troops can get stuck between a ledge and a potted plant while running for cover. Enemy troops can get stuck on a door, furiously trying to run through it even if it's closed. They can also switch from dastardly cunning to exceedingly daft with the flip of a switch. This randomness can in turn make sneaking about either impossible or a cakewalk depending on how the AI happens to react. The issue has somewhat diminished after regular patches and 5 Lives is aware of the problem.
Aside from the quirky UI, the audio-visual presentation is solid while not jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Agents and their LED-enhanced trench coats are a bit too much for me and the world practically swims in neon lighting. The soundtrack doesn't quite reach the memorable intro music from Syndicate, but works well as moody backdrop for different situations.
The early game can get a bit formulaic with the limited options, but the more you play, the more possibilities you have for various situations. The more the game progresses and builds the isometric world, the less it resembles its fore-bearer, although it struggles to create a believable, breathing world and settles instead for being a sandbox instead of a city. Agent upgrades, infiltration and combat techniques, plus plenty of nicely observed little touches elevate Satellite Reign mechanically well beyond Syndicate. It might not be a bug-free, smooth experience, but it probably offers the best real-time cyberpunk that's available right now. This is a decent spiritual successor to an all-time classic but it stands on its own two augmented legs, instead of copying the nineties with all the flaws that come with it.