SiN Episodes: Emergence
A Pigeon Slowly flaps its way through Freeport City before disappearing in a cloud ortjird blood. One hoodlum compliments another on his shot, before having a laugh about a cop he shot in the head. "Ha ha ha!" he says. "Ha Ha Ha! the other agrees. "Surprise!" shouts John R Blade, head of gun-toting security firm HardCorps, as his chopper descends from the sky and bullets fill the air. The year is 1998 and we're playing SiN - the game that wasn't Half-Life.
"We've wanted to retuyi to the SiN universe for years now," explains Steve Nix, CEO of Ritual Entertainment, when probed on the lengthy absence of Blade and his busty nemesis Elexis Sinclaire. "But given the importance of the franchise to the studio, it had to be under the right circumstances. SIN is our pride and joy and we really wanted to do it right."
As every year has passed, memories of SiNTEK, human experiments, ATM machines that you could fiddle with and Sinclaire's chest have grown dimmer and dimmer in the gaming community. Now is the time, however for HardCorps' return. To start the ball rolling, a viral marketing campaign was kicked off at legionpharma and sinclairetechnologies - giving a strong indication that there was either an exceptionally fanboy-ish group of scientists on the loose, or that SiNTEK were once more up to no good.
Then came surprising news: Black Mesa and Freeport City, 1998's alpha and omega, were to become bedfellows. "We'd been talking with Valve for several years about distributing a product directly to gamers through Steam, and then the light bulb came on," explains Nix. "We had worked on so many new designs, characters and interesting moments for the next S/7V game, that it all came together really quickly once we made the decision to go."
And so it is that Source-formed episodes of shootery that last six or so hours each are set to start appearing for purchase in your Steam tray at regular intervals for the next few years. Blade's chunky magnum pistol is back, his hacker sidekick JC is back, Sinclaire is back and Blade himself is back - now accompanied by a pneumatic young lady called Jessica Cannon. It's four years after SiN and our hero still hasn't been able to prove that Sinclaire is behind the worrying upward trend of mutant-ness in Freeport City. Blade has become nearly obsessed with bringing her justice and he'll stop at nothing to achieve that. SiN Episodes opens with Blade and Jessica on their way to raid a rumoured U4 lab - a seemingly routine mission that soon enough goes quite wrong," explains Steve Hessel, Ritual's community relations man, providing the back story for a later car chase that has a seriously wounded Blade slipping in and out of consciousness, while an Al Jessica Cannon weaves in and out of traffic pursued by ne'er-do-wells.
We've done so much to make it just over-the-top cool," explains lead designer Shawn Ketcherside, picking up the thread. The car itself, for example, is incredibly interactive. You can roll the windows up and down, change the radio station, and with every action Jessica will respond. Then we've got the car combat, which is just unbelievably cool. You can shift sitions in the car, really move around to find the best shots. It's the closest thing to being in an action movie I've ever seen in a game."
So we're fighting on roads, that much is definite, and mutant k laboratories are probably high on the list as well. But what else does Freeport City have to offer? "Freeport City is a rough amalgam of modern cities with rich histories like Seattle, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, explains Rich Fleider, the art lead, as he describes the SiN universe's multi-layered and decaying coastline sprawl. "In this first episode, we're showcasing a slice of Free port society, allowing the player to explore a high-rise complex under construction, the secret warrens of one of the City's organised crime families, and even the gritty shipping district that gives Freeport its name. A system of elevated roadways for commuters and commerce links these communities together, under the overlapping jurisdiction of competing Security Forces."
Going for roughly $11 and kicking off this winter, there's a multitude of other reasons why SiN Episodes: Emergence has got us excited - not least some ace gameplay-heightening feats of interactivity, community-dictated plot and development, and some neat tricks that allow the Source engine to hit parts that even Freeman couldn't reach. Seeing as we're such wags though, we've split our coverage into two episodes - so you'll have to wait until next month. Damn, we're good.
Download SiN Episodes: Emergence
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
What Can You buy for 11 quid these days? A cinema ticket and a can of fizzy pop, maybe with enough left over for a bag of chips for the bus ride home? A pack of 12 condoms for 18 minutes of unbridled pleasure? An IndieZone game? Or how about the first chapter of an episodic first-person shooter, powered by Valve's stunning Source engine and packing somewhere between six and ten hours of non-stop, frenetic, gut-twisting, firefight-filled action. Sound tempting? Want to know more? Then don't go away. If you read our preview of Emergence a couple of issues ago, you'll probably know that we were getting pretty excited about the game's release - unless of course you were reading the article backwards, in which case you'll have no idea whatsoever what we were talking about.
For the uninitiated, Emergence is the follow-up to 1998's SiN. It's also the first instalment of what's planned to be a three-chapter, episodic FPS adventure, which you can download via Steam. As maverick law enforcer John Blade, you must protect Freeport City from the heinous plans of villain/geneticist and head of the hugely powerful SinTEK corporation Elexis Sinclaire, while simultaneously uncovering the missing pieces of your own past. Granted, as a premise for a plot, it's hardly Tolstoy, but the way that it's presented is done with some aplomb, melding subtle flashbacks with well-written and convincingly acted in-engine cut-scenes. So, we're off to a good start.
Fun, Fun, Gun
Despite the visual similarities to Half-Life 2, Emergence is a very different game. For starters, you won't find the fiendish physics-based mind-bending puzzles of Valve's masterpiece here; neither will you find a dynamic, bustling world filled with shuffling denizens and buzzing police probes. Emergence is far more basic than that, but then again, so is just about every other FPS on the market. SiN's true merits lie in its combat, powered by a dynamically scaleable difficulty monitor that tailors the action to your ability as you play.
Gun down ten enemies with headshots and you find yourself facing a legion of heavily-armed, thickly armoured enemies in the next room. Take a beating and the game will be far more forgiving once you move on to the next location.
It's a system that works surprisingly well and ensures that the game is always challenging. Make no mistake, this isn't a Doom 3 clone where you can simply charge around each level blazing away as enemies chase you down a corridor. Neither is it a fragfest of Qi/afe-proportions. Emergence proves a far more considered affair, and as a result, it's way more challenging than the majority of shooters you've played. If you want to be a gung-ho hero, then you'd be better off looking somewhere else.
Of course, this extra level of challenge means you have to play smart. Finding cover, strafing, pulling off pinpoint headshots and intelligently using your surroundings are all essential skills to master if you want to stand a chance of making it through to Episode 2, as you'll soon find that Emergence's enemies are every bit as savvy as you are. Aim at their heads and they duck, hide and flush you out with grenades; charge at them and they retreat. Plus, if they aren't armed - like the clawed mutations you come across later on - they kick and hurl objects at you, before moving in close to rake out your eyes.
Another criticism that we touched upon in our preview hack in issue 167 was the game's predominance of exploding barrels. It never ceases to amaze me that almost 15 years after the release of Doom, developers still insist on cramming their shooters with giant cans of gasoline that just happen to be sitting right next to pockets of enemy resistance. Emergence is by no means alone in this, and it's testament to just how little the genre lias evolved that exploding canisters still inhabit the majority of FPS games.
Thankfully, not every barrel in Emergence is an exploding cliche. Dotted around each level are Mutagen-filled cylinders - giant cans of noxious gas that when shot, spew out green vapour that suffocates humans and, better still, places you into a form of bullet-time.
Here at last we have a barrel trick with a touch of imagination, an idea that expands the acje-old staple of the genre and embellishes the gameplay with a novel twist Diving into a cluster of gagging enemies then blasting them away in slow-motion is a joy to behold. What's more, thanks to the Source engine's magnificent physics capabilities, you can even hurl these containers into rooms of enemies, then shoot them and watch as your foes charge around, gasping for breath, before asphyxiating. Oh, and let's not forget the fact that for some reason, this Mutagen doesn't kill you, but rather enhances your powers. Why? Well, that's something you're just going to have to find out for yourself.
Burning Up, Baby
There are plenty of other strengths here, too. Wall-mounted medical machines that replenish your health and often require you to track down refills before you can bring yourself back to full health. Three weapons (pistol, shotgun and assault rifle) that feel like six thanks to some excellent secondary fire functions. What's more, there's the ability to move in close and hammer your opponents to death with melee attacks should your ammo supplies run dry.
Then there's the perfect lip-synching and convincing facial emotions conveyed by each character you meet. Plus, there are also some truly humongous bosses, who aren't just harder than a concrete covered gumball but hugely manoeuvrable too, relentlessly charging at you and throwing you around the level like a ragdoll as they butt you with their hideous bonces.
Best of all though is the game's climactic finale, which sees you and Jessica launching a daring skyscraper raid against Emergence's chief bad guy (one of Elexis's partners in crime called Radek), where the intensity of the firefights escalate with every floor you climb. It's also here that the game's physics truly come into their own as offices and electrical equipment are literally torn to shreds as you exchange volleys with ever greater numbers of enemies.
There's little doubt that Emergence is a game of genuine quality, a shooter that'll stretch your trigger skills to their limits while entertaining you with a tantalising plot that gives just about enough away to hook you and reel you into Episode 2. Had it been a full price game, then perhaps Emergence would have been a borderline Recommended, but given its minuscule price tag, it's a bit of a steal.
While it may not be the most groundbreaking of shooters, Emergence's merits far outweigh its smattering of faults, and with six to ten hours of entertainment to be had, you can't argue that it's not value for money, especially as it also comes bundled with a copy of the original SiN. Eleven quid you say?
The Words Emblazoned in red ink on a well-used whiteboard read. Have fun sinning!" Contrary to what you might think, I'm not in an Amsterdam brothel holding a fist full of twenties, but rather in Ritual Entertainment's Dallas offices about to have the world's first playtest of Emergence, the opening instalment of SiN Episodes, the other episodic, Source engine-driven FPS that'll be downloadable via Steam.
Emergence, the follow-up to the original SiN (released way back in 1998), sees you reprising your role as John Blade. As the commander of freelance security force HardCorps, you must protect the people of Freeport City, who are being threatened by the dastardly plans of brilliant geneticist Elexis Sinclaire, who also happens to be the head of the powerful and corrupt SinTEK corporation. A woman of many talents, Elexis not only possesses breasts you could hide a herd of cattle in, she's also hell-bent on advancing human evolution through genetic mutation. And you're (or for this playtest, I'm) the only person who can stop her. Better get to it I suppose...
My eyes flick open. A beautiful, busty woman stares down at me. Am I dreaming? Has the jetlag from the ten-hour flight overwhelmed me? Wait a minute. There's a bloke here, too. Pinned down to an operating table I listen intently as femme-fatale Elexis discusses my predicament with Radek, a gruff Ruskie with a comedy porno beard. Their lips move in perfect sync, faces contorting and contracting to convey genuinely believable emotions. Somehow, they've captured me and injected me with a serum of their own creation. But how did they manage to snare the hottest security officer in town? What the hell is this goop flowing inside my veins? How does Elexis not suffer from debilitating lower back pains with a pair that large? All shall be revealed... Eventually.
I pause the game to sup back some much-needed coffee, allowing Ritual's community relations manager, Steve Hessel, time to tell me a little about Radek. "Viktor Radek is the newest face among Freeport's local crime lords," he explains. "Blade suspects that he's somehow tied to Elexis. He's kind of the main bad guy in this episode." Back to the action. Alarms ring out Explosions burst windows and my captors flee in panic as a rescue team storms the building - led by new character Jessica Cannon, a fiery all-action babe with a touch of amnesia when it comes to matters of her past. Lucky she remembered about me, otherwise I'd be screwed.
We charge out of the building. Hopping into a sports car (she drives, as I seem to have left my driving gloves at home) we screech around the city as I pass in and out of consciousness. A momentary dream sequence reveals a snippet of my past: a naked Elexis, waist-deep in a pool of water turns to look me sultrily in the eye.
I wake with a start, woken by the eager jabberings of JC Armack (a returning character from the original SiN, one of HardCorps' best technical whizz-kids and with a name of obvious derivations), whose face looms large on a monitor in front of me. He's got a mission for us that just might lead to Radek's capture and, hopefully, uncover some of the blanks from niy hazy past.
Radek's been tracked to a derelict tanker protected by a myriad of guards, ceiling-mounted motion-activated machine guns and a few, much nastier and more terrifying foes. Things are about to get bloody. I'm in. While Jessica stays in radio contact to keep me updated on any new developments, I head into the boat armed with a Magnum handgun and scattergun - both of which double-up as secondary weapons, thanks to some ingenious alternate fire modes. To the uninitiated, the Magnum appears to be a pistol like any other, firing standard wimpy rounds at a monotonously slow rate. But as I zoom in on an ensconced enemy, I hammer down the right mouse button and send a blue stream of depleted uranium scything through the crate he's hiding behind. He drops lifelessly to the floor point one to me.
Gunning For Glory
More enemies emerge, grunts with machine guns backed up by some mini-gun-toting, heavily-armoured bad boys who spill out of a nearby room and pepper me with bullets, forcing me to cower behind a wall. I lob a couple of grenades at the heavies, and watch witli no small degree of satisfaction as their metallic corpses arc through the air in familiar ragdoll fashion mutated creatures that spit bile, rake at your eyes and kick objects at your head, the behemoth bosses who are as agile as they are powerful, or the legions of enemies that bare down on you as you fire out of the window of Jessica's car during a daring raid on an enemy base, there's never a point where you don't feel stretched to your limits.
Shoot To Kill
In fact if anything, the enemies are still a little too accurate for comfort, hitting me with perfect headshots from the other side of a room even when I jerk from side to side. But with the boys at Ritual promising that the game is still being balanced, there's still plenty of time to get this right before release.
Perhaps the main reason why Emergence is so taxing is a feature called the Personal Challenge System, a mechanic that's been specifically designed for SiN: Episodes. Having just died another humiliating death, I turn to lead programmer Ken Harward who explains how the system works. "Our Personal Challenge System is built to tune itself to your style of play.
It monitors your abilities, your movement and how effectively you deal with the obstacles and enemies in the world. The game learns how good a player you are, and can adjust the difficulty level to your skill-set and playing style. There are almost 100 statistics that the game tracks."
Eager to put this bold boast to the test, I give it a try. Running into a room, I carve up the enemy, an angel of death bristling with firepower. All fall before me. I enter the next room, only to be utterly trounced by a legion of mini-gunners. Slapping reload, I replay the scenario.
7 This time, I walk in metaphorically handing out flowers to my enemies while reciting sonnets. Moving to the next room, I'm greeted by a pair of standard foes serving lemonade and Rich Tea biscuits. Well, that's perhaps that's not exactly what happened, but I think you get the point.
Emergence certainly saves the best till last The finale proves truly spectacular, a fitting crescendo to the symphony of destruction that precedes it These final few battles - interspersed with story-driven moments that perfectly set up Episode 2 - prove brain-bleedingly challenging, forcing me to approach every firefight with forethought and intelligence, despite having Jessica fighting by my side.
It's here that the game's third and final weapon - the assault rifle - really comes into its own, allowing me to spray swarms of enemies with bullets and take out concentrated clumps of foes with well-placed rocket-propelled grenades (the weapon's secondary fire option). Then, after six hours of non-stop action, the slaughter abates.
As I leave Dallas, it's hard not to feel positive about Emergence's eclectic mix of tactics and manic firefights. Sure, it's far from perfect boasting perhaps a few too many strategically-placed exploding barrels for comfort, and sadly, it slightly under-uses the Source engine's sublime physics system, above all when you compare it to Half-Life 2.
But these are more niggles than insurmountable problems. For the most part Emergence is shaping up to be a lively, challenging and at times, exhilarating romp of discovery, carnage, tactics and amusement filled with some excellent self-deprecating humour, powered by a cool soundtrack and rounded off by an intriguing plot with more potential twists than an '80s perm. If the AI can be tweaked before release, we could be in for one hell of a ride, one so good, it really would be a sin to miss it.
When seeing the green mist can help you see more clearly
OK. so Emergence does seem a tad overpopulated with exploding barrels, but this is offset to some extent by a far more original barrel-orientated feature. Spread liberally throughout the game are green barrels filled with Mutagen (noxious green gas). Fire at these containers and they spew out their contents, poisoning any human who comes into contact with the fumes.
Thanks to the Source engine's versatile physics system, you can pick up these barrels and place or throw them into strategic locations throughout a room. Then, when faced with overwhelming odds, you can backtrack, shooting the containers as you retreat And with the enemy hot on your heels, it's only a matter of time till they start choking to death. But won't that mean you die too? Interesting you should ask. Y'see, instead of poisoning you, this green mist actually heightens your senses, temporarily placing you into a kind of bullet-time mode. How's all this possible? All in good time my friends, all in good time...