Review by Steerpike
Sort of Like the Mortal Kombat Movie
You've got a problem when the best thing about your game is its
theme song. And that's certainly the case in Sin Episodes: Emergence,
Ritual's first installment of the planned nine-part epic that
follows up 1998's critically acclaimed but dismally selling Sin.
Greeted at the main menu by sound designer Zak Belica's haunting
"What's the World Come To," you can't help but feel optimistic
about the game. Then you play it.
Despite intergalactic hype, Emergence can't quite deliver.
Its biggest crime is that it promises six hours of play and weighs
in a lot closer to three, which is unacceptable for $20. Those three
hours are reasonably fun; as shooters go, Emergence is satisfactory,
ridiculously challenging, and unoriginal. Level design is competent,
storyline is competent, gameplay is ... competent. And Ritual, despite
making my beloved Heavy Metal FAKK2, has never really been
more than competent.
Not having played Sin, I was coming into this somewhat blind.
It's the future, and you're a quasi-military lawman with dreadlocks,
a soul patch, weird glasses and the unlikely name of John Blade.
This musclebound fellow has spent much of his career battling the
criminal element in Freeport City, a futuristic demilitarized zone
that's a little bit Metropolis, a little bit City-17 and
a lot Gary, Indiana.
Colonel Blade heads up an elite unit calledahemHardCorps.
I'm guessing this organization's motto is "enforcing the law
in ten million bullets or less," because though there's a brief
and fruitless discussion of warrants at the beginning (along the
lines of "you don't have one"), no one in HardCorps ever
actually bothers to arrest anybody. In fairness, the villains don't
seem like the type to surrender if ordered to.
HardCorps's principal targets are scientist-cum-businesswoman Elexis
Sinclaire and her company, SinTEK Industries. Elexis has invented
a green fluid that causes a variety of hideous effects when injected
into a human host, and in her enormous-boobed lunacy (more on boobs
in a second), she's on a mission to reshape humanity in a way that
would horrify any legitimate plastic surgeon or chiropractor. Freeport
City drug kingpin Viktor Radek is also involved, though exactly
how is unclear at this point. As Emergence begins, Blade
has been taken hostage and injected with one of Sinclaire's bubbly
concoctions. Most of this episode deals with your escape and subsequent
quest to depoison yourself before you grow flippers or something.
The story, while not exactly Tolstoy, has some nice stuff going
for it. Emergence, and Sin before it, explores the
dangerous vulgarities of runaway sciencea theme common in
video gamesand does so more effectively than some. The great
risk of science, of course, is that when coupled with hubris and
a lack of restraint it ceases to become a pursuit of something
and becomes merely a pursuit, a blind race to an imaginary
finish without pause to contemplate the benefits and drawbacks of
innovation or indeed the wisdom of peeping into the toothy maw of
the undiscovered. SinTEK, with Elexis at the helm, has lost its
Ernst Blofeld "let's take over the world" direction. It's
just doing evil science in a general sort of way, because with each
new evil discovery, something even more evil beckons on the horizon.
But none of it is really put to evil use according to a master plan;
Elexis just unleashes whatever her most recent abomination happens
to be. Even principal villains like Radek frankly admit that they
have no idea what SinTEK is doing, beyond the vague sense that it's
green and will change the world for the worse.
Unfortunately, the potential thematic enormity of this plotline
is rather diluted by some of the most sophomoric writing and juvenile
characterization this side of Dan Brown. Ritual has what it takes
to come up with a rich concept, but the flower is prevented from
opening by shoddy characters and amateurish narrative mistakes.
Heavy Metal was supposed to be sexist and puerileit
wouldn't have been Heavy Metal otherwise, and there was a
great game in there as well. Emergence is sexist, puerile,
Elexis Sinclaire, the supposedly sinister villain of the game,
is apparently both the CEO of a multinational corporation and a
streetwalker. Between the bra-exposing business suit, the bizarre
bikini dream sequence and the Pussycat Girl demeanor, it's not easy
to take Elexis seriously as a threat to the human race. Why a male
villain can be frightening in a full suit but a female villain has
to wear something like this
(that's Elexis in her Sin incarnation) is well beyond my
small mind's ability to comprehend.
And there's more. Blade's partner in crimefighting is a flame-haired,
potty-mouthed, trigger-happy little firecracker of a rookie named
Jessica Cannon (I am not making these names up). Jessica rescues
you at the beginning of the game, cracks wise on your communicator
throughout and turns up periodically to dispense a most unpolicelike
hail of bullets and vulgarity at your enemies. Like Elexis, she's
also everything that's wrong with today's games industry.
Break it down with me: young cop, barely out of training. A bit
short-tempered. Knows words a sailor wouldn't. Enjoys shooting people.
Rock-solid sense of right and wrong. Eager to do well on the job.
Assigned, through some freak of providence, to partner with the
commander of a super-elite unit: a stroke of fortune that gives
her a leading role in the criminal investigation of the century.
Just like the overall plot, that's not going to win any awards,
but we've got something to work with. We have the ingredients there
for a pretty interesting character with some internal conflict and
a thirst to prove herself peppered liberally by self-doubt. Instead,
we got a latex-clad, midriffy silicone model in platform combat
boots and whale-tail panties.
Look, as a guy, I'm in favor of hot women. And if you want hot
female characters who don't wear much, I'm all for it. But give
me a reason. Explain it. Create purpose. What is Jessica's motivation
for dressing like an S&M cosmonaut? Elexis's motivation
for displaying her lacies when it's not casual Friday? Truth
is, there isn't one. It's just that the guys at Ritual have apparently
never, ever been laid and manifest their lust by drawing women this
way. This is sadly true of much of the game development industry.
I can't help but wonder how much better Emergence would have
been if they'd spent more time discussing level design and less
time wistfully pondering what the characters looked like naked.
Jessica Cannon escapes total ruin thanks to the power of actress
Jen Taylor's voice, and Ritual should be thanking its stars that
they signed her. Taylorbest known to gamers as Halo's
wry digital vixen Cortanais frankly too talented to be
working in video games, and her performance in Emergence saves
Jessica from offensive insipitude and actually creates a pretty
likable individual with whom you can somewhat identify. Jessica
is an important enough character that by paying attention to Taylor's
performance you can ignore the crappy acting and self-referentially
infantile goo slathering the rest of the game.
Ritual has been around for quite some time despite a long record
of retail mediocrity. Much like the equally second-rate Raven Software,
their survival is based on a savvy nose for recognizing and partnering
with industry bigwigs like Valve and id. As a business strategy,
it keeps them alive, but it does little to counter the fact that
they're not wildly talented as game designers.
Every scene, every section of every level, in Emergence shows
signs of liberal borrowing from other games. There's a fight in
a crumbling dock/warehouse zone straight out of Painkiller.
A top-of-skyscraper running gun battle that Max Payne did
first. A climactic encounter with an aerodynamically dubious fighter
plane lifted from Half Life. A series of collapsing-catwalk/crane-use
puzzles originally found in Half
Life 2. At the end of the day, there is almost nothing
in Emergence that's unique.
Level design is good but lacks brilliance. The designers of Emergence
made fine use of large outdoor environments, and their work
shows lovely attention to detail and a willingness to develop complex,
nonlinear levels that take advantage of elevation and hidden secrets.
But there's almost no manipulation of the environment, no use of
physics, and few if any original locales to be found.
It's also insanely hard if you move the difficulty slider even
a micron to the right. Enemies shoot with such accuracy, and do
so much damage, that in many cases you're dead before you realize
you're being shot at. There's an advanced statistical system designed
to dynamically reduce difficulty when you're getting your ass kicked
and increase it when you're dominating, but it never seemed to do
anything for me.
It's important to recognize that there's nothing truly bad about
gameplay. The problem lies in the fact that there's nothing memorably
good, either. Sin Episodes is going to have to deliver
much more if it hopes to be remembered as one of the first games
of the episodic content age. All eyes are now on Half Life 2:
Episode 1, and the Sin people had the opportunity to
steal a little of that game's thunder. They failed, delivering instead
a capable episode that is astounding mostly in its averageness.
If They'd Made Their Own, It'd Be Called the "Singine"
Sin Episodes is powered by Valve's Source engine, a versatile
codebase that we've also seen in Half Life 2 and Vampire:
Bloodlines. That latter demonstrated pretty compellingly that
if you lack solid artistic capability you'll turn out an ugly game
despite the engine's capabilities. This is a big mark in Ritual's
plus column, because Emergence is a very pretty game that
uses the graphic prowess of Source to great effect.
Wide, sweeping outdoor sequences are interspersed with highly claustrophobic
interiors, all packed with vivid colors and rich textures. Though
Emergence is serious, the artists managed to put little touches
of visual humor here and there to remind us that it is still a game.
And they also dodged the drabby metalism of so many science fiction
games without making it Fantasy Zone day-glo.
The game's available for purchase over Valve's Steam
network, and the entire process was so easy that I'm now sold on
episodic content for games. Click, click, credit card number, preload,
click, click, wait until the official release, click, play. It's
that simple. Luddites can also buy the game in a quaint boxed form.
Emergence is perfectly stable and will run quite nicely
on any computer that managed Half Life 2which itself
was very forgiving of midrange systems.
Steam purchasers have the option to download the first Sin,
now optimized for XP. This game was beloved by critics, rich
people and few others; that is, those who had the jobs or money
that allowed them to play on the supercomputer it required. That's
amusing now, when you consider that Sin used Quake 2 technology,
but for the time Ritual pushed the engine farther than anyone had
expected it to go. The result was apparently a great game that no
one could play. One of these days, I may have to give it a try to
see what all the fuss was about.
Steerpike, Who Can Write Five Pages About a Three-Hour Game
You may have sensed, despite my obliqueness and wordy, recursive
sentence structure, that I feel ambivalent about Emergence. The
only true disappointment, aside from the brevity, is that it was
apparently written by a thirteen-year-old boy. There's otherwise
nothing broken, flawed or even unpleasant about the game ... nor
is there anything that will curl your toes. It is tofu. It is unbuttered,
unsalted popcorn. It is oatmeal. The first Sin episode is
flavorless but also quite harmless.
Yet despite that, or perhaps because of it, I will buy the second,
and the third, and so on, meaning Sin Episodes will wind
up setting me back nearly two hundred dollars. I'll be doing it
because I'm a sucker; once I get involved in a story, no matter
how clichéd and awful, it's almost impossible for me to stop
until I see how it comes out. This is a personality foible that
has condemned me to a life of insipid television dramas, bad web
comics, blatheringly pretentious novels and dull video games.
There's also just something so bite-sized about episodic content,
so consumably appealing, like little binary Vienna sausages. Digital
distribution may never replace retail sales, and episodic content
may never become the standard for all games, but the future of both
is startlingly bright. Sin Episodes is among the first to
fling itself into that future. Though common in its gameplay, it
is also enjoyable: had it been ten bucks instead of twenty, I'd
Release Date: May 10, 2006
Four Fat Chicks Links
1.2 GHz Processor (2.4 GHz preferred)
256 MB RAM (512 MB preferred)
DirectX 7 capable graphics card (DirectX 9 capable preferred)
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