Sin Episodes: Emergence

Review by Steerpike
June 2006

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 called—ahem—HardCorps. 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.

Nice Cannons

The story, while not exactly Tolstoy, has some nice stuff going for it. Emergence, and Sin before it, explores the dangerous vulgarities of runaway science—a theme common in video games—and 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 puerile—it wouldn't have been Heavy Metal otherwise, and there was a great game in there as well. Emergence is sexist, puerile, and mediocre.

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. Taylor—best known to gamers as Halo's wry digital vixen Cortana—is 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.

Unoriginal Sin

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 2—which 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 be raving. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Ritual Entertainment
Publisher: Valve
Release Date: May 10, 2006

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

1.2 GHz Processor (2.4 GHz preferred)
256 MB RAM (512 MB preferred)
DirectX 7 capable graphics card (DirectX 9 capable preferred)
Windows 2000/XP/ME/98
Mouse, keyboard
Internet connection

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