Released through Valve's Steam service in spring 2006, this first chapter in a planned series of episodic releases marks the return of Ritual Entertainment's 1998 story-driven shooter. Fans resume the role of Colonel John R. Blade, who continues his quest to eliminate corporate evil from Freeport City. In addition to traditional first-person shooter gameplay, SiN Episodes: Emergence features light puzzle-solving and on-rails action sequences. This release is designed to provide four to six hours of play, with the adventure continuing in future episodes. The SiN Episodes games are built on Valve's "Source" engine, which also powers the hit shooter-adventure Half-Life 2.
Released in late 1998, the original SiN was an entertaining shooter that hit two major roadblocks: its initial release was horribly buggy, and it had to compete with the release of Half-Life just a few weeks later. Today, the two franchises find their fates intertwined again, as Ritual has resurrected the series using Valve's Source engine and Steam service to create and distribute smaller SiN episodes. Ritual's first offering, SiN Episodes: Emergence, is decent enough, but offers few surprises that'll leave players wanting much more.
Returning to the near-future setting of Freeport City, Emergence lets you reprise your role as hero Col. John Blade, who starts the game captured and staring up into the face (and bosom) of geneticist/CEO/villainess Elexis Sinclaire. Sinclaire has injected Blade with an unknown mutagen as part of some grand scheme, but he's soon rescued by newcomer Jessica Cannon, a rookie HardCorps recruit. Despite the fact that Blade can't even retain consciousness, Jessica inexplicably insists on dropping him off in hostile territory (unarmed, no less) in pursuit of a Freeport drug lord named Viktor Radek.
Considering it's the first installment of a new series, perhaps the most surprising thing about Emergence is how poor the storytelling is. There's so little exposition in these opening scenes that both SiN newbies and veterans alike will likely find themselves confused trying to figure out what's going on. Rookies may wonder what HardCorps is or how SiNTEK figures into the picture, and Blade is never properly introduced, let alone treated like the commander of the largest private security force in Freeport City. SiN veterans, on the other hand, may find themselves questioning how the game fits in with the original, since the return of Elexis Sinclaire -- who vanished at the end of the first game -- is never explained. All that's left to do is mindlessly take instructions from Jessica and Blade's old hacker sidekick, JC, until you beat the final boss and the credits roll.
The gameplay in Emergence is decent enough, if not overly imaginative. Starting with his basic magnum pistol and later adding a shotgun and machinegun, Blade blasts his way through the usual first-person shooter settings -- docksides, warehouses, sewers, office buildings, etc. -- against a never-ending stream of SiNTEK guards and mutant creatures. Most of the game is extremely linear, leading you down alleyways and narrow corridors, with a sprinkling of bigger skirmishes, puzzles, boss battles, and scripted events to keep things moving. It is, in almost every way, a paint-by-numbers FPS.
The strongest point of Emergence is its graphics, which, thanks to the use of the Source engine, are extremely impressive. As was the case in Half-Life 2, the main characters look fantastic (Ritual obviously had fun updating the Elexis Sinclaire model), there are several breathtaking outdoor settings, and the weapons and combat feel extremely solid. Add in the Source engine's advanced physics, and it's impossible not to make comparisons to Half-Life 2.
The main problem is that Emergence feels way too generic to survive any such comparisons. While Half-Life 2 introduced the gravity gun, had amazing set pieces like the Strider battles, and went to great lengths to establish City 17 as a unique location, most of the levels in Emergence feel as if they could easily have been ripped from a dozen different shooters. Did we really need another game that lets us fight mutants in sewers? There's nothing particularly exceptional about Emergence's setting, gameplay or story, and it's a game sorely in need of "wow" moments -- which is really disappointing as the debut of a new series.
Indeed, the most unique thing about Emergence is its format. From start to finish, it took me about four hours to complete the episode, which can be had for $19.99 in stores or downloaded via Valve's Steam service. Also included in the package is the original SiN single-player game, tweaked to run on modern machines, as well as support for SiN 1's multiplayer, which are fun for nostalgia's sake, but not much more.
As a fan of the original SiN, and someone who's been waiting patiently for major developers and publishers to embrace the idea of episodic content, I had high hopes for SiN Episodes: Emergence. I wasn't looking for anyone to reinvent the wheel; I was just hoping for some good combat with an interesting story behind it. Sadly, with ultra-generic gameplay and a muddled story, there's very little in Emergence to hook gamers into future installments.
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