Friday, March 10, 2006

SiN Episodes: Emergence

1998 was a long, long time ago, especially in PC gaming years. You may recall SiN, one of that year's most highly anticipated games...until it released closely alongside a little dark horse called Half-Life, which blew it out of the water. Nevertheless after playing the SiN demo I thought it had some interesting stuff going for it if it wasn't as full of bugs as the first release of a new Microsoft OS. Now, after seven years in dormancy, the studio is readying an epic follow-up.

Well while there's not going to be a sequel as such, there is going to be a continuation of the SiN story but in episodic format much like Valve are doing with Half-Life 2. In fact considering that Ritual couldn't beat Valve's Half-Life with SiN they've decided to join them! The upcoming SiN Episodes looks to combine Valve's Source engine with an ambitious business model. Rather than spend months and months slaving away over a sprawling game and competing for shelf space, Ritual has decided to release this new SiN in nine serialized installments for delivery over Steam. The forst will be entitled "Emergence".

SiN Episodes expands on the role of Colonel John R. Blade, a battle worn hero in charge of HardCorps, an elite military strike force with a long history of conflict with SinTEK, a powerful multibillion dollar empire headed up by the nefarious Elexis Sinclaire, a beautiful, brilliant, and ruthless scientist who is out to remake humanity according to her own twisted vision. Joining Blade on his mission are JC, a HardCorps hacker with a secret to keep, and Jessica Cannon, a fiery rookie who can find her way into any secure facility. The action takes place in the futuristic Freeport City, a mishmash of urban elements reminiscent of San Francisco, New York, and Tokyo all lumped together. As Blade, players will fight to expose Sinclaire's evildoing and prevent her from doing more harm to Freeport's citizens. At least, that's the basic gist of the story. Other details will be fleshed out over the game's nine episodes in a three act trilogy.

Visually, Emergence is phenomenal. The main section of it, takes place in a capsized oil tanker as Blade searches for a weapons dealer. Lighting and graphics textures have the future-gone-awry feel that the first SiN captured so well. The game uses the Source engine, so the physics are similar to Half-Life 2, although Ritual has made some modifications and tweaks to the engine to give it a personalized touch. The studio has been adamant about making the experience as interactive as possible. As in Doom 3 (and very much like the original game), players can interact with consoles within the environment. Throughout Ritual's testing, the team has been analyzing where most gamers seem to play around in the game world and they're adjusting elements of these areas to make them even more interactive.

SiN Episodes will also feature sections in which Blade rides shotgun while HardCorps member Jessica Cannon commandeers a vehicle. In a recent demonstration to press on the progressive destructibility of vehicles, the Ritual team put Jessica in god mode and proceeded to shoot up the car until there was virtually nothing left -- no doors, no trunk, even the roof eventually blows off -- but Blade could still get in and out of the car. Besides the usual armed guards that make up FPS enemy fodder, Blade also faces new mutants in SiN Episodes. There are characters that grow in size and strength when they consume extra mutagens, and one of Emergence's biggest boss battles finds Blade up against a colossal mutant out for his blood. If their analogy that Emergence's boss battle is like Alien and the second episode resembles Aliens, then gamers are going to have plenty to look forward to.

One of the finest examples of Ritual's tweaks to the Source engine is in their handling of health power-ups within the game. Health is portable. Rather than just having a wall-mounted station a la Half-Life 2, a player can take a health canister with them and carry it around. If Blade gets caught in a firefight, he can toss down the can, and if necessary, shoot it to create a vapor that will constantly charge his health while he's blasting away at mutations. Weapons within the game seem to be a mixture of different types that should be familiar to most FPS fans, although the secondary fires bring something fresher to the table. Handguns don't just fire bullets; they double as anti-mutagenic agents. A secondary blast from a shotgun allows the bullets to bounce off the walls and theoretically bend corners and hit someone on the other end of a hallway. Blade uses incendiary grenades rather than frags to take down enemies.

One of the most enticing elements of SiN Episodes is the rapidly adaptive AI settings. A circular AI system checks players' stats every two minutes across five factors -- weapons choices, damage, health, NPCs, and pacing -- and adjusts accordingly. Rather than letting players pick Easy difficulty and plow through an episode, the settings adjust in real time. For example, a skilled FPS player who nails lots of headshots early on will find that as he or she progresses through the game, more enemies with helmets will start showing up. At the other end of the spectrum, a novice player who's having a tougher time will find enemies who are easier to battle and more likely to engage in dangerous behavior -- like standing too close to flammable canisters. Additionally, a player's actions in one game will ultimately affect what can happen in future installments, which exponentially increases the replay value for each four to six hour-long episode.

There are no plans to implement multiplayer features in Emergence at the moment, although Ritual mentioned that multiplayer modes should find their way into future episodes. The game is also being released independent of a retail publisher via the Steam service. No actual price point has been announced yet, but the team wants to keep each episode below twenty dollars per download. It is possible that after a few episodes, there will be a packaged retail version, but it's still unconfirmed at this point. Also not officially confirmed, but very promising, is the possibility that SiN Episodes will be ported over to consoles and be available for download on Xbox Live Marketplace. If so, it will be a first for Microsoft's new console, as no one has attempted to release a game of this size and magnitude for Xbox Live download.

SiN Episodes is, if nothing else, an ambitious endeavor on the part of Ritual to create an amazing serialized gaming experience. Novels have done it for centuries; Stephen King did it a decade ago with The Green Mile, and movies are built on it, with The Lord of the Rings trilogy merely being the most recent and profitable example. Ritual is doing the same thing for gaming, and judging by what we've seen, they could have a huge hit on their hands when SiN Episodes: Emergence drops in Q3 of this year.


Anonymous said...

I didn't bother to read this piece
because it contained too many words and not enough pictures, but I'm sure the game is fantastic, can't wait for someone to play it and tell me how good it is!!!

Anonymous said...

Don't worry, I'm sure the Colonel'll do that.

He Colonel any pictures of Alexis Sinclair ;)

Lieutenant General Creedon said...

I'll see what I can do ;)

Anonymous said...

Hey Colonel! Where are those pics?

Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting....

Hey! I had to type fuckwang into the word verification field :)

Anonymous said...

thats the best verification yet!
Maybe his wink indicated he could do nothing?