Save the city of Freeport from a power-hungry scientist.
PC Release: May 10, 2006
By Ian Coppock
In 1998, the video gaming world was on the brink of revolution. Half-Life was about to be released, and not even the developers at Valve could predict what an effect it would have on the genre. Even before its release, though, there were rivals waiting to prey on one of gaming’s most venerable titles, and were given one last chance to stop Valve from taking over the world. All of them failed. However, the subject of today’s review is the legacy of the game that, given more care, could’ve challenged Half-Life for supremacy. SiN Episodes: Emergence is the first and last scion of a series that always sought to challenge Half-Life, but whose effectiveness at actually doing so remains a subject of debate to this day.
SiN Episodes: Emergence is the sequel to a game called SiN, a first-person shooter released in 1998. Well-aware of Half-Life‘s impending release, the developers at Ritual Entertainment rushed to create a first-person shooter that could compete with and surpass Valve’s flagship title. The game was developed in the engine previously used for Quake II, and featured a lot of the same gameplay and basic mechanics as Half-Life.
Unfortunately, Ritual’s rush to finish SiN proved to be the game’s undoing. Upon its release, SiN was critically panned for its high amount of bugs, and was one of the most unpolished and glitch-prone shooters released in living memory. Some copies of the game even contained a computer virus. Whatever potential SiN might have brought to the table was overshadowed by its sheer number of bugs. The game has since been patched, and some versions exist that are fit for modern systems, but most memory of SiN has disappeared outside of its tiny cult following.
Despite SiN‘s rocky release and subsequently low sales, Ritual decided to continue the franchise. In 2006, they released the first of nine planned episodes to continue the SiN saga. Ironically, the games were to be made available only through Steam, the service put up by Ritual’s old rival, Valve, and the games were even built on Valve’s proprietary Source engine. This marked the first time in gaming history that a major game developer delivered their content over the Internet without the aid of a publisher.
SiN Episodes: Emergence is the first of these nine episodes, and the only one that was ever actually released. Ritual Entertainment was bought out a mere year after Emergence‘s release, and the remaining eight episodes of the series were cancelled. These events were propelled by a myriad of causes, all of which will be explored in this review.
The SiN games take place in Freeport, a futuristic city under the dominion of several corporations. With the dissolution of the city’s police force years ago, Freeport security now falls to a group of private firms that have each staked out their own fiefdom within the metropolis. The original SiN honed in on an epic struggle between Elexis Sinclaire, the psychopathic leader of the SiNtek corporation, and John Blade, player character and leader of the HardCorps private security firm. Blade bested Sinclaire in the original game, but Emergence opens sometime after SiN, as he wakes up in Sinclaire’s laboratory.
John Blade has been put under the knife for reasons unknown, but Sinclaire’s experiments are interrupted when new sidekick Jessica Cannon breaks into the lab to bust him out. The pair fight their way out of Sinclaire’s laboratory, and high tail it onto the freeway in her shiny car. Sinclaire escapes before either can apprehend her.
As Blade and Jessica tear across the city, Jessica learns that Freeport is descending into chaos, as Sinclaire’s criminal lackey Radek deploys cyber-mercenaries across the metropolis. Sinclaire is up to something, something very bad, for the citizens of Freeport, and only Hardcorps stands in her way. Jessica drops John off in the city before pursuing her own goals, leaving the gun-slinging hero to combat Sinclaire and her army alone.
Right off the bat, Emergence‘s premise and opening are all over the place. The game almost seems to begin in medias res, as Blade falls in with characters that the player is supposed to know. The ending of SiN doesn’t exactly warrant such a bombastic beginning to Emergence, and the game acts as though everyone knows who the main characters are supposed to be and what’s going on in Freeport. The game only starts to make sense much further along in the narrative, which isn’t exactly befitting of the sequel to an obscure, poorly released video game.
Blade arranges a meeting with a low-level crime boss in Freeport, who explains that Sinclaire and Radek have made a base for themselves inside the hull of a derelict cargo freighter. The boss’s men have heard strange noises coming from inside the ship, but can’t get any closer without risking SiNtek noticing them. John grabs a gun and prepares to shoot his way through hordes of enemies to get at the ship, and the secret it hides.
Thus far, SiN Episodes: Emergence‘s plot doesn’t really contain anything that sci-fi and shooter fans haven’t seen before. A mad scientist is plotting something mischievous, and only the big, burly hero can stop them. Sinclaire’s alliance with organized crime contains some small element of novelty, but the plot of this game is pretty conventional fair for a sci-fi first-person shooter.
Anyone who played the original SiN game will also notice that Emergence‘s plot sounds very, very familiar. In the original game, John Blade is trying to investigate Elexis Sinclaire’s mysterious activities and finds an insidious plot to take over Freeport. Emergence takes this plot structure and applies it once more. In the original game, Elexis uses a deadly mutagen to turn the city’s inhabitants into monsters. Guess what? Elexis is once again using that deadly mutagen to once again turn the city’s inhabitants into monsters.
It becomes clear at this point that Emergence is intended to be a reboot of SiN, but a decent reboot won’t just rehash the story of the original media. A decent reboot borrows the concepts that made the first game great and points them in a new, better direction. SiN Episodes: Emergence‘s shameless repetition of the original game’s plot means that there’s nothing new here for fans of the original game, but Emergence also does nothing to introduce newcomers to the Freeport universe. It demands excitement from old-school fans and understanding from new players, but is vastly overconfident in its ability to procure either.
With Emergence‘s plot almost entirely comprising rehashes and cliches, story-driven gamers will look elsewhere for a saving grace within the narrative. The issue is that this story’s saving grace is nowhere to be found. The voice acting is okay. It’s not great. Jen Taylor channels her inner Cortana in voicing Jessica Cannon, but doesn’t venture far outside of that advisory niche. All of the enemies in the game shout repetitive lines about killing John Blade, i.e. “I’m gonna get you, BLADE!”, and “This is it, BLADE!”
These lines are repeated so many times that firefights quickly become obnoxious. It doesn’t help that almost every human enemy will spout this canned rhetoric no matter their class or what weapons they use. Indeed, within SiN‘s tiny community, the lines about John Blade are to SiN fans what the “arrow in the knee” meme is to fans of Skyrim.
The icing on the cake for SiN Episodes: Emergence‘s narrative is that the game cannot decide whether it’s a sci-fi comedy or a serious first-person shooter. Names like John Blade and Jessica Cannon imply comedy, but what scant humor the game contains is confined to a few cliched one-liners. The rest of the game is a grim-looking FPS whose aesthetic does nothing else to imply comedy. It begs the question of whether a name like John Blade is supposed to be ironic. Hopefully so, because if SiN is actually trying to be taken seriously, the name “John Blade” does not inspire seriousness.
On top of all of this is the fact that the game is unafraid to hyper-sexualize its characters. Elexis Sinclaire is one of the most sexualized characters in all of gaming, which, in the world of video games, is no small feat. It makes Elexis Sinclaire impossible to take seriously as a villain. If Ritual Entertainment had put half as much effort into the rest of Emergence as they had her breast physics, this game might have turned out better.
Far be it from Art as Games to declare that a woman in a bikini is the end of the world, but this is ridiculous.
Emergence‘s plot, while uncomplicated, is nothing new, and it’s entirely too derivative of the game that came before it. Is there anything good to be said about the rest of the production? Well, the gameplay is pretty good. It’s nothing that fans of Source mods and Half-Life haven’t seen before, but it’s serviceable. Controlling John Blade offers the same smooth experience as that of Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2. Blade can run and jump around the environment and the gunplay offers enough smoothness to pair well with the movement.
Like Half-Life 2, though, the enemies in this game are not too bright. Most will stand completely still as they shoot at Blade, allowing him to dispatch head shots with ease. The dumbness of the enemy AI makes Emergence an easy game, even on higher difficulties. Enemies display no creativity in using the environment, although to be fair, creative enemy AI is a relatively recent development.
The level design in which these firefights take place is, like everything else in this game, pretty alright. Not good, not great, just… alright. It’s the standard FPS fare of linear corridors and open areas, taking more than a few nods from trends established by the Half-Life franchise. The environments are reasonably detailed, and the city of Freeport is a colorful place, but not nearly enough of the game’s more interesting central environments are explored. Most everything takes place in a series of tunnels, labs, and warehouses.
Sound design? Adequate. Game length? Adequate. Options menu? Adequate. Everything in SiN Episodes: Emergence is so perfectly conventional that it almost seems intentional. There are no innovations, no great plot points, no memorable scenes from throughout the production. It’s a flawlessly average video game that arrogantly assumes much more than what it ultimately amounts to. There’s no character development, the dialogue is the standard “get to the chopper!” routine replete in first-person shooters, and nearly all of its gameplay elements were already pioneered by Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Combine this with its rehash of SiN‘s questionably interesting plot, and, well… yeah.
Upon its release, SiN Episodes: Emergence received “meh” reviews from the press and fans. The game barely broke even with its production costs, and the other eight episodes of the planned series were cancelled. Fans of Source mods might enjoy what gameplay Emergence borrows from Half-Life 2, but gamers looking for something more substantive will want to seek a different pasture.
Like so many games, Emergence had some potential. It had the potential to rise from the ashes of the original SiN and make the series a true contender in the world of first-person shooters. But what the game lacks is confidence; confidence in its abilities as a shooter, confidence in its choice of narrative tone, and confidence in the design of its shallow, sexualized characters. Consequently, gamers everywhere should have little confidence that SiN Episodes: Emergence contains lasting entertainment.
You can buy SiN Episodes: Emergence here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.