With development costs spiralling into the millions, game developers are under increasing pressure these days from publishers not just to provide a return on investment but to do so in a timely manner. Graphical fidelity is constantly improving and gamers demand higher detail models and higher resolution textures, both of which require increasingly large development teams and long lead times.

Developers spend two years or more producing a game that will sell for £34.99 for a few weeks and then be consigned to the Budget Bin. It is a risky business model - like Hollywood films, some make a loss, many just break even while a minority of smash hits rake in the big bucks.

An alternative business model is emerging known as Episodic Content. The formula is simple: create a game universe and release smaller, bite-size chunks of gameplay on a regular basis for a cut-down cost. Valve are trying it next month with the release of Half-Life 2: Episode One but today it is Ritual Entertainment’s aptly named SiN Episodes: Emergence under the microscope. Emergence is the first of nine episodes, available for US$20 (around £11). The plan is to release new episodes every 3-6 months.

A Quick History Lesson

It is fitting that SiN Episodes should be released over Valve’s Steam distribution system. This is because in 1998, Ritual and Valve both released cutting-edge 3D shooters; the titles SiN and Half-Life (respectively) were both engaging plot-driven affairs, that introduced localised hit zones and other good things we now take for granted.

However, SiN wasn’t the polished product that Half-Life was, and suffered from long load times and a few obvious bugs. Although Ritual swiftly released a patch, the glut of early criticism pushed SiN into disrepute, then to obscurity.

Rather than resent Valve’s success, though, Ritual recently saved Counter-Strike: Condition Zero from certain ruin, turning the game from being a bad Half-Life clone, into a half-decent multiplayer shooter. Indeed, the AI in CS:CZ is arguably superior to that of Counter-Strike: Source.

The CS:CZ engine, however, was not. Now, through Steam and Half-Life 2's Source Engine, Ritual have been let loose with Valve’s best toys. Although whether they can use them to resurrect SiN, remains to be seen.

SiN Episodes: Emergence Gameplay SiN Episodes: Emergence Gameplay

Plot comes First?

In the case of SiN Episodes: Emergence, it probably does. Four years after letting her slip through his fingers at the end of the first SiN game, Colonel John R. Blade finally catches up with his arch nemesis, Elexis Sinclaire, a top-heavy biochemist with a penchant for biological warfare. After an unsuccessful attempt to capture the wayward psychopath, you awake strapped to an operating table. While she stands above you, literally smothering you in ample wobbling cleavage, she introduces you to her head goon and a syringe full of green mutagenic goo.

Displaying a woeful lack of timing, your sidekicks make a successful rescue attempt, wrenching you from the warm comfort of idle threats into the whole new world of a man with a syringe full of mutagenic muck running through his veins. After the dust settles you're left with your backup team: Jessica, your leather-clad driver and wingman, JC your hacker who has an unerring ability to wait until you’ve killed everybody within a one mile radius before he gets around to opening a door.

As the story unfolds, you’ll find the game littered with stereotypical plots and characters like these. Fortunately, SiN Episodes strikes a clever balance between the endearingly silly storyline, slyly ironic characterisations, and some tightly balanced fighting.

SiN Episodes: Emergence Gameplay SiN Episodes: Emergence Gameplay

Big Fight Club

Fighting is what Ritual promised us, fighting against adaptable opponents, tweaked to your own playing style. Not content to create static difficulty levels, they devised the Dynamic Difficulty System (DDS) to watch you play and adjust your opponents accordingly.

The DDS bases its calculations on a wide range of combat statistics, and a difficulty level decided by you when you start a new game; you may not, however, change the difficulty level manually as you play through the game. Instead, the difficulty level changes dynamically as you play.

If they’re on their own they like to set up traps for you. One might wait with an explosive barrel, set light to it and kick it right into your face as you stroll around a corner. Another might hear your footsteps on the other side of partition wall, and decide on principle to hose bullets in your general direction.

It’s when they work in groups that you have to be careful, though. They often appear in large coordinated groups and you only have a selection of the four staple weapons (pistol, shotgun, rifle, and grenade), their respective secondary fire modes, your fists, wits, and the bizarre side effects of your mutagenic injection.

If you’re a crack shot or a walking tank, you’ll receive ever increasing waves of armoured enemies; or if you’re just a beginner you get to shoot at uncoordinated guards who wield pea shooters, while running around in their pyjamas – or the SiN equivalent anyway.
But is it better than Half-Life 2?

Actually SiN Episodes plays more like the first Half-Life or F.E.A.R. There’s no illusion of grandeur, and it shows.

SiN Episodes: Emergence Gameplay SiN Episodes: Emergence Gameplay

Unlike Half-Life 2 and Doom 3, SiN Episodes doesn’t try to reinvent a working formula. Instead of slowing the game down by adding spurious extras (like Doom 3’s PDAs) or overworking the plot (as in Half-Life 2), Ritual have spent their time making sure that the levels are fun to fight in. You can sneak into a fight, only to be spotted with irritating ease, or storm in guns blazing. No matter what the level, there’ll always be cover to duck into and a way to win.

There’s tight action from beginning to end, with little else to complicate the game. Puzzles, when you come across them, do little more than slow you down. In most cases they just seem to be there as homage to other games, with a couple harking back to classic Half-Life set pieces.

There are other minor downsides to the game, all of which come as standard with the Source engine. The game is peppered with long loading pauses, which always seem to catch you when you’re “just having a look” down the corridor in question. Another irritation are the little objects and physics props that jam under your feet and bring you to a dead stop, which often results in an untimely death.

If you prefer, the fighting can also be done at the same pedestrian pace, or you can run in guns blazing. The fact that you can only carry four distinct weapons simplifies the gameplay to using the right gun as and when required, rather than lamenting your lack of BFG ammo, or wishing you’d picked up a nail gun instead of the scoped rifle with 30 shots in it.

SiN Episodes: Emergence Gameplay SiN Episodes: Emergence Gameplay

Instead the game becomes about using the guns, explosives, and funky gasses that Ritual have provided you with to overcome your enemies - a ferocious juggling act, where you have to decide whether you’re going to crack that health vial here, or stay alive long enough to drag it all the way to the next health machine. Do you wait until the guy with the chaingun and the heavy armour gets close enough to beat to death with your rifle butt, or do you try to snipe at him with your rifle. Can I throw a grenade into that room and start a massive chain reaction of explosions? Stay here and kill them with tactics or run in there and slaughter the lot of them like the Mooks they truly are.
But if you’re rubbish, SiN Episodes doesn’t punish you. When you’re stuck it will help you along by weakening the enemy, or giving you hints through Jessica and JC. Which makes it a great deal less frustrating than your average FPS.

We completed this first episode in around five hours on a normal difficulty and had a great laugh doing so. This might sound a little short to some, but for £12 it doesn't exactly represent bad value compared with seeing two films at the cinema that might deliver 3-4 hours of action. For 'l33t' players, completing the game unlocks HardCORPS Mode, which disables all saving. "You MUST complete the game in one sitting. Extremely challenging!" the menu warns.

Josh Blodwell
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October 14 2021 | 15:04