SiN Retrospective Part 3: SiN Episodes: Emergence

2006. Valve had been talking up the idea of episodic gaming. The company had decided that a series of games could be released in chunks at a time at a discount. Then, much like a TV show, each episode could end with a cliffhanger getting the player hyped to see what happens next. They eventually tried this with Half-Life 2. But Valve wasn’t the only company sold on the idea. Ritual Entertainment thought that SiN would be a great franchise to use the idea on.

PROS: Level design. Voice acting. Innovative A.I.. Soundtrack.

CONS: Short. Will likely never see a conclusion.

BIANCA BEAUCHAMP: Portrayed Elexis Sinclaire at E3 in 2006.

SiN Episodes was supposed to be the heavy hitter for the episodic model. The game takes a bit of a departure from the original game’s wide open maps. Instead, the game follows the Half-Life model of intricate maps, with linear routes. So much so, that it was one of the first games that licensed the Source engine from Valve. Everything is built on the foundation of Half-Life 2’s tech. While at first glance that may seem like a step backwards, it does help move the series toward the TV feel the developers were going for. The game opens up with Blade waking up on an operating table. Elexis Sinclaire, and her latest henchman, Viktor Radek.

Before they can finish whatever they were doing to blade, HardCORPS shows up, and starts taking down the cartel’s minions. Elexis, and Viktor escape as a new character, Jessica Cannon (Played by Halo’s Jen Taylor) emerges to rescue Blade. She gets him out of the building, and into her car. As she drives we learn that Viktor’s cartel has gotten control of large sections of Freeport. He’s suspected of leading a U4 operation (SinTek’s mutant creating drug).

Blade has a weird dream about a scantily clad Elexis in a pond, before coming to. Jessica, contacts JC about an informant, and takes Blade to go meet him. Despite JC’s objections, and pleas to get Blade examined. Blade ends up going through a development sector. Things seem on the surface like a housing revitalization project. But the large number of SinTek security officers, and mercenaries suggest otherwise. The trail then leads to the Freeport shipping docks. Blade meets the informant who leads Blade to a tanker where the U4 is being made. Before he can finish telling Blade everything he needs to know, one of the informant’s men betrays him. SinTek forces show up in droves, and Blade has to escape. After going through a gauntlet of forces he meets back up with Jessica briefly. After getting armed she forges ahead to get in contact with JC, while Blade makes his way to Viktor’s base.But it is here that Blade finds out that U4 is only part of the secret operation. Viktor is also dealing in a number of military grade technologies. SinTek is shown to have continued its mutant research. After making his way to Viktor he learns that Viktor has the antidote to whatever Elexis injected him with. But that Viktor has no idea what the concoction is, other than it has powerful results. The tanker base begins to self-destruct, as Viktor escapes. Elexis appears as a hologram to taunt Blade, before he has to start fighting his way out of the secret factory.

After getting through some secret sewer tunnels the trail leads back to the development sector. Blade discovers that SinTek’s largest building in the area, Supremacy Tower is a potential stronghold.  He meets up with Jessica after he defeats a giant mutant. Jessica picks up Blade in her nearly totaled car. With the supremacy tower being heavily fortified, Jessica sees no stealth option. She drives the car through the front of the building. The two of them make their way to the top. They also discover SinTek’s data servers on the way. Jessica patches JC into the network while Blade continues to track down Viktor. Jessica gets the data to JC, but not without being captured by Viktor. Viktor meets Blade near the top of the tower in his helicopter. He rambles on to our heroes about how he has 5 data servers across the globe, and that losing one to the police is of little consequence. After some sarcastic dialogue from Elexis Sinclaire, he tosses Jessica out of his helicopter onto the roof after injecting her with some sort of poison. He then gets away after calling in an attack chopper.

Blade climbs to the top of the tower to try to shoot it down, but is confronted by another giant mutant. After barely defeating the mutant, he manages to take down the vehicle by the skin of his teeth. Then we get a trailer for the next episode. Jessica is put in an infirmary at HardCORPS, and JC explains that thousands of the monsters Blade barely defeated on the top of the Supremacy Tower have run amok. We get a montage of them killing civilians, police, and even SinTek’s own private army soldiers. Elexis can be seen laughing victoriously, as the end credits start to roll.

SiN Episodes Emergence does what it sets out to do. It delivers a short game in the vein of a television serial. As a game, it uses a lot of design ideas, and play we’ve seen in countless shooters since. The thing is, there are a lot of things under the hood here that were actually pretty revolutionary at the time. The interactive objects that were novel in the first game, are back with a few improvements. You’ll still be typing on computers, and using keypads. The game borrows Half-Life 2’s companion idea too. Jessica Cannon is this game’s Alyx Vance. She shows up similarly, finding alternate routes, and expounding  story information to you. She also fights with you in the last stage. But the biggest innovation the game added is an A.I. scale. The better you do, the harder the enemies will become. They’ll stop standing in the open if they see a comrade go down. They’ll change their attack patterns if a certain technique doesn’t work out for them. Similarly, they’ll become easier to defeat if you’re consistently failing, and continuing. It eliminates the need for the typical Easy, Medium, Hard layout traditionally seen in gaming. (There is also a HardCORPS mode that you unlock upon beating the campaign. This tasks you with beating the  game with no save states, on one proverbial quarter.).

The A.I. isn’t perfect mind you. Jessica doesn’t always go where she’s supposed to. Sometimes even an otherwise difficult enemy will bug out, and do something dumb. But it still reaches a level few games have in recent years. The game also has a pretty wide range of enemy types considering the short length. There are a number of variants on the mercenaries, and SinTek security forces. The mutants from the original game also return, alongside the different NPC’s like construction workers, guards, and so forth. The game can be completed within four to six hours depending on how good you are, and how you’ve set the Artificial Intelligence sliders. But it’s an insanely fun four to six hours. Most of your favorite weapons return from the first game, each with their own feel mostly intact. All of the weapons also have new secondary functions you can use provided you have the proper kind of ammunition. While the game has gone more toward the linear cinematic route instead of the original’s focus on exploration, there are plenty of secrets. The game has a number of Easter eggs, hidden weapons, and more if you’re the type to try to go off of the beaten path. It feels different, but also keeps the spirit of the cult first game alive.

The game also retains the brutality of SiN’s gun fights. Headshots often result in decapitation. Explosions will many times turn enemies into giblets. Fires will burn enemies alive. Some of the scripted animations will still amaze you today if you’re seeing them for the first time. Malfunctioning jetpacks sending guys off into the distance. Bad guys failing to stop, drop, and roll. Bad guys calling in for back up, or regrouping. It all makes for the B action movie feel the franchise is known for.

The game doesn’t have a multiplayer mode. Where the original SiN had a run of death match maps, and variants this game gives you something called Arena Mode instead. Arena is basically a single player horde mode. You are put into a map, and have to keep fighting bad guys until you die. You can compete for a high score on the leaderboard, but this really feels like an afterthought, and isn’t worth playing more than a few times. Supposedly there was going to be some form of multiplayer added later, but it never was. Another positive thing about the game is its music. The soundtrack is one of the best scores in video games. The title track What’s the world come to? features some wonderful vocals by Sarah Ravenscroft. The soundtrack has a very James Bond feel. It was even popular enough to see an actual album release.

The storyline isn’t a big upgrade over the one in the first game. But once again, it’s voice acted very well, and nails its B movie target. Even though it gets a bit campy, you’ll still want to see what happens. Unfortunately, we probably never will. Episodic gaming ended up going the way of the dodo pretty quickly. Mainly because the few studios doing it found they couldn’t finish the episodes fast enough. The development time for these budget games ended up being almost as long as a full priced game. Moreover, Ritual was purchased by Mumbo Jumbo not long after SiN Episodes, released. Upon the buy out, the company was told they couldn’t work on the second episode. Instead they had to focus on budget priced casual puzzle games. Most of the staff at Ritual left Mumbo Jumbo after the buyout, and so much like Half-Life 2 Episode 3, remains in limbo.

It’s a short ride, and it’s a sad note to go out on. But SiN Episodes: Emergence is still a historical gaming footnote you should look into. It’s a lot of fun to play through, and delivers the Popcorn movie action in spades. At release the game even included the original game, albeit with some content edits. Still, for anyone looking for an entertaining cult series should pick this up if they missed it way back when. With that, is the end of the SiN retrospective. It’s unlikely the series will ever see another entry, but on the other hand other games have taught us to never say “Never.” Here’s hoping if that day ever comes it continues the fun B movie camp of two excellent action games.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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