CES 2006: SiN Episodes Impressions

We get a look at Ritual Entertainment's episodic new game set in the SiN universe.

LAS VEGAS--Reps from Ritual Entertainment were on hand at Microsoft's CES booth to demo a work-in-progress version of SiN Episodes: Emergence, the first new entry in the SiN universe since the 1998 original. The futuristic world was created by the Texas-based developer for the first game, which cast you as Colonel John Blade, owner of the private security force named HARDCORPS, which clashed with brilliant but malevolent biochemist Elexis Sinclaire. The game featured a unique spin on the first-person-shooter genre by offering a high level of interactivity with the environment, satisfying gunplay, over-the-top animation and strong multiplayer. SiN Episodes will revisit the world roughly five years after the end of the first SiN and will send you on a new adventure that will be broken up into nine episodes, which will amount to approximately four to six hours of gameplay. The first of these, SiN Episodes: Emergence, will be released in the first three months of this year. We had a look at the promising first game, which is set to be distributed via Valve's Steam delivery service and retail for less than $20.

The demo on display made a striking initial impression, thanks to its use of Half-Life 2's Source engine, and it offered a sampling of the action you'll find in the game. The demo begins with you making your way to Roddick's base and messing up all kinds of smack-talking fools with your trusty gun, explosives, and thrown objects. The demo showed off a number of different scenarios. Besides the standard sections where you'll plow through with guns blazing, there are others with Half-Life 2-style physics puzzles, a nasty encounter with a massive mutant who was in a pretty bad mood, and even a section where you ride in a vehicle driven by your female sidekick Jessica. Though you can't drive this vehicle yourself, you'll be able to pop out and shoot incoming enemies.

As far as gameplay goes, SiN Episodes: Emergence features the familiar SiN run-and-gun mechanics, though the arsenal is being refined. The full roster of weapons from the previous game is on tap (and with the requisite face-lift), but not all will be included in Emergence due to the way the story will unfold. However, weapon enthusiasts shouldn't fret, as you'll still find a shiny and impressive number of weapons to use. Each firearm will come with a secondary fire mode as well as its own unique melee attack, offering you plenty of options for killing. Better still, the Source engine's physics system is being tweaked in order to give you more options when causing mayhem. You'll still be able to pick up items and throw them, but their velocity will now be affected by where you pick them up. For example, if you pick up sharp objects by their corner you'll be able to throw them with some spin and get them to stick into walls (or people).

Expect some new faces to mark Blade's return to action.

Though the interactivity with the environment wasn't fully implemented, we saw a good helping of it, which ran the gamut from expected to slick. In the expected department, we were satisfied to see a carefully tossed incendiary grenade light up a room and all of its contents. In the slick department was the ability to remove half-used health canisters from the health stations--where you inhale yourself to a full life bar--and throw them on the ground where you can shoot them. The resulting cloud of gas will restore your health if you run through it, which is handy in combat with groups. Other slick touches include the canisters of mutagen, which will affect the mutants you face, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. For example, if you're facing a burly mutant and you wing a canister of mutagen with your bullets, there will be a puff of the transmogrifying chemical and it's possible the mutant will become a smaller, more manageable size. On the other hand, it's also possible to accidentally pump up smaller mutants by exposing them to mutagen, which can cause all manner of hassles.

The difficulty bears mention, as Ritual is attempting to create a self-adjusting system that changes the game on the fly as you play. The intriguing system works like so: The game will track a number of different statistics and check on them periodically as you play. When it performs the check, it will then implement changes to raise or lower the level of challenge. So, for example, if you're kicking ass with headshots or detonating explosive canisters, you'll find that enemies begin wearing helmets and coordinating against you or standing farther away from explosive canisters. Ritual is aiming to make this dynamic system flexible enough to reverse some changes if it overcompensates and makes things a little too difficult. To that end, the stat-tracking is being tweaked to happen frequently enough to where it won't ruin the experience. Another aspect of the stat-tracking is that you'll earn titles based on your performance. In keeping with the game's humor, the titles will reflect some aspect of your play style, so you could wind up being named an elite bunny-hopping, barrel-tossing magnum master, if throwing barrels is your thing.

Fans of the SiN games should recognize a number of familiar faces besides John Blade and Elexis Sinclaire. Blade's sidekicks will now include JC and Jessica Cannon. While some may cringe at seeing JC return, given the rather polar reactions he elicited in players, his character has been aged a bit and will feature what Ritual is hoping will be a more mature persona that will be less annoying. Jessica Cannon is a sassy redhead who's quite capable whether she's wielding a gun or driving a car, as you see in the demo.

Emergence's visuals obviously show off the bells and whistles you'd expect from a Source-based game. Plus, the graphics have a clean, detailed look that showed the beginnings of SiN's trademark interactivity. Reps on hand pointed out that the game is currently being polished up and there are interactive elements being added to what we saw. Though there are some rough loads, we expect they'll be smoothed out with optimization.

The audio we heard offered an immersive assortment of sound effects, voice, and gunfire, though the score--which is set to be a mix that includes orchestrated music and even a pop song--wasn't fully implemented yet. Despite that missing element, the yelling and gunfire is extremely satisfying already. As far as the voice acting goes, you'll hear returning cast members reprise their roles from the previous games, joined by vets such as Jen Taylor, the voice of Halo's Cortana, who brings Jessica Cannon to life.

This is the Source engine we're talking about, so you know the game won't be ugly.

From the look of things, SiN Episodes: Emergence is a promising and potential precedent--a title that could be a very good thing for gaming for a number of reasons. If the core game is solid, SiN fans will get a nice fix of what appealed to them from the previous games in a shiny new package. At the same time, if the Steam delivery and episodic approach take off, it proves the viability of a concept that has been discussed for years.

As far as the future of the series goes, the next chapter of SiN Episodes should hit six to eight months after Emergence. In addition, Ritual is working on a multiplayer release that actually may come out before the second chapter. One especially bright aspect of the series' future is Ritual's desire to see it land on the Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Marketplace. If this does end up happening, it will showcase the potential of Microsoft's download service and pave the way for all sorts of fun for 360 owners. Given all that, we'll be keeping an eye on the game as its release approaches. Look for more on SiN Episodes: Emergence in the coming weeks.

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jakeboudville
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