For gamers who've begun to weary of the collect-the-resource-and-build-the-units formula of nearly every real-time strategy game on the market, Emergency: Fighters for Life's unique premise will come as an extremely welcome change of pace. But thanks to clumsy execution and pedestrian production values, Emergency winds up smack in the middle of the "could have, should have" category.
In Emergency, you're more or less a plenipotentiary of emergency response and disaster relief: It's up to you to dispatch and control (from the usual oblique overhead perspective) police, medical personnel, and firemen, as well as vehicles such as fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and paddy wagons, rescue helicopters, fire-fighting planes and boats, bulldozers, and more.
Many of the situations facing you are garden-variety emergencies - fires, flooding, a football riot, a derailed roller coaster, airplane crashes, boating accidents, and sundry types of vehicular mayhem, to name a few. But others are considerably more calamitous, if not particularly original: a nuclear meltdown (Chernobyl, 1986?), a poison-gas attack on a subway (Tokyo, 1995?), and a crash at an air show (Ramstein, Germany, 1988?).
It's no biggie that some of the missions here are based on real-life tragedies, but it would have been a nice touch if the developers had shown a little imagination and turned to some more obscure and bizarre disasters like The Great Molasses Flood (Boston, 1919) or the London Beer Flood (1814) for inspiration.
That's nit-picking, of course, and no one would give a hoot if the game's biggest shortcoming was the lack of weird accidents and emergency situations. But the truth is that Emergency has so many faults that it could use some major rescue work itself.
One of the keys to a successful response to an emergency is recognizing the scope of the accident and identifying obstacles, especially those that could pose a threat to rescuers. Unfortunately, the graphics in Emergency's mission camera - which displays a "detailed" view of the area - are so teeny-tiny that it's almost impossible to spot many crucial objects you need to manipulate.
In one mission, for instance, you need to flip a switch that turns on a "traffic jam warning sign" so a helicopter can land on the freeway - but the hot spot on the post housing the switch only takes up one or two pixels on the 640x480 display, and there's nothing to indicate that the post is anything other than, well, a post.
Exacerbating the problem is the absence of a zoom function or a "tactical" map to let you jump quickly from one area of the disaster to another; instead, you must constantly scroll the main view just to look around the scene. And on some missions (not necessarily larger ones) that scroll can slow down to a herky-jerky crawl, making completing even a straightforward mission a minor ordeal.
Then there's the issue of micromanagement. It's one thing to take control of several departments that normally wouldn't fall under the command of one person; it's another when the personnel in those departments are nothing more than zombies. Regardless of how many personnel and units you're dealing with, you have to issue orders for every single thing they do. Let's say you need to pick up tires on a race track before a race gets started. First you select a single firemen (who can't be wearing a chemical suit or oxygen mask, although I don't know why that would keep someone from picking up a tire), then order him to pick up the tire, then tell him where to go, then order him to drop it - and start all over again for the next tire. You'd be in some pretty dire straits if all these guys had to go to the bathroom at one time.
It's a given in any real-time strategy game that you can select several units and have them enter a vehicle - but not in Emergency. Send out six cops in a police truck to handle a crowd, and you'll have to guide them back to the vehicle one at a time. Speaking of police, I always thought that a single officer in a patrol car could handle a mundane task like directing traffic, but I must be wrong: In Emergency it takes two officers, one to drive the car (and apparently stay glued to the seat) while the other gets out to do the work. Unfortunately, the pathfinding routines for vehicles don't seem to benefit from this "dedicated driver" scheme: Send several units back to base, and five minutes later you'll find they're completely gridlocked because a vehicle that's just arrived on the scene won't get out of their way.
Complicating matters is the linear mission tree; fail on a mission, and you've got to keep playing it until you succeed before you can take on a new challenge. It's bad enough that you automatically lose some missions when there's a fatality - after all, no rescue squad can claim to have a perfect track record. But in some cases you won't even know why you lost, because once you receive the "Mission Failed" message you don't get to look around the scene to see who died where and for what reason.
But the real trouble with Emergency can be summed up in four words: It has no soul. Not only are the characters so small that they seem utterly insignificant, but a near-total absence of sound effects and animations adds even further to the static, lifeless atmosphere. Disaster scenes are noisy, chaotic, and frantic affairs; the accident scenes in Emergency, on the other hand, are almost serene, populated only by silent bystanders who seem hell-bent on blocking rescue vehicles or strolling casually into deadly areas that even a top-dollar stuntman wouldn't traverse. Some missions are difficult to complete, but even when you do succeed you'll rarely feel any thrill of satisfaction or accomplishment.
Success in Emergency isn't a question of responding in a timely fashion to constantly changing circumstances. It's a boring routine of figuring out what type of units are needed, in what order they should be dispatched, and where they need to go once they arrive. It is, in short, connect-the-dots strategy gaming and delivers about as much fun and excitement as that phrase connotes.