State of Emergency Preview
We visit Rockstar and deliver exclusive hands-on impressions of State of Emergency.
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State of Emergency has caused quite a bit of noise since it was revealed at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Many were instantly taken in by the hyperstylized mayhem the game encouraged--GameSpot editors included. It even garnered the site's "Game of Show" award. Sadly, after its unleashing at E3, the game went under a strict media blackout because of some uninformed coverage by the mainstream media. In any event, the curtains have been lifted, and we've been fortunate enough to spend some time with the game at Rockstar's New York headquarters. We've also been given a chance to speak with some of the people responsible for the game, the fruit of which you'll be able to witness soon.
State of Emergency successfully blends elements of classic beat-'em-up games with some truly impressive technology. The game revolves around the dynamics of rioting, and you take the role of one of five characters, each of whom has his or her own particular gripe with the game's ubiquitous evil organization, called The Corporation. As the game's story goes, The Corporation controls Capital City and has begun exhibiting all the types of behaviors typical of evil totalitarian governments, including mind control and martial law. Dissidents are quickly disposed of by its frightfully effective troops, though groups of freedom fighters exist and are determined to overthrow the all-powerful rulers. Of course, none of this is to imply that the game takes itself seriously, in any way. Everything is rendered in a lighthearted, cartoonish style, and the game's narrative seldom interferes with the minute-to-minute gameplay. Most everything is communicated to you via real-time 3D, and in this respect, the game flourishes. Despite the thick throngs of bodies you'll have to wade through, you'll easily recognize hostiles--either they'll be decked out in Corporation-issued gear, or they'll sport their gang colors (and postures). Recognizing the difference is essential to the game, because you are, in effect, working for a group committed to benevolent revolution, and the harming of fellow rioters is frowned upon. This is manifested in a points penalty at the end of each game played in arcade mode, for each innocent killed.
The game is divided into two modes: chaos and revolution. The former is the in-and-out arcade mode, and the latter is the deeper mission-based mode. When describing chaos mode, it's easy to make the Crazy Taxi analogy. You're essentially thrown into one of the game's maps and made to commit as much carnage as possible within the imposed time limit. Every time you kill a hostile character, it'll drop a time token, which adds a few seconds to the clock. Given the game's manic pace, you'll likely do a whole lot of this, so if you're skilled, you can be at it for quite a while. Periodically, you'll also be given certain objectives on the fly that you can choose to take, and doing so will net you much in the way of points. These objectives take different forms. On certain occasions, you'll be encouraged to wreck windows, and you'll be prompted with a "window bonus" message, which calculates the number of points you'd get for breaking them. On another occasion, you'll be alerted that there's a mad bomber in the area, and you'll have to seek him out before he detonates himself, as well as everyone and everything in his vicinity. A 3D arrow will point you in the direction of whatever objective is active, which quickens things significantly. Regardless of what objectives you happen upon, however, you can very well ignore them, if you so choose, because there are plenty of opportunities to earn points through the game's more mundane breeds of madness.
The revolution mode is altogether more coherent. It's the closest thing that SOE has to a genuine story mode, and narratives are earnestly presented to you, however understated they may be. One of the freedom force's operatives will present you with missions, which you can choose to ignore or accept, all of which are centered on the stage that you currently occupy. Finish enough missions in a given stage, and you're allowed to progress to the next. We were able to play through most of the missions in the first stage--the mall stage--and we were at it for a good three hours before nearing the end. If the rest of the mission schemes are similar in length, you could expect SOE's mission mode to be more than 20 hours long. The individual missions themselves were fairly simple--they involved seek-and-destroy, item delivery, and escort objectives, among others. The difficulty levels of each were nicely varied--we were able to blow through some, while others required a few whacks. Given the sheer madness going on at any given moment, though, each retry felt very much different.
This mostly has to do with the madness of the crowds that constitute each riot. Due to the game engine's hardy renderer, up to 200 characters can be drawn onscreen at any given moment. Though you won't see that many characters onscreen too often in the relatively tight mall map, some of the more wide-open areas let us witness this firsthand. Two hundred meat bags waffling about wouldn't make for compelling gameplay, but luckily this human mass acts in a way that is compelling and conducive to mad gameplay. Precisely 65 percent of the PS2's CPU is allocated to the characters' AI routines, and the effects are felt immediately. AI characters will react to your actions, as well as the actions of other drones: If you fire into a crowd, some will scatter, while others will take cover; if you attack a gang member, his cohorts will jump you; and if you walk by a Corporation guard equipped with a firearm, you'll get attacked. Granted, other games have boasted routines this robust, but it's never been done on such a grand scale, nor in the context of such a fast-paced game. Crowds of cops 50 deep will follow you if you commit some kind of transgression, and the paths they take to apprehend you will often surprise you. And they'll do this while the ambient crowds react and, often, while they participate.
The most impressive thing, though, is that it all seems to happen in a manner that's fluid and proper-feeling. You likely won't notice the brilliant AI of the crowds, per se; rather, the chaos they provide will feel natural to the experience SOE presents. It all happens at a fairly brisk pace, and the level of detail is impressive, given the amount of activity happening at any given time. To quote hard figures, the game moves at a constant 30fps, and the characters range from 500 to 2000 polys--the lower-end figure for environmental rioters, the higher for player characters and Corporation guards.
From what we've played today, SOE really feels like the most genuine evolution that the beat-'em-up game has enjoyed in gaming's modern generations. It retains the fast-paced, accessible playability essential to that classic style, but it sufficiently renovates it, from a technological standpoint. The game is set for release in late January, but we'll have much more for you in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.