Jonathan Fingas On May 26, 2006 at 6:12 am

Most people gladly take their TV in small doses. You’ll never hear someone grouse that Battlestar Galactica seasons should only air as one complete show; it would make for one helluva marathon viewing session, but it would also mean waiting several months or more just to see anything. Games rarely work that way. Us cranky gamers gladly let the hype build for sequels that take a year or more to ship. What’s stopping developers from telling stories in smaller (but more frequent) segments? No one would expect a dozen hour-long games every year – at least, not yet – but there’s nothing stopping companies from shipping smaller, simpler games more often.

Ritual is the first developer out of the gates to try this in earnest with the first installment of SiN Episodes, Emergence. It’s the first game in recent memory where the producers have rated the hours of game time in single digits (5 to 6 on an initial playthrough) without cowering in shame. The company’s current plan is to release a new episode every few months (though there is talk of moving to “seasons” with multiple episodes each) so that players aren’t left out in the lurch for very long.

For the most part, the concept works well. As an episode of a much larger story, Emergence feels short but sweet. There is just enough plot advancement to make you feel as though you’ve accomplished something significant, but it teases you with an ending that leaves you curious about what happens next – just like a good TV show.

The gameplay itself is nothing radical, and the game both benefits and suffers from this. If you remember the original SiN, you’ll recall that it was a straightforward first-person shooter with a few new tricks up its sleeve, like the ability to use in-game control panels or man a gun on a vehicle. Emergence is… a straightforward first-person shooter with a few tricks up its sleeve. The action itself is very exciting: there are moments when you’ll hardly believe that you survived firefight as intense as these, especially not if you ratchet up the difficulty to higher settings. The game has a dynamic difficulty system which can feed you easier targets or more health pickups if it can tell that you’re having a hard time at the current skill level. Thankfully, you can toggle how often you receive this help as well as the base difficulty, so expert players can be as masochistic as they like while rookies aren’t unduly punished for their mistakes.

One highlight of this game is its extremely satisfying gunplay. Every weapon available in Emergence can deal out major damage to targets so long as you know how to use them. Blade’s signature pistol is excellent for lethal headshots, the shotgun can end a battle quickly at short range, and the assault rifle is great at tearing up multiple targets. All your guns have punchy sound effects and, importantly, can damage just about anything and everything in the environment. Some designer at Ritual must like their Jerry Bruckheimer films, since virtually every enemy and room is an excuse for a cathartic “bang.” There are some enemies later on who simply can’t die without bursting like a piñata. Had a bad day at work? Play Emergence, you’ll feel better.

The level design is solid; you’ll never feel at a loss as for where to go or what to do if you have any kind of experience playing first-person shooters, and those new to the genre get a tutorial-style sequence that familiarizes them with navigating levels quickly. It’s in the level design, however, that the straightforward quality of Emergence begins to create problems. There isn’t really anything that a veteran player won’t have seen before. Obviously, players of the original SiN (and Doom 3) will be very familiar with what they do in the game, but a lot of the game mechanics new to the SiN game universe are ones inherent to Ritual’s choice of the Source engine rather than fresh creations. At points you’ll take advantage of physics to smash open a door or to send a gas container flying into a pack of enemies, and while they keep gameplay interesting these are really just variations on we saw in Half-Life 2. Given that Valve itself is experimenting with episodic content, gamers with a tight budget might choose to see where the Half-Life 2 story goes instead of spending money on a different title, even if it’s ultimately very enjoyable.

There’s not much to write about the graphics. The art, effects, and models look good overall, but there’s nothing unique in the experience. We’re used to the excellent Source engine graphics by now. The level designers take full advantage of the effects they’re given without making them feel arbitrary, but you can’t say that you were stunned. This does at least mean that the increase in requirements is very modest. Most people who could play Half-Life 2 with full detail will have few if any problems running the game.

Emergence also borrows the exclusively first-person narrative format of Half-Life 2, and it’s not a perfect fit. Those of you who played the original SiN will remember that Blade was quick to comment on his situation or offer a snappy comeback. In Emergence, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Blade had taken a vow of silence to (excuse the pun) repent for his SiNs. When he says anything at all, it’s only to confirm that another character wants to talk to him. It doesn’t fit the character, and the argument that he’s reeling from the initial blow at the start of the game doesn’t hold much water. Valve understood this even in Half-Life 1: if you’re going to have your character say anything at all, you should have them say something meaningful. That’s why Gordon Freeman is completely silent and characters like Alyx or the G-Man have such vivid personalities. Ritual takes care to flesh out characters like the rookie agent Jessica or the crimelord Radek, but there’s a definite sense that more effort should have been put into the person most central to the plot.

The story is also very barebones at the outset. You’re thrown into the story without much explanation of what has happened since the first SiN game. In fact, players who haven’t touched the first game at all could be stymied by the lack of information. Hopefully future episodes will help explain why Blade starts out in such desperate circumstances and how Jessica came to join the team. Without this extra content we’re left in the dark, and in this regard the episodic structure works against the player.

Longevity is harder to judge for a game like Emergence. The game finishes quickly – so quickly that you could be watching the credits roll in a single afternoon. On your first run you may want to deliberately keep your play time to an hour or two per day to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. That said, the price makes it a very tempting impulse buy: the game will only take $20 US out of your pocket, and for five hours of entertainment that’s a very reasonable price. The developers also went out of their way to add reasons to come back after you’ve finished. Aside from ramping up the difficulty level, you can also be rewarded with a good laugh or some extra equipment by hunting for secrets in maps, an incentive that has sadly been missing in many recent games.

The real limitation is that, unlike a TV series, there’s no definite timeframe for when the next episode will appear. Development changes or problems could delay the next part of the story by months, so you’re left hanging if you run out of incentives to play again. At the moment, there are no multiplayer or alternative single-player modes to try out once you’re done. Ritual promises these sometime in the near future, but this is potentially risky: how many people will still be playing the game by the time they can play online? A multiplayer game often lives or dies based on the activity of its community, and Ritual missed out on the opportunity to use the initial buzz of the game’s launch to its advantage. The company will need to offer great gameplay and rely on word-of-mouth hype to keep people interested. In the current situation, buy the game only if you like what’s already there; don’t buy it solely on promises.

What we’re left with is an interesting but imperfect proof of concept. Emergence feels less like a TV show and more like the gaming equivalent of a sugar rush. It’s great while it lasts and you’ll gladly come back for more. It’s just a shame that there’s a lack of substance and a few headaches along the way.


Very satisfying action, but unoriginal and (currently) limited in value.


A good-looking game, but not much different than Half-Life 2.


Outstanding weapon effects, but starved for more dialogue.


Worth it for the price, but it could have been much more.

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