Hands-on with SiN Episodes
As some of you may know, I worked on the video game SiN back in the day. We loved making it, and everyone involved has wanted to make a sequel ever since. Ritual’s finally doing so, and I spent all of last night looking under the hood of the game. I’ve got some goodies to share. (And so does my brother). Also, I can get details on just about any aspect of the game you’d like. Post your stuff in the comments and I’ll do a follow-up entry with answers (UPDATE 1/30/06: Answers!).
Before getting into the details, though, I wanted to quickly touch on just how important this game is for the entire video game industry. Everyone wants episodic games. Developers want it because they get to make better games (by listening to their fans suggestions every 6 months and incorporating it directly into the next chapter) and do it more cheaply (6 months of game development vs years. Do the math). Gamers want it because their favorite games will be more frequent, higher quality, and more innovative since developers can now take some risks with different & new gameplay.
But figuring out if it’s a money-maker is a big risk. Someone’s gotta put their hard-earned dough on the line and try it out. Traditional publishers don’t want to jeopardize their revenue stream (just like the music and movie industries, they’re terrified of new distribution models.) Luckily, Ritual’s putting their money where their mouth is and self-funding this little experiment. If they succeed, the market will shift and we’ll all get what we want. Valve did an excellent job proving online distribution works (last I heard, 50% of Half Life 2’s ~5,000,000 copies were sold online via Steam)… now we just need Ritual to prove that episodic games make money. I know I’ve got Steam fired up and my $20 ready. Bring it on. 🙂
Let me get to the game itself. If the game sucks, this whole episodic thing could get set back 5 years. Luckily, the game looks awesome. (Bear in mind it’s not complete yet, and things may change, so don’t lynch me if everything’s not exactly as I described) It’s a true sequel to the original, and the art style manages to both remain consistent to the original and extend it. In fact, I saw some of the exact same geometry from the first game in one of the first sequences. 🙂
The thing that struck me first was how strong the AI is. They watch where you’re waving your gun and react accordingly. Aiming at their head? They’re gonna duck. Aiming at their torso, and there’s cover nearby? They’re gonna use it. Are there some garbage cans in the alley with you? They’re likely to pick them up and throw them at you before shooting. They help each other, too – we loved kneecapping guys and laughing at them as they fell to the ground, unable to walk. That is, until they still continued to shoot at us and called over a buddy, who helped them get back up. Oops!
Easily my favorite thing about the game is the adaptability. The game adjusts the difficulty on-the-fly, which we’ve all heard before. I thought that’d be sweet, but probably a little one-dimensional and easy to “game” or use to your own advantage. It turns out it’s not one-dimensional at all, but actually 5-dimensional. It utilizes a spider-chart to track your progress along multiple different game axis – things like how fast you’re moving through a level, your accuracy with your weapons, how much damage you’ve been taking, etc. The game then adjusts all sorts of variables to try to keep everything balanced just so. It’s got a great visual (I’ll get a screenshot for everyone) which looks remarkably like a spiders-web. The game tries to keep you dead-center on each axis, if that makes sense.
The reactions from the game aren’t just “oh, ok, we’ll spawn more guys” or “let’s make more health canisters”. Instead, they’re things like more helmets on enemies if you’re getting very good at headshots. Feels more immersive than just piles of health everywhere. 🙂
The weapons are great. Blade’s magnum still feels and sounds powerful and meaty. You can now look down the barrel to get a more accurate shot, and it has an alternate fire which shoots a wall-piercing antigen round. The antigen round, when used on certain mutants, can make them grow or shrink. His shotgun now has an alternate fire with a ricochet. Bounce shots around corners and things. All the weapons have a melee attack, so you can beat SinTEK to a pulp. There’s an assault rifle, a sniper rifle, and off-hand grenades. The grenades have great effects, with sweet particle sparks and nice flames which affect the environment and enemies.
From time to time, Jessica (JC’s hot sidekick) will drive Blade around the city and Blade’s on gunner duty. She’ll take different courses each time, based on her decisions, so there’s a little extra replayability for the “rail shooter” portions of the game. The car is totally destroyable piecemeal, so parts (doors, windows, the trunk, the hood, etc) can fly off as Blade takes heavy fire. Oh, and for a funny easter egg, stare at Jessica’s assets a bit sometime. 🙂
Ritual’s built an amazing skybox with the complete city all laid out. So as you progress from location to location in the game, all of the scenery totally matches up. Further, one of the buildings is an enormous skyscraper, from which you look down on all the other places you’ve visited during this chapter.
As SiN fans will know, Ritual has ABOs, or Action-Based Outcomes, which let the player change the direction the game takes based on how you accomplish tasks. One thing we talked about was the possibility of meta-ABOs where this episode gathers data on how everyone killed the final boss, for example. They can then take that information and start the second episode in such a way that it matches up with the way most people played the first. It wasn’t clear whether this would make it in this first episode or not, but I truly think the most powerful aspect of episodic game design is something like this. When fans can tell the developers what parts of the game they did and didn’t like, and the developer can incorporate that into a brand-new game within 6 months, everyone wins. Automatic stat gathering could help this a great deal and keep the story seamless.
There’s TONS of interactivity, and as a result, tons of easter eggs. You can use almost everything the world, including pay phones, and there are tons of numbers to call all over the place. If you see it in the world, you can probably do something fun with it.
The physics stuff is present and works well. It looks like they’ve extended Valve’s base physics to include things like oxygen tanks that have accurate velocity when shot. The game remembers which portion of item you picked up, so when you drop or throw it, it spins naturally as if you’d grabbed some corner of something, rather than the whole object.
There’s a massive amount of stat-tracking in the game. They keep track of everything you’d imagine, like your hit percentage, time playing, shots wasted and lots you wouldn’t. There are dozens of different metrics the game tracks and you can take a look anytime. If you’ve got a Logitech G15 keyboard, the game will show you your stats on the built-in LCD display.
We saw one boss fight, and he was sweet. Didn’t seem to have multiple stages or anything, but he did have a variety of attacks (huge melee fists, and a great glowing ball of stuff) and his skin showed all the damage we were laying on him. During the fight, we discovered that you can blow up any of the health containers in the game and they’ll make volumetric clouds of health. Likewise, the antigen containers will make coulds of antigen. And it turns out that antigen harms you but heals the mutants (and vice versa). So we could blow up health canisters as a means to injure the boss and other mutants. Pretty sweet.
Whew. I could go on-and-on, but the game really looks like a winner. Ritual, like Valve, has a full-time writer on staff and it shows. The game feels cohesive. It’s story-driven without getting bogged down in the details. The world exists already and you just happen to be in it. Some lame video game story isn’t shoved down your throat, whether you like it or not. You don’t know everything that’s going on, and it doesn’t matter.
Oh, yeah, and before I forget: All SiN Episodes buyers will get all of SiN 1 as a free bonus. So when you pre-order SiN Episodes, you’ll immediately get to play SiN 1. Pretty great, if you ask me. (Long live SiN-CTF!)
Post any questions in the comments (or over on my brother’s Shacknews thread) and I’ll try to answer any questions you have. I think I’m at liberty to talk about just about anything.