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News Archives - June 2006

: "Forgive Me Father..."

June 16 2006

Warning:
Contains nipples.

"...for I have sinned played Sin Episodes".

Does anyone remember 1998? It feels like such a long time ago now, but back then it was an exciting time to be a gamer. Fancy 3D graphics were finally coming to the fore, and two hugely anticipated first-person shooters were released in direct competition to one another — Half-Life and Sin.

Half-Life went on to sell 8-million copies and spawn a hugely popular (and genre-defining) franchise whereas Sin was basically forgotten, even though it was every bit as innovative as HL. For its time, Sin featured level designs, interactivity and scripted sequences never attempted before — it was also revolutionary in that it was the first game to ever feature a post-op transsexual on the box art (this being the 2nd).

Despite all this innovation, the reason why Sin didn't sell millions is because it was as buggy as hell, the infamous example being the boss character who freezes up and hence can't attack you. With this in mind, let's head back to 2006...

Last month Ritual Entertainment released Sin Episodes: Emergence, the first chapter of a new episodic series distributed via Steam. Yep, the good old days of gaming are all gone — these days it seems to be all about paying smaller amounts (but in increasing quantities) to get your fix of stupid horse armor or (in this case) the latest first-person shooter. I was curious to see what Ritual had learnt in the 8 years between the 2 games... The results were very interesting.

I'll start with the story. Although the original game had a vague backstory, it was mainly used to give busty villainess Elexis Sinclaire more screen time. It made sense really — when Elexis was on the screen, gamers could ogle her extremely disproportioned chest. Ritual aren't exactly the masters of subtlety though, because the new game shoves these in your face literally seconds after you click 'New Game'. Following this theme, throughout the game you've got a new sidekick as well, Jessica Cannon, who sports an unnecessarily visible panty line.

Despite these two distractions (well, three if you count Elexis' hands, or four if you count the models they hired...), the new game manages to have even less narrative than the first and delivers it worse too. The dialogue is horrible, and names of key characters & locations change erratically as you progress through the game.

In terms of the actual gameplay, it's as if we were transported back to 1998 again. This is both a good thing and (more predominantly) a bad thing. Visually, the episode gives a surprising amount of variety in terms of level themes, starting with a wharf/warehouse, then research labs in a tanker ship, moving to a construction site and finally a high-rise building for the finale.

The actual designs/layouts of the levels range from blatantly linear to alarmingly obtuse. It's a pure corridor shooter so all doors are locked except the precise one you need to go through (which is acceptable I suppose), but scaling the outside of a skyscraper (climbing precarious ladders) surely isn't the only way to get access to a rooftop! Spread across the levels are some payphones you can use to dial for a quick joke, but generally there aren't many interactive elements in the maps, apart from the healthy dose of explosive barrels, pipes and crates.

Episode 1 starts out slow and pretty easy. Your first weapon is a pistol with a painfully slow firing-rate, but it is pinpoint accurate (regardless of distance) so you can headshot most early grunts with ease. Of course it helps that they display absolutely no intelligence whatsoever, so they'll just mindlessly charge at you in a straight line just like they did in '98...

You'll gain a shotgun later to spice things up but at about half-way through the episode you're introduced to the chaingunner enemy, which is when total frustration sets in. These guys are hard to kill (due to armor, not brains), so when they're thrown wave after endless wave at you, coupled with a seriously dodgy bug that inflates the "Auto Difficulty" system, the second half of the episode quickly becomes a game of Quicksave->Die->Quickload.

It's not hard to pinpoint the nostalgic feeling I get when playing Sin Episodes. In 1998, Sin had a fair share of serious bugs that prevented the game from being enjoyable (or playable) in parts. Here in 2006, Sin Episodes also has a fair share of serious bugs, which really makes me wonder if Ritual know what the words "play-test" or "quality assurance" actually mean...
Or perhaps this incompetence is all just some big ploy to sell a boat-load of these T-shirts?

Here are just a few examples:
(You know it's really bad when I need to use nested bullet points...)

  • That fresh feeling
    During just my first run-through of Episode 1, the game crashed out to the desktop on five occasions and blue-screened (hence, reset) my machine twice. To put this in perspective, completing the first chapter (being an episodic game) only takes ~6 hours. Six hours with seven major application crashes? That's not too good.
  • These are rock-hard times
    The game automatically (and invisibly) adjusts the difficulty level as you play. One of the early levels is broken and includes a trigger somewhere that ramps up the difficulty to extremes, so you're left playing the rest of the episode swearing at your monitor.
  • Not ready yet
    A laughable number of scripted sequences failed to execute properly, along with some other general stupidity that is very puzzling... Here are just some:
    • Some doors that were meant to open or unlock didn't.
    • In-game cutscenes often failed to trigger entirely, or the non-player characters would sometimes freeze up mid-scene.
    • The end-of-episode helicopter that's meant to rescue you was completely invisible (and especially hard to find if, like me, you didn't know it even existed).
    • If there was meant to be an end-of-episode cutscene (to wrap up the "story"), I sure as hell didn't get one. Just a fade-to-black and a nightmare-inducing "outtake reel" after the credits.
    • One more on the finale level...: When I killed the end-of-episode boss (a huge, fast mutant creature), instead of the rag-doll'd body dropping to the floor, the mutant carcass fell straight through the floor as if nothing was there.
    • Your fancy ride is completely bullet-proof, even if it has no doors, windows or roof. But if you poke your head out of the "window" (which isn't on the car anymore, obviously), you'll be torn to shreds by a volley of bullet spray.
    On my first play-through, because I didn't know what was supposed to happen, I would get stuck in parts where the scripting failed, then spent a while backtracking to see if I've missed something important. I'd then quickload, and if the same script failed again, I would often need to cheat (noclip) to continue in the level.

It might sound like I'm being a bit harsh on the game, but after the bugfest of the first game I'm surprised to see so many issues with Sin Episodes, especially considering Ritual were entirely self-funded & didn't have a publisher setting a deadline for them. They could've easily taken a bit more time to get it all done right, but unfortunately the trend in the industry today is to churn out crap as fast as you can, then patch it later via systems like Steam. Money first, quality later.

To be fair, there were a few things I enjoyed about the game:

  • The lost art of keeping hiding a secret
    Simply 1998-era gaming nostalgia here...
    Unlike practically every other FPS released in the last 5 years, Sin Episodes actually rewards you for investigating every nook and cranny of the levels. Often you'll just find a spare health pack or some ammo, but other secret areas have better rewards — things like the numerous Dopefish tributes and other brief moments that made me chuckle.
  • Feel-good hit of the summer
    The theme/main-menu music stood out as pretty good to me. Not many games use theme songs with vocals, and this Sin Episodes theme song is something that wouldn't feel out of place in a James Bond opening sequence...
  • Stuff gonna 'splode™
    Regardless of how crap the game is, I always have fun taking screenshots of people madly flailing about after an explosive barrel does its thing.
  • Quick and to the pointless
    The game is short. Now most people wouldn't consider this a good thing, but somehow Ritual have found the perfect balance between the level of player frustration and the length of the chapter. If the game was any longer than it was, I would've got so pissed off that I would uninstall it without even worrying about finishing it.
     
    I did find Episode 1's proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back" though, but it was in the woeful blooper reel shown after the closing credits. So I finish the chapter, then see enough crap to warrant an uninstall...? How's that for extreme optimization?!?

Overall, with three weapons, half a dozen enemies and around six hours of gameplay, the first chapter of Sin Episodes feels like a potentially fun old-school FPS that doesn't quite work due to some pretty major issues. But much like watching Eurovision or a Dean Cain telemovie, there's proof that bad (hell, downright awful) entertainment can be good fun sometimes...

If the first chapter is any indication, Sin Episodes fits into the same category. Once I came to the realisation that Ritual were (unapologetically) making a dumb, cheesy shooter, I put my brain in neutral and went along for the fluffy, insubstantial (and hilariously buggy) ride.

I might even consider playing Episode 2 when it comes out, just to see how bad it gets... :)

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