SiN Episodes

Episodic gaming comes of age.

Released a week or so before Half-Life back in November 1998, the original SiN came out to a hearty ripple of applause. It seemed like a pretty solid Quake II-powered sci-fi FPS about the nefarious Elexis and her plans to hijack a nuclear weapon. It had mutants galore and some memorable moments, but soon, the much-hyped Ritual Entertainment-developed title fell by the wayside once it became clear how great the gulf between the two FPS rivals really was. While SiN was happy to play things by the book (and did so pretty respectably), Half-Life took the book, ripped it into little pieces, pulped it, made another one and re-wrote every FPS rule imaginable. The rest is, as they always say at this point in any introductory paragraph worth its salt, history.

But while the two developers may have once been considered rivals, now they're unexpected allies, being inextricably linked via the umbilical cord of Valve's ingenious and (some might say) controversial digital distribution system, Steam and its celebrated Source game engine.

State of independence

In a rare show of determined creative independence Ritual has repeatedly dismissed the idea of signing future SiN products to a publisher to maintain total creative control. Indeed, getting a product to market unsullied by the demands of marketing departments is a position many fellow developers would happily donate bodily parts to be able to do, and for Ritual the opportunity to work with Valve represents the culmination of a four-year journey - and one that Valve itself was happy to agree to, reportedly being firm fans of the original SiN.

As broken exclusively in the August 2005 edition of PC Gamer UK, Ritual is delivering far more than a standard SiN sequel. If all goes to plan, it could well be credited with changing the way gamers have traditionally experienced game content. Delivered under the more expansive banner of SiN Episodes, the game will be piped direct to consumers by Valve over Steam in a series of six hour chapters. No more talking about it: this could be true episodic gaming at last.

Quite how many parts the game's story will be told in is unclear at this stage, but the plan is to make these 'episodes' available every three to four months, and to charge around $20 for them (that's £11.38 or 16.78 Euros).

Source of all Sin

So what about the game itself? Well, for a start it will be built using the celebrated Source engine - ensuring that it will be among the most eye-catching of games to emerge in the run up to the all-important holiday season, and once again follows the adventures of John Blade as he tries to finally nail the evil Lycra fan Elexis and her band of mutant henchmen.

Fans of the original will recall that although Elexis failed to detonate a nuclear bomb, she did manage to slip away - setting up the first chapter of SiN episodes rather nicely. PC Gamer's article states that the action will kick off in Freeport City, a futuristic reimagining of New York, Tokyo and San Francisco. Blade is "slipping in and out of consciousness", and his new sidekick Jessica Cannon drives him "with impressive skill" to a secret location. Cue an on-rails driving/shooting interlude with a difference.

As Blade you'll be able to interact with pretty much whatever you want during the game, and in the early sequences PC Gamer reckons you can mess around with whatever takes your fancy, including the radio, clutch and glove compartment - with Jessica apparently none too pleased with the horsing around.

Railing against predictability

Better still, unlike most tediously predictable on-rails sections, the opening chapter is set to give the player a far greater degree of freedom during the action than they’ve had before. Not only will the player be able to shift Blade between every seat in the car (including the wheel, it seems), you'll be able to lean out of the window to get a clearer shot, but while running the risk of taking greater damage.

How it will play out will be interesting, but it appears to be an idea Ritual has worked hard at to lend the game a real white knuckle Hollywood movie chase feel. PC Gamer's feature reveals the first episode will be vehicle combat heavy, but shies away from revealing plot spoilers at this stage. It does, however, reveal that Blade ends up on top of a Subway car, with a mutant throwing bodies and cars at the unfortunate future cop.

The feature then turns its attention to Ritual's tweaking of the Source engine. First up is what’s being termed 'Context Look', which essentially gives the game the ability to script NPC conversations on the fly. In other words, characters will know what Blade is looking at by where you're pointing the mouse cursor and be able to respond dynamically.

Shoot from the hip

Elsewhere, the AI has been tweaked with some location damage enhancements, so that enemy AI will, for example, be able to fire back at Blade even if they've had their legs shot out from underneath them, while NPCs will help drag wounded back to their feet and so on. Enhanced object handling is also promised, with items pivoting from the players' hands rather than 'levitating' in front of them like in Half-Life 2. This is set to have gameplay implications, Ritual promises, with players able to grab objects and position them with precision and set up cover points.

But perhaps the most interesting implication of Ritual's decision to go for broke on the Episodic Gaming front is that fans themselves will be able to influence the progression of forthcoming episodes. Apparently players will occasionally be forced into making choices, and depending on how the community reacts as a whole, certain things will change in the next. For example, if you choose to save a key character their appearance may well be different in the next episode than if you had chosen to leave them to fend for themselves.

With Ritual able to track exactly what players choose to do, the way is clear for the community to have a direct influence on how the eventual plot plays out - with the potential for players to replay sections to influence the direction. Interesting indeed. Ritual's creative director Robert Atkins seems unsure to what extent it will have an influence, though, admitting in the PC Gamer interview "Right now it's a concept we're going to implement, but we don't know to what level yet. We figure the fans are going to help us out." But to be clear, there is not going to be any obligation for solo players to contribute, with an 'opt out' option provided.

SiNtillating

Even if you didn't find the original SiN that exciting (most probably you just wanted to kill the terrifyingly annoying sidekick JC, who makes a more mature comeback, apparently), SiN Episodes certainly has enough ambition to mark it out as a game to keep on your radar as the long cold nights draw in. It's Source-y, it's Episodic, and it's coming direct to your PC. Colour us interested.

For the full eight page SiN Episodes extravaganza, complete with screenshots and a four-page Valve interview, check out the August 2005 issue of PC Gamer UK, on sale soon. Also, don't forget to check Ritual's website tomorrow, when the official announcement is scheduled to be made.

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