My brother gave me five games for crimbo, but I’ve been so busy working on my own that I’ve hardly even looked at them. I played open-world RPG Two Worlds during the festive holiday but didn’t have much to say about it; it’s a bit janky, sometimes interesting, couple of nice ideas but ultimately bland.
Sometimes, though, you need to recharge your batteries with a classic late-90s first-person shooter, and it seems we have one in the pile — SiN.
When you play a good late 90s shooter you suddenly remember what you’ve been missing from your life. The sheer speed of rollicking around tiny levels is something you just don’t get nowadays, in this world of ever-expanding draw distances and analogue-stick-induced fugue. Sure, I have to peer at it through a stretched square in the middle of my huge monitor or else it crashes, but that’s a small price to pay for the gleeful charge into action that only a slightly janky shooter from the glory days can provide.
So, what do we have here? Designer drugs, corporate conspiracies, mutants, fairly interactive real-world-ish locations and a main character called John Blade. A good start!
Mechanically, it feels strangely stumbling onto a long-lost prototype or alpha version of Deus Ex, as if it was built on Quake II with tongue-in-cheek 90s badittude rather than deadpan snark. Although it’s generaly a forward-motion-powered shooter, with mostly linear but occasionally looping levels and the odd environmental puzzle, there is a Use key you must press to poke at things as you go.
I say prototype or alpha because it’s not quite as good as Deus Ex at Using things. It never really explains which walls are openable doors and which are just painted decorations, as there are no hints to signal when something can be touched (similarly Quake II-spawned classic Daikatana has the exact same problem; was it endemic to the engine, I wonder? Is it fundamentally impractical to add floating UI elements?). Many environmental puzzles require you to activate things that at first glance seem to only be set dressing, like an early bin lid that needs to be pulled down so you can use it to jump up to a ladder.
In a similar vein, plot-important items lying on desks hardly stand out from their surroundings, except by a subtle difference in lighting (on the other hand, I think I’ll still take this over Human Revolution‘s massive orange outlines).
It does mean that you can often get into that state where you’re not quite sure where to go next, because your objective lies behind something that doesn’t look usable. I think it’s because it’s in that strange limbo somewhere between being a straight-forward shooter and an immersive simulator — it took my brain a few levels to get into gear for occasional improvisation rather than purely guided blasting. Yes, that door may be locked, but the window next to it can be shattered and jumped through and–
It also takes a few forays into stealth. Some levels have alarm switches which will summon additional guards until you can find the off switches, where a single false move will cause nearby civilians to bring the rain. It’s a nice change of pace in principle, but the margin of error is miniscule, with most alarm points having people stationed directly next to them so that your mere presence is cause for instant sirens.
On top of that, enemies will spawn endlessly until you deactivate the alarm, teleporting in behind nearby closed doors that are frequently behind you, as you hammer back and forwards trying to find which cuboidal wall decoration is the switch. Enemies spawned in this way carry ammunition so you can effectively go on forever, but it very quickly gets the wrong kind of silly.
Stealth, however, is always only a secondary objective. Raise the ire of the locals and you’ll just have to shoot a bit more than you might otherwise have had to; no biggy.
Other secondary objectives include “hacking” bonus computer systems or finding missing plot items, but these don’t seem to have any impact beyond a green tick or a red cross on the loading screen at the end of the level. At least Deus Ex‘s side quests netted you useful in-game items or information. Hell, this is before the age of Achievements so you don’t even get bragging rights!
Sadly, shooting is almost entirely based on instant-hit bullet-based weapons so there’s nothing particularly exciting going on here. Pistol, shotgun, machine gun and bigger machine gun (which has a grenade launcher mode that is incredibly awkward to switch to) are pretty much the extent of the roster for most of the game, both for you and for your opponents.
There’s very little dodging that can be done in this kind of setup, so I felt a bit silly circle-strafing as much as I did. The lack of meaningful movement is not helped by the enemy placement either, which borders on the obscene at times — pop your head out of the sewers on one level to be instantly headshot by two snipers that you have no chance of seeing before it’s too late. Really? Really?
So I’m not really sure I can recommend SiN. Although it’s fast and furious, the weapon set is interminably dull and the enemies you face for most of the game are more irritating than fun. It claws back some points for the spunky dialogue and cinematics and the odd villainous surprise, but that’s not really enough to distract from some seriously questionable level designs.
If you’re in the market for a late 90s shooter, you’re better off going for something like Shogo: M.A.D. — which applies its ludicrous 90s attitude more thoroughly, in the overblown gameplay as well as the dialogue. SiN contains a grab bag of nice ideas but ultimately they haven’t been stitched together very well.