While the use of Source engine meant that Emergence does look beautiful – Ritual seemed to be putting all that visual power to waste, with only the occasional sunlit scene or watery passage to show Valve’s technology to best effect. And though the real-time physics were obvious in the rag-doll death throes of the enemy troops and the occasional moment where a well-placed explosion caused vast chunks of scenery to topple over, I couldn’t see anything special. If anything, Emergence felt like a watered-down version of F.E.A.R. – and one missing badly the bullet-time effects and intelligent adversaries of Monoliths flawed near-masterpiece. Having fought those fiends with their rapid response and emergent tactics, it was hard to get too excited about tackling Ritual’s comparatively dozy armoured goons.
I’m not actually sure when my attitude changed, but some of it might be down to two things. Firstly, the game uses a novel technology that’s designed to adapt the AI and the general difficulty level to match your own skills, the theory being that an FPS novice should be able to enjoy the game as much as a seasoned hardcore player. In practice, this actually seems to work; the enemy forces constantly raising their game the more I made progress. Secondly, this is one of those rare games that really does get better the more it goes on. As Blade infiltrates an enemy ship the game felt more sure-footed in its set-pieces; more capable of creating situations to challenge me and test my skills. The concluding sections in a high-rise corporate block in many ways outclass F.E.A.R.’s similar efforts – partly because the environments are so much more varied, but also because the game starts throwing in the sort of high-tension, daredevil moments that make it feel like the climax of a Die Hard-style action movie. By the end, I found myself well and truly hooked.
It’s certainly not the case that the action gets any less clichéd. You can expect to say hello to old favourites like the laboratory over-run by mutants, the helicopter showdown on the rooftop, and the last-stand battle where enemies swarm from every opening. Emergence doesn’t even leave you with much freedom; most of the time you can tell which door to go through because it’s the only one that isn’t locked. Most of all, it actually has the temerity to use F.E.A.R.’s trademark slowmo mechanic. It’s just that it a) relies on blasting open canisters of dangerous mutagens, and b) isn’t actually as useful as it sounds. The amazing thing is that somehow Ritual has taken this grab-bag of borrows, steals and stinking clichés and fashioned them into something surprisingly thrilling.