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SummaryBarney Miller is here to teach you a lesson in pain
The GoodGManlives called it a coda of the classic 90s FPS. Civvie11 called it the last of the dick-swinging action games. I am on board with this. While Ritual's 1998 shooter runs on the Quake 2 engine, it carries the spirit of earlier Build engine-powered games like Duke Nukem 3D, Blood, Shadow Warrior, Redneck Rampage et al, with its emphasis on environmental interaction from the superficial (flushing toilets and flicking light switches) to large scale environmental destruction and set pieces, and its irreverent tone.
Ritual Entertainment had already cut their teeth on the well-received expansion pack for Quake 1, Scourge of Armagon, which itself showed hints of the kind of flavour they would build into their own flagship franchise. They were also made of many well-respected designers in the professional and amateur game development communities. Tom Mustaine came up out of the Doom mapping community, contributing to levels that would be used in Final Doom. Matthias Worch had already made a name for himself with his Quake maps, and Richard 'Levelord' Gray was one of the driving forces behind Duke Nukem 3D's legendary level design.
This melting pot of ascended amateur and professional developers had big ambitions for Sin: not to just make a hugely entertaining shooter, but innovate in the genre with a more involved story (remember, Quake 2's ankle-deep narrative was the standard at the time, and Half-Life wasn't quite out yet), greater interactivity with the world, and what the developers liked to call "Action Based Outcomes", where something you did in one level might affect what happens in another, or lead to taking different paths through to the ending.
Let me get this out of the way first: Yes, the game is infamous for suffering from a disastrous launch. Pushed out the door far too early, the 1.0 release is a buggy, slow, unplayable mess. This is not to mention that it was followed mere months later by the release of the iconoclastic Half-Life, the game that killed the old-school 90s first person shooter dead overnight.
Sin got lots of post release support, and fan patches have tightened up the game to the point that the game's state on day one should not be a concern today. If you decide to check out the game, you should get Sin Gold on GOG, and NOT the release on Steam, which is glitchy, heavily censored and doesn't include the expansion, Wages of Sin. Once you've got it, install the Sin Ultimate Patch found on moddb and you will have a copy of the game that should look good and play well in a modern PC.
With that out of the way, I can get to the meat of this review.
Sin, like its Build engine brethren, wears its influences on its sleeve. It's Commando, it's Aliens, it's Robocop, it's Total Recall, and it's in the future. It's Duke Nukem 3D as well, actually, in terms of inspiration. But instead of just having a page of text in the manual and then sticking you in an episode to blast your way from level to level, Sin tries to tell a story, with cutscenes between many missions and lots of back-and-forth dialogue during the levels. As you might've guessed, the story is total schlock. But it's endearing, the dialogue is often quite witty, and the game knows what it is and what it isn't.
While the game does certainly take a stab at a more cinematic presentation, Matthias Worch has mentioned that there was no central authority on narrative. Level designers wrote their own dialogue and scripted their own cutscenes. Predictably, it's all very amateurish storytelling, and yet somehow, perhaps owing to the devs being on the same wavelength, it's not as disjointed as you might expect.
Blade's journal, included in the game's manual and written by Marc Saltzman, is a great little piece of world-building that does a fantastic job of setting the dystopian scene of Freeport and the personalities of its heroes and villains, though it's noticeably separate from the game itself in its tone. The journal takes a grittier feel, while the game is campy and irreverent, but I'm glad they included it to lend a bit more context to the proceedings in-game.
Most of the talking during and in-between levels is in the form of your own character, Blade, and JC, his offsider, providing backup and information via radio chatter. The banter between the two is frequently amusing, swapping insults and jokes regularly, and Blade saying what you're likely to be thinking: Shut up, JC, you pencil-necked twerp, and let me get on with blowing this guy's torso off.
And you'll have the usual selection of ways to do this. The core arsenal of pistols, shotguns, machineguns, grenades and rocket launchers is present and accounted for. You'll spend most of your time using the shotgun, which is powerful enough to blast a mook in half in the earlier stages of the game, while switching to more situational guns when it's called for. The selection gets more exotic with the introduction of the spear gun, quantum destabiliser (a weapon that can charge up and disintegrate your foes) and 'spider mines' that you can either send scuttling into your enemies' feet to blow them up or plant upon the wall to lay traps. These are fun novelties but they'll almost never be your first choice.
The audio and visual feedback of shooting generally feels fine - a bit better than Quake 2, in my opinion, and a bit more nuanced than some other games with the introduction of Sin's locational damage system. With this system, you can shoot dude's gun out of his hand (and they can do the same to you!), wing them with an arm shot, or bypass their armour with a well-placed shot between the eyes. Enemies can move very erratically, so lining up a good shot is not always easy. Most of the combat is waged with hitscan weapons that you can't really dodge, so you'll be wanting to check your corners, stick to cover and avoid walking through doors head-on. Honestly, while the shooting just isn't as well-balanced or nuanced as that of Doom or Quake, it's generally competent and satisfying.
Doom, if it ever needed to, could get by on just rock-solid combat mechanics alone. Sin couldn't do that, but thankfully, it doesn't need to, boasting some of the most impressive level design to come out of the 90s FPS crowd. At pretty much every single minute, you'll be doing or seeing something new and interesting, and you're never doing something for long enough to get bored of it. You'll be subverting security terminals, cruising from point to point to pick off foes with your sniper rifle, operating and sabotaging machinery, wearing disguises, stalking NPCs to ambush them, hitching rides in the backs of trucks, driving quad bikes, diverting water flows, dodging laser grids and lots, lots more.
In between these varied activities the game puts you through, the incidental interaction with the world is truly outstanding. Ritual was truly successful in bringing the strengths of the Build Engine FPS across to Quake 2 tech. You can operate phones and vending machines. Virtually every cupboard and door in the game can be opened to scavenge for supplies. Most non-hostile NPCs can offer a bark or two when engaged. Secret areas are plentiful and fun to seek out, the maps are chokers with pop culture references and Easter eggs, and of course, you can flush the toilets.
Some levels can come with complex objectives, that oftentimes can be completed in different orders, and secondary objectives, that usually have no real consequences but occasionally can result in big changes down the pike. While the objectives can get involved and there's no objective markers or other modern day comforts, the levels are well signposted and gently guide you in the right direction most of the time.
The maps themselves are all fantastic to look at - the Quake 2 engine is utilised to its graphical limits and expanded with a full 32-bit colour palette, coronas around light sources and a vastly more fleshed-out particle system. The use of colour, in particular, is worthy of a mention. Matching the attitude of the title, Sin's environments are frequently filled with bold colours, and highly varied architecture and setting. The game's opening levels take place in open daylight under a clear blue sky, while you later move into the pastel neon lighting of the high tech biomech labs, the lush greens of a tropical island, and a mansion popping with grey stone, earthy woods and rich velvet under a silvery full moon.
One of the bigger dot points on the back of the box is the game's so-called "Action Based Outcomes" - basically meaning that your actions in one map can sometimes affect the outcome of another. These range from the cosmetic (eg, shooting down a sign in one level and seeing that same sign crashed through a skylight in the next) to entire extra levels that can be completely bypassed. All routes through the game lead to the exact same ending, so don't expect any RPG-esque elements of choice and consequence, but completionists will enjoy seeing some of the different ways you can work your way through to the end.
Once you're through with the single player campaign, there is also deathmatch, which was highly praised upon the game's release. Of course, there's nobody playing today, and you're probably not going be bothered to set up a LAN with your hypothetical local fellow die hard obscure 90s shooter fan, but you can always install the Redemption bot from ModDB and have a quick blast that way. The deathmatch game is fun and chaotic, and the amazing craftsmanship of the game's single player campaign carries across here. In particular, Levelord's map "Behind Zee Bookcase" steals the show, being one of the original codifiers of the popular 'Honey I Shrunk the Kids' style of map that has seen several implementations in community maps in other games too.
And when that gets old (and playing against bots will get old fast), you've still got the expansion to get through. Developed by 2015 (which would later become known for reinvigorating the Medal of Honor franchise with Allied Assault, then morphing into a little house named Infinity Ward), Wages of Sin really deserves its own review, but suffice to say it lives up to the base game in quality, pacing, faithfulness and production values, and it's absolutely worth your time.
The BadI mentioned earlier that Sin's core combat loop is weaker than the id Software shooters it bases its mechanics around. The thing about weak gameplay mechanics is that they can be glossed over if the game isn't too heavily skill-based. For example, I've long considered the Metal Gear Solid games to have a fairly weak core set of mechanics, but since they're more about spectacle and storytelling first, it's not such a big deal.
Sin certainly gets harder as you press on. Later enemies have more hit points and are better armed. The harder the game gets, the more the imbalances start to become apparent. It's never unbearable, but you'd be forgiven for taking the game on a lower skill level than you might usually. Enemy counts remain the same regardless of difficulty, but the damage they inflict with their weapons ramps up on higher skills. The enemies that went down with two taps to the head in earlier maps are more often wearing armour that you must blast through and mutant enemies are bullet sponges that soak up lots of firepower before they finally cark it. Like most shooters, Sin encourages you to play the action hero and dive headlong into the fray, but most enemies attack you using hitscan weaponry that can't be dodged. This means that you absolutely are going to die, repeatedly, if you try playing cowboy on higher difficulties.
There are lots of points in the game where the level design assumes and encourages you to take this bad tactic. Probably the worst example is a mountain gorge map, where you are supposed to ride a quad bike down a long road with enemies shooting at you from guard towers left and right, to escape a lava flow. The bike controls badly, there is very little cover available, and the rising magma behind you forces you to press on when you're not ready. You also have to jump the bike across a crevice that you can't clear on foot. On easy mode, this is okay, but on harder difficulties I found myself getting trounced over and over with seemingly only save scumming on my side to help.
Later maps also introduce the sniper. These folks sit high up in darkened perches that are very hard to see, they don't miss, their weapons are extremely powerful, their attacks don't leave tracers or anything you can use to inform of their location and you sometimes don't get any warning that you are even entering an area that contains them. You'll be fresh out of a firefight with naught but 20 hit points, three shotgun shells and a wad of lint to your name, round the corner, scanning for threats and health to scavenge and bang! Your head asplode. Scratching your head, you load your last quicksave, carefully start scanning the ceilings for the tell-tale silhouette and your head asplode. You quickload again, manage to finally pick out the handful of pixels that gave you so much grief and dispatch them. You step out, still keeping your eyes peeled, but there was another one you didn't see before. Head asplode. These set pieces are frustrating and boring, where it would take so little an amount of tweaking to make them fun and tense.
And while I said earlier that Sin generally does a very good job of subtly guiding you in the right direction, there are a few major points where it kind of... doesn't.
One is a level that is set up so that you are supposed to sneak through a laboratory area, but doesn't tell you that setting off the alarm before you have got a key for an elevator by killing a certain character makes further progress completely impossible. This is further aggravated by the fact that the person you need to kill is a civilian, nobody tells you he has the key, and hitherto the game has been telling you to avoid civilian casualties and scolding you any time you kill anyone whom is not armed and hostile. The first time I played this game, I had no idea what to do here or what I was missing. I had to watch one of the game's pre recorded demos (that I just stumbled on via the console, they don't auto play) to learn the correct way to get through this map. I should not need to do that. Some other maps also have stealth sections that punish you for getting discovered, but unlike this one, they all mercifully offer ways to reset the alarms or simply blast your way through.
Another example is where you must escape a facility by putting yourself through a gauntlet of test rooms. The game and dialogue set the scene as you being an adrenalin-fuelled escapee that needs to "Kill kill kill!" to get out, complete with wailing sirens and orderlies rushing in to subdue you. Except that after you bust out of your cell, you're actually supposed to leave these guys alone, and they operate the doors that you need to get out! In essence, the game is actively communicating the opposite to what is required to advance. Stupid!
So, all the above said, you finally beat the game and get treated to the rather disappointing cliffhanger of an ending, and the expansion is a side story that doesn't really lead to any further developments. Will we ever be rid of the silicon-abusing menace that is Elexis Sinclaire, and her dastardly plot to turn the world's population into a mass of savagely mutated abominations? Maybe we'll find out in the exciting episodic sequel of Sin Episodes, released a full seven years later! Except you won't, because Ritual only was able to release the first episode before they began to implode and was bought out by casual games conglomerate Mumbo Jumbo, and the Sin IP has been left to languish on a shelf ever since. Not that you will care because the story is tosh anyway. Maybe I'll write a fan fic to wrap it up so I feel better.
The Bottom LineSin's imbalances and sometimes frustrating moments don't break it. The lack of resolution to its story is not such a big deal in a game that isn't so concerned with telling a good one. What did break the game on launch were its bugs, but they've been fixed since.
If you're in the market for an old school shooter with lots of gore and humour, chances are you've already played Sin and none of this is news to you, but in case it isn't, knock yourself out. It's obvious the whole way through that Ritual had an absolute blast making this title and that sense of fun pervades through every aspect of it.
Frederik Schreiber of 3D Realms has stated that they were working on a modern-day remix of the game, but it's currently in legal limbo. Until when and if that situation gets resolved, is Sin worth the few bucks required to experience it, in its current form? In my opinion, the answer is a heartfelt yes. While it's no GOTY or landmark for the genre, I just can't help but get swept up in its juvenile, over the top violent charm, and neither will you. Sin is a big, bold, unrepentant and unabashedly manly stew of 90s shooting mechanics and 80s action movie attitude, and the last of its kind, at least until Ion Maiden comes out. Go get it and tear some chumps a new one.