A pigeon slowly flaps its way through Freeport City before disappearing in a cloud of bird blood. One hoodlum compliments another on his shot, before having a laugh about a cop he shot in the head. "Ha ha ha!" he says. "Ha Ha Ha!" the other agrees. "Surprise!" shouts John R Blade, head of gun-toting security firm HardCorps, as his chopper descends from the sky and bullets fi ll the air. The year is 1998 and we're playing SiN - the game that wasn't Half-Life.
"We've wanted to return to the SiN universe for years now," explains Steve Nix, CEO of Ritual Entertainment, when probed on the lengthy absence of Blade and his busty nemesis Elexis Sinclaire.
"But given the importance of the franchise to the studio, it had to be under the right circumstances. SiN is our pride and joy and we really wanted to do it right."
As every year has passed, memories of SiNTEK, human experiments, ATM machines that you could fiddle with and Sinclaire's chest have grown dimmer and dimmer in the gaming community. Now is the time, however for HardCorps' return. To start the ball rolling, a viral marketing campaign was kicked off at www.legionpharma.com and www.sinclairetechnologies.com - giving a strong indication that there was either an exceptionally fanboy-ish group of scientists on the loose, or that SiNTEK were once more up to no good.
Then came surprising news: Black Mesa and Freeport City, 1998's alpha and omega, were to become bedfellows. "We'd been talking with Valve for several years about distributing a product directly to gamers through Steam, and then the light bulb came on," explains Nix. "We had worked on so many new designs, characters and interesting moments for the next SiN game, that it all came together really quickly once we made the decision to go."
And so it is that Source-formed episodes of shootery that last six or so hours each are set to start appearing for purchase in your Steam tray at regular intervals for the next few years. Blade's chunky magnum pistol is back, his hacker sidekick JC is back, Sinclaire is back and Blade himself is back - now accompanied by a pneumatic young lady called Jessica Cannon. It's four years after SiN and our hero still hasn't been able to prove that Sinclaire is behind the worrying upward trend of mutant-ness in Freeport City. "Blade has become nearly obsessed with bringing her justice and he'll stop at nothing to achieve that. SiN Episodes opens with Blade and Jessica on their way to raid a rumoured U4 lab - a seemingly routine mission that soon enough goes quite wrong," explains Steve Hessel, Ritual's community relations man, providing the back story for a later car chase that has a seriously wounded Blade slipping in and out of consciousness, while an AI Jessica Cannon weaves in and out of traffic pursued by ne'er-do-wells.
"We've done so much to make it just over-the-top cool," explains lead designer Shawn Ketcherside, picking up the thread. "The car itself, for example, is incredibly interactive. You can roll the windows up and down, change the radio station, and with every action Jessica will respond. Then we've got the car combat, which is just unbelievably cool. You can shift positions in the car, really move around to find the best shots. It's the closest thing to being in an action movie I've ever seen in a game." So we're fighting on roads, that much is definite, and mutant laboratories are probably high on the list as well. But what else does
Freeport City have to offer? "Freeport City is a rough amalgam of modern cities with rich histories like Seattle, New York, Chicago and San Francisco," explains Rich Fleider, the art lead, as he describes the SiN universe's multi-layered and decaying coastline sprawl. "In this first episode, we're showcasing a slice of Freeport society, allowing the player to explore a high-rise complex under construction, the secret warrens of one of the City's organised crime families, and even the gritty shipping district that gives Freeport its name. A system of elevated roadways for commuters and commerce links these communities together, under the overlapping jurisdiction of competing Security Forces."
Going for roughly 11 and kicking off this winter, there's a multitude of other reasons why SiN Episodes: Emergence has got us excited - not least some ace gameplay-heightening feats of interactivity, community-dictated plot and development, and some neat tricks that allow the Source engine to hit parts that even Freeman couldn't reach. Seeing as we're such wags though, we've split our coverage into two episodes - so you'll have to wait until next month. Damn, we're good.