Rockstar Games certainly has found its shtick - and what profitable shtick it is! Hot on the heels of Max Payne and the amazing Grand Theft Auto 3, it releases State of Emergency, a game that takes PS2 mayhem up yet another notch. Reminiscent at times of GTA3, Final Fight, and even Robotron 2084, State manages to bring together mission-based gameplay, melee combat, frenetic running 'n' gunning, and a Rampage destroy-everything sensibility and double-dips the whole thing into a vat of rich, creamy graphic violence.
All hell breaks loose . . . film at 11
Set in a future dominated by the ruthless, omnipresent Corporation, the game casts you in the role of one of five would-be liberators, two of whom are selectable initially. Members of the upstart Freedom movement, their task is to remove the Corporation's jackboot from the throat of the People. Of course, their situation gives them license to use whatever tactics you deem appropriate to get the job done.
The revolution begins in earnest at Capitol City Mall, where hundreds of people are running around in a panic, some looting the stores and carrying their ill-gotten goods triumphantly over their heads. Amidst all the commotion, the Corporation and Freedom wage their war. As a key player in the struggle, your missions range from obliterating propaganda booths to escorting hackers to and from their jobs to assassinating key individuals and retrieving the information in their possession.
In addition to the military troops, you will have to contend with the various street gangs that are out to protect their stake in the anarchy. In fact, as the game progresses, the gangs will become more of a factor, so get used to busting down thugs early on. Gangs are an excellent source of weapons, especially melee items like hand-axes and baseball bats, and if you are lucky, you can often find weapons lying on the ground in the wake of a clan war. There are even instances where a gang will inadvertently save you when you are being chased by military troops or a rival group. Of course, you can repay the favor by turning a flame thrower on them after they dispatch the last of your pursuers. This is a Rockstar game, remember?
Don't shoot 'til you see the whites of their . . . oh, to hell with it!
State of Emergency features 175 missions spread out over four areas. This translates into a good deal of repetition, but there are enough shining moments to warrant playing through to the end. For those who just want some quick catharsis, there is a Crazy Taxi-inspired mode where the weapons are plentiful and the seconds are scarce.
There are several attempts at setting the scene, with varying degrees of effectiveness. "Special report" news bumpers between stages are a nice touch, but do little to move things along. There is a continual stream of messages at the bottom-right corner of the screen that contains all manner of Corporation propaganda, but it is updated so frequently that it takes only a few minutes to see all it has to offer. Of course, the repetition of the messages and the fact that you can't turn them off might be a commentary on the insidious nature of advertising. In the mall area, the player is treated to several sunny public service announcements in the vein of, "Citizens, please clear the area or you will be shot."
The single most eye-catching aspect of the game is not the violence. It is the throngs of people that are simultaneously on screen, running hither and thither, threatening to drown the action in a mass of pasty flesh and oversized clothing. Of course, slap one or two of the crowd upside the head and the numbers will thin a bit, but at its most frenzied, it is a sight to behold.
The backgrounds are very interactive, though aspiring carjackers and GTA3 veterans will be disappointed if they think they can just steal a car and mow down the opposition. Civilian and military vehicles sit in plain view, but the most you can do with them is char them up real nice with a well-placed grenade. And you know that oil tanker sitting in the middle of Chinatown, the one that looks like it could help send an entire neighborhood up in a ball of flame? Well, it doesn't boom that big.
The absence of car missions is indicative of State of Emergency's biggest problem. It is much too arcade-y for its own good. I probably enjoy a traditional beat-'em-up more than the next guy, but SOE is a one-player game, and where the multiplayer option is missing there should be some depth to take its place. Here we have mostly shoot, retrieve, and run. Stealth and cunning take a back seat to running like hell - in fact they are not even in the back seat, but more like hanging off the trunk. It is a shame, because so much more could have been done, and I imagine many people will skim the description of the game with its references to Revolution and missions and multiple weapons and expect something a little more substantial.
Granted, some of the missions sound interesting. Sabotage and political struggle are potentially rich themes for a video game, even one that is not a strategy-based simulation. But, no matter how interesting the action itself sounds, nearly all your character will ever do is run like a madman, guns a-blazin'. You don't do the hacking, you don't do the scheming. You don't even need to explore the setting, thanks to the handy arrow at the top of the screen that will guide you along your path of vengeance. Contrast this with a game like Shadowrun for the Genesis, which sent you on shooting sprees, but also threw your intellect a few bones.
That's life (and death) in the big city
Each freedom fighter comes equipped with a punch and kick that can be strung together for a couple of rudimentary combos. In addition, each has a spinning move used to clear the immediate area, a running attack, and a pair of throws. The moves are different enough among the characters that most players will develop a preference.
Confrontation with the enemies is easy enough to avoid, so long as you behave yourself and avoid picking fights. Once provoked, the enemy will descend on you and you will either have to fight or keep running away for a minute or two until cooler heads prevail.
Luckily - and oddly, the fighting in State of Emergency is more likely to heal you than hurt you, and the more opposition you have, the better your chances of refilling your life meter. Each defeated opponent drops two medkits, which restore a small amount of health. Punched out enemies yield more health points than incinerated ones, but it takes much longer to slug it out than to simply shoot and collect. So long as there is not a perimeter of gunmen continually sniping at you, you should easily be able to restore at least as much energy as you lose in any confrontation.
A typical fight goes like this: To demonstrate his righteous indignation at the corporate subjugation of our collective ideals and values, ex-pro-athlete and escaped convict "Bull" throws a trash can through a store window. A nearby Corporation peacekeeper, troubled by the forthright aggressiveness of the action runs over to administer the lawfully proscribed corrective measure. (Ahem) With me so far? Well, anyway, "Bull" kicks his ass. The thin veneer of civility so punctured, "Bull," picks up the fallen officer's pipe and whups his goon-squad buddies with it. To further cement his status as the neighborhood's visiting professor of all things badass, he lashes out at a passing thug, thus inviting all the members of that guy's clique into the fray. Soon an unlikely alliance of street scum and corporate filth forms a tight circle around "Bull," hoping to take him out once and for all. The combatants strike, swing, and grapple back and forth until one side is destroyed or "Bull" runs back to the relatively safety of his jail cell.
In the fight, the player has three definite advantages that more than make up for being outnumbered. The first was already mentioned: Dispatch one enemy, receive two medkits. There is usually no need to heal after a big fight because of all the healing power-ups that appear during the battle. Granted, it is sometimes difficult to pick up a medkit as you are being attacked (they disappear after several moments), but a little practice here goes a long way.
The second advantage has to do with grappling. While engaged in a grapple with one opponent, the player will not be attacked by the surrounding group. Once a player is proficient at locking up quickly, he can jump from enemy to enemy, throwing and striking but not sustaining any punishment. With a break every so often to collect power-ups, the fight can continue for as long as it takes, with no major worries.
Finally, you can neutralize one of the only big threats in the game, being surrounded by gun-wielding killers, a bit too easily. It's bad enough that enemies won't shoot at you while you are grappling, but they also refuse to pick up their guns after you have knocked them to the ground. So you need only run up to each gunman in turn, break his grip on his weapon, and proceed to take out the entire group, healing as you go.
State of Unrealized Potential
Players who have a good idea of what to expect going in should have a fun time, at least for a day or two. There is nothing here that makes State of Emergency any more than a good rental, so measure all factors accordingly. The game suffers from its lack of a multiplayer mode and its repetitious nature, but excels in its pick-up-and-play "arcadiness," and its evil sense of humor. If you would enjoy defending an underground resistance leader with his own head (the way missions are restarted makes this a possibility in one part of the game), you can't get enough of shattered glass, and you don't have a problem spilling hundreds of gallons of virtual blood, this might be the game for you. After all, how many times have you ever seen a mission like this: "A doctor is on his way through the mall; find him and kill him"?
Yep, pretty nice shtick, indeed!
· · · Nick