Go back to Sin

Written by: Rik

Date posted: April 2, 2021

Somehow, FFG is 20 years old this year. When it comes to anniversaries, we always try to do something to mark the occasion, although with this being a fairly slow-moving project in the first place, revisiting old material seems like time that might be better spent on producing new content.

At the same time, we are in the business of looking back here, and 20 years of being online is a milestone worth celebrating somehow. As a compromise, we decided to try and combine any retrospective of the site’s early days with a new review of a related title.

And so, having looked over the list of our earliest write-ups, we decided to each take another look at Sin, Ritual’s first-person shooter, which I first reviewed in 2002 (!), and arrange a discussion. (The counterpart newer review is of 2006’s Sin Episodes: Emergence).

Released in 1998, the story involves your character John R. Blade, assisted remotely by sidekick JC, follow a trail of wrongdoing that ultimately leads to global megacorp SinTek, and their erratically-dressed CEO, Elexis Sinclaire. In time-honoured FPS tradition, the investigation involves the shooting of a lot of baddies.

NB: It’s not a particularly plot-heavy game, but we do talk about a few things that might be considered spoilers. There’s nothing, in our view, that should necessarily stop you from reading further if you haven’t played the game, but discretion is advised if you’re sensitive to such things.

Ok? Ok! Here goes…

 

Big patches via dialup

Rik: So here we are on a retrospective discussion trip. This is a game I probably last played in 2002.

Stoo: It’s one I missed out on first time around. I was distracted by Half-Life, as I imagine a lot of gamers were.

Rik: Oh, so you never played it at the time?

Stoo: Nope. Never tried until… about five years ago? Made it several levels in, lost track, not a fault of the game, I think I just got distracted. Fallout 3 may have been a factor.

Rik: I might have revisited the early levels to get better screenshots, but otherwise haven’t touched it since the mid-00s. Possibly the review got edited at some point too: I think the initial draft may have mentioned me having to download big patches via dialup!

Stoo: Ah yes, there were originally some major bugs, if I recall?

Rik: It was very glitchy.

Stoo: So that’s something I never had to endure. I think I ran into about one bug in Gold: some guy was meant to open a door but didn’t so I had to noclip.

Rik: I think there may have been a game breaker that stopped me finishing the original release. But there are no such problems with this Gold version, which has been tidied up and optimised for modern machines by Night Dive Studios.

Elexis has a chat with one of her goons.

 

A combination of GI Joe and Basic Instinct

Rik: So I think the thrust of my original review was basically that this was a contemporary of Half-Life but actually nowhere near as good.

Stoo: Do you still hold that opinion?

Rik: I think I probably need to play Half-Life again. But in that world of the post-Quake shooter, where there were several high profile releases…

Stoo: These two, Shogo

Rik: Blood 2, the dreaded Klingon Honor Guard, Kingpin

Stoo: Unreal, maybe?

Rik: Yep. When there seemed to be a general acknowledgement that Quake 2 wasn’t enough in single player.

Stoo: It was a period when shooters were evolving from, shooting your way through maps collecting keycards, to something more complex. Casting you as a character in a story, in a world where events happened around you. Half-Life did this best of the lot.

Rik: The reviews seemed to put all of those games in a similar scoring bracket, whereas I thought something like Sin was actually some way below Half-Life. (Obviously with the benefit of a few years’ hindsight). I always sort of put Sin and Half-Life together, because they had more real-world type elements and settings. As I mentioned in the review, I actually liked the look of this one more, and because they both had similar-ish review scores, I assumed there wasn’t all that much to choose between them. But I think you were with me in the shop and said, “No, Half-Life is meant to be the best”.

Stoo: I think it’s pushing in the same direction as Half-Life, and makes a good effort. Just not quite as masterfully created.

Rik: For me, it sort of shows its Quake roots a little bit. Like, there is a story, but it almost may as well not be there. It’s not a long way from the old Apogee games with the ‘Press F1 to read text’ type plots. Although there’s still definite evolution in terms of the design and approach.

Stoo: Yes, little scripted moments, or set-pieces like shutting down the nuclear missile launches, or fighting a helicopter on the dam (even though I think we did exactly the same thing in Half-Life).

Rik: The levels and missions do have some context, and imagination, and some basis in reality. But you still have very Quake-like grunts for enemies, and a few bullet-sponge type encounters. Plus a fairly bone-headed setup. I mean, it’s good that there’s back and forth between Blade and JC, but it doesn’t really add much, on its own.

Stoo: Heh, their banter should bring Blade and his sidekick to life. But their jokes are terrible: “This sewer smells worse than your apartment”; “Very funny, sewage breath!”

Rik: Ha, yes. Plus Elexis is a ludicrous baddie.

Stoo: Oh man, yes. We were inevitably going to have to talk about her.

Rik: An evil scientist has poisoned the water and turned people into mutants. If that was set out in text like in Bio Menace, it wouldn’t look too far out of place.

Stoo: Heh, it’s a bit like something out of the cartoons I used to watch as a kid, except more violent. If Elexis put some clothes on she could basically be a baddie in GI Joe. ‘My mutant army will overthrow all the governments mwah haha ha!’

Rik: Did you watch the intro video?

Stoo: Huh, you know, I think I didn’t. That was the one other bug I found; the screen went blank when that video was meant to play.

Rik: It’s quite cringe-inducing, with the focus on Elexis, and words like ‘sexy’ and ‘dangerous’ floating in the background, while angry music plays. Very late 90s.

Stoo: I did see the ending, which went all Basic Instinct and was honestly kind of embarrassing. It dials the sexualisation of the villain up way too far. Again, this was the 90s, and I guess gaming was taking its early fumbles towards being more ‘adult’.

Rik: Oh right, I think I accidentally skipped that cut scene. Possibly my mouse finger was stuck down after that final boss fight. [*Loads up YouTube*] Watching it now, oh dear. Up until that point the Elexis stuff wasn’t quite as bad as I expected. She’s fairly peripheral to it all, and just turns up here and there, albeit not wearing much. I think the advertising was worse than the game, in that respect.

Shooting some baddie while exchanging ‘banter’ with JC.

 

Dakka-dakka, step back

Rik: So you’ve played a lot more FPS games of the 90s than me. I basically only dabbled until Half-Life. And although I have written about a few FPS games, most of the reviews are of titles released between HL and HL2. So what did you think of it?

Stoo: It lags behind Half-Life, but not by a million miles. It’s trying to do many of the same things, it’s just not quite as clever. It doesn’t have anything as truly genius as Half-Life‘s tentacle monster, for example. And being so achingly 90s means it has aged worse than Half-Life. But I’d much rather play this than anything Quake. And I suppose I should admit I’ve not played HL for over a decade myself.

Rik: It’s certainly been ages since I played Quake. But this felt Quakey at times. Not in the moments where you feel it’s trying something different, but then sometimes you find yourself firing a rocket launcher at some bulky faceless grunts who don’t die.

Stoo: I recall the baddies in Half-Life acted a bit more cleverly? (Or at least were scripted to seem clever…)

Rik: That was definitely my recollection.

Stoo: In Sin you do machine gun an awful lot of angry bald guys in the head. Sidestep out from behind a corner, dakka dakka, step back. Repeat many times.

Rik: There’s a lot of cheap ‘boo!’ surprise moments too. But I suppose being ambushed will always be a staple of these games. Also, there were more precision jumping bits than I expected.

Stoo: Yes, I noticed that in that abandoned buildings level early on. Jumping around bits of broken floor, while getting shot at.

Rik: I was also a bit baffled by the pickup system. You press space to pick up items dropped by enemies. Is it armour that looks like ammo? I kept thinking I had bullets but didn’t.

Stoo: The icons are kind of hard to make out. Also, when you loot a body you take everything at once. Which was annoying when they had health packs that I didn’t need.

Rik: But I did enjoy the old-school FPS quick saving and loading to redo a bit. To lose less health or waste fewer bullets. Deciding whether to press on or go back.

Stoo: I wasted a lot of ammo early on, until I learned to be more careful and try for headshots. And yeah, I had a few moments of wondering if I should return to an earlier save, or fight on at like 22% health with 12 rounds.

Rik: The machine gun is quite puny, and wastes a lot of ammo.

Stoo: But you rely on it a lot early on. That and the shotgun: the traditional FPS lineup of guns.

Rik: The pistol is mainly for shooting rats.

Stoo: The rocket launcher is quite Doom and Quake-ish – you can just spam explosions. Whereas HL dramatically reduced the rate of fire, and the ammo you can carry, for its rocket launcher.

Rik: Yes, I think it was those moments that seemed the daftest. When you and the baddies are firing rockets at each other indoors.

Stoo: The sniper rifle is extremely useful, but ammo is rare as hen’s teeth.

Rik: I thought enemy snipers were a bit of a cheat. You sort of had to die to figure out where they were. But then, as you say, it works for you too, and you can use headshots to pick off a lot of enemies if you find a good position.

Stoo: I recall some bit where you emerge from a manhole and are surrounded by baddies. I ended up just doing a suicide run or two to mark their positions.

Rik: Yes. That kind of ho-ho, catch-you-out, clever dick stuff from an earlier era – ‘let’s have 10 guys with rockets behind this door!’ keeps one foot in the past. Along with the Duke Nukem-like utterances from Blade.

Stoo: Gordon Freeman wasn’t trying to wisecrack at us.

Rik: Did you think Blade was a nod to John Romero?

Stoo: I hadn’t thought of that.

Rik: I found myself wondering, and I can’t find any evidence to back it up. But he’s John R. Blade. And I’m sure he says the terrible line from the notorious Daikatana advert.

Stoo: Haha yes good point!

Rik: Ritual did do a Quake mission pack I think [edit: yes, it was called Scourge of Armagon], maybe it’s a cheeky tip of the hat.

Carefree fun with a rocket launcher in an enclosed space.

 

Swimming and driving

Stoo: It’s kind of interesting what you say about Sin still being a bit Quake-ish. I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms, but perhaps that sums up part of what holds it back.

Rik: I think what I always wanted from the first-person shooter was more of an action-adventure angle. Which Half-Life sort of started. I came to belatedly appreciate that Doom was never trying for that and still stood up as something different. But the Quake era didn’t appeal at the time, and I never felt like going back.

Stoo: Thing is, we talk of story, but Half-Life‘s story was pretty thin. ‘Experiment goes wrong, aliens pour out, troopers arrive to clean up mess’. It was the ways we were immersed in Gordon’s really bad day, that made it so great.

Rik: Yes, right.

Stoo: Starting with the tram ride to work and getting bollocked by arsey scientists, then the scripted moments like realising the soldiers aren’t here to save you, or the clever bits like the tentacle monster.

Rik: Some kind of world building would have been nice in the previous era. For example, I was always a bit puzzled by the Quake vs Duke 3D debate, because they were both, essentially, variations on Doom.

Stoo: Technical achievement vs comedy and level design… Duke was one of the first to try and do realistic-looking locations.

Rik: But despite some levels having some basis in the real world, it was still all fairly daft.

Stoo: Yes, it was still ‘hunt for keys, shoot bad dudes’.

Rik: In Sin, there was the promise of vehicles, which are actually quite a small part of the game. I think what I really wanted from an ‘ultimate’ first-person shooter was something like what GTA has become, or even that new Cyberpunk game. Mixing FPS action with a larger world.

Stoo: The bit with the jeep (or is it a motorbike or something?) is actually pretty well done.

Rik: It’s a buggy I think. And you can drive some building machinery at one point. I did enjoy those bits when they came. The variety, and the way Sin mixes things up, is what it does best. Like the swimming sections… I’m struggling to remember in my old age, was there much swimming in FPS games prior to this?

Stoo: I think it started with Build engine, more or less.

Rik: Ah, probably.

Stoo: The swimming levels here are quite pretty, and a change of pace.

Rik: You do feel like you’re moving through different environments.

Stoo: Yes, for sure. And also, most of those environments aren’t boring. Even, like, abandoned subway tunnels. Which I feel in modern games would be relentlessly drab. Here there’s actual colour in the palette. Then you have… industrial settings, that water treatment plant, then more outdoor type areas (which do their best with 90s engine limitations).

Rik: It keeps you interested. Even if Blade’s discoveries aren’t that interesting in themselves.

Stoo: Some levels are optional, right? Depending on what actions you take.

Rik: Yes. Although there’s arguably a lack of signposting of the secondary objectives. You could miss some for sure. Although others I deliberately skipped.

Stoo: I did get a bit confused in that geothermal plant after the underwater levels. You can backtrack between them and I wasn’t sure what I was meant to be doing.

Rik: Me too I think. But I don’t think there are massively terrible consequences for skipping any optional levels.

Stoo: Having a bit of flexibility in your path through the game is definitely a worthy feature anyway.

Rik: Agreed.

The underwater sections are a nice change up.

 

Trying to be edgy

Stoo: I thought the last few levels were, while short, also oddly empty of bad guys.

Rik: They come thick and fast and are over quite quickly. It is a bit odd.

Stoo: What did you think of the boss fights?

Rik: I thought it was a bit hard to tell if you were doing damage. With some of the big beasties.

Stoo: A bit bullet spongey?

Rik: There’s no energy bar. So you’d hope for more visual clues. The final big boss wasn’t so bad.

Stoo: Do the textures update to show damage?

Rik: Not sure.

Stoo: Yeah me neither (note to self: pay more attention in future).

Rik: If they do [edit: they do], it’s still not much use in the heat of the moment. I’m thinking in particular of the medium-big mutants that you fight at close quarters.

Stoo: Right, one of which is basically the first boss? The Elexis flunkey who gets mutated?

Rik: Yes, Mancini.

Stoo: That was fairly tough in a sort of desperate ‘oh god get away from me’ sort of way: the first few encounters, you can’t kill him, just drive him off.

Rik: They can rip you to shreds quite quickly.

Stoo: Here’s my admission, I had to cheat on that boss in the water works… the little guy riding the big guy.

Rik: I looked up a walkthrough to see if there was a trick to it, or I was just being crap.

Stoo: You have to turn off those water valves before a timer runs out, and I’d get trapped by him in the process.

Rik: I think I got lucky with him getting stuck on some scenery.

Stoo: Or I’d panic and fall off ladders. And the ladders suck, but that’s common for 90s shooters.

Rik: The ladders!

Stoo: The controls are too ambiguous, you’re not sure if you’re going to descend or just fall off.

Rik: The running pace was funny to me also, because I was playing [2016 walking sim] Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture with Jo at the same time as this. Which has notoriously slow walking, and running.

Stoo: I had something similar, going from this to Gone Home.

Rik: But yes, I fell off the ladders often, especially in the missile silos, under time pressure.

Stoo: No one likes ladders in games, basically, but these are particularly annoying.

Rik: The only other places I’d get stuck was when there was a bit of the interface I didn’t realise you had to use. Like the inventory.

Stoo: Oh, I had that. The codes to shut down the missile launch?

Rik: Yep.

Stoo: Up until then, I had no idea there even was an inventory screen.

Rik: No, me neither. And I don’t think it is needed again. And there’s a slightly clunky stealth section, but that comes and goes.

Stoo: My main memory of the stealth mission is frantically punching scientists before they set off alarms. I was hoping punching is a nonlethal attack, though the game may not differentiate anyway. But everyone is moving at 90s shooter running speeds so it was a farcical episode of sprinting and punching.

Rik: You have to punch a woman at one point too, I think.

Stoo: The receptionist. I did not like that. JOHN R BLADE WILL MAKE BAD GUYS HIS BITCH (pummels defenceless woman to the floor).

Rik: I’ll double check this, but I’m sure the PC Zone review also said that female characters’ tops came down when you attacked them.

Stoo: Oh, what, seriously?

Rik: Will check. [Edit: Here we go – PC Zone issue 70, p.93: “Furthermore, the plot occasionally necessitates the bludgeoning of defenceless women, an act that, bizarrely, sometimes leaves their breasts exposed.”] They must have made some changes before the final game was released. You certainly can’t defend it. But this was arguably part of the awkward transition from games being set in a daft cartoon world to supposedly more ‘realistic’ ones.

Stoo: While trying to be edgy.

Rik: Like in Shogo where you can rocket launch the bar staff into a pile of smouldering flesh. Which is also completely gratuitous and unnecessary. If you’re going to have actual characters and stories then all of that ‘ludicrous gibs’ stuff just doesn’t go.

Stoo: I remember something similar when we were discussing Outlaws. You observed that gunning down desperados by the dozen, as if they were Doom imps, was a bit weird. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time but you made a good point.

Rik: I think there was a general issue with moving the Doom or Quake style action to supposed realistic environments, it just made it all seem a bit bloodthirsty. Like in 007: Nightfire, the Bond FPS. James Bond is a spy and a killer, but it makes you feel like a mass murderer. This isn’t too bad in that respect, but there are some seriously iffy moments.

Stoo: A little immature in some regards. Representing the adolescence of shooters perhaps.

Rik: On that note let the record show I had to turn the music off. It was a bit ‘much’. Or perhaps it was OK on its own but not as background music.

Stoo: I actually don’t recall it, apart from the last levels being a bit spaced out and dreamlike, which added to the vague sense of weirdness.

Rik: I started getting a headache early on. Possibly it was the thumping tunes mixed with the frustration of the building site level.

Stoo: Also speaking of iffy stuff, I feel I can’t complete this article without mentioning the giant dongs. Because they will haunt me.

Rik: They completely passed me by until I saw you mention them on Twitter. Actually, I am just noticing the pic for this chat…

Stoo: For anyone blissfully unaware of what I’m talking about, one of the last levels is set in Elexis home and… there are big sculptures. Of dongs.

Rik: I’m glad I didn’t notice!

A fight with the big bad boss.

 

Dongs away

Rik: Is there anything else you wanted to mention before we get towards summing up?

Stoo: A few neat bits of interactive scenery, like using a bulldozer, or flooding a trench with water (he says, checking notes).

Rik: Yes, better than ‘green key for green door’.

Stoo: The sort of thing that makes a games world a bit more immersive.

Rik: I didn’t expect to play it all the way through, but I did. Although I had to play in short spells. And was not tempted to start [expansion pack] Wages of Sin. How about you?

Stoo: If I had more free time, I might get around to it. Other things are higher up the priority tree.

Rik: I lie, I did try Wages of Sin briefly. But it felt like going back to the start of the same game. And I couldn’t face it.

Stoo: I guess I’d be curious to see if our hero catches Elexis in the end.

Rik: Spoiler, she isn’t really in Wages of Sin. And Episodes got canned.

Stoo: After one, er, episode?

Rik: Yep. It’s interesting to compare, especially having played them both next to each other. Sadly the ‘sexy Elexis’ stuff gets worse. While JC has had a mid-life crisis of some kind. And is usurped as sidekick by an Alyx Vance type character.

Stoo: Also, do Blade’s one-liners get any better?

Rik: He is quieter, a la Gordon Freeman. It all seems fairly derivative of Half-Life 2. But anyway, how do we sum up with this one?

Stoo: You originally gave it 5/10.

Rik: 2002 me thought it was a long way short of Half-Life. Which he/I had played more recently at that point. I think my point was all these games were getting 90% scores, but that didn’t reflect how far ahead H-L was. As for my review, like a lot of my older ones, if I rewrote it now, it might have more detail and a different approach, but also a similar verdict. And obviously you get embarrassed by your younger self’s attempted sassiness. What are your thoughts? I get the feeling you might be more generous.

Stoo: I was in a 7/10 sort of mood. It’s not top-tier but it represents how shooters were advancing in complexity and storytelling. And this would be on a scale that puts HL at 10/10.

Rik: Sounds like we both got something out of it at least.

Stoo: I’m glad I played it, it filled a big gap in my 90s shooter experience.

Rik: I’m glad my old review wasn’t that out of step with what I think now. And maybe I might revisit HL again. Especially if I do the sequel at some point.

Stoo: I intend to also, worth refreshing myself on a game that important.

Rik: Well let’s see what we can do next, time permitting!


Sin Gold is available on Steam and GOG for around £8.