This voxel-based shooter has consumed my entire day in an manner eerily similar to the disease within it. Initially it was understandable and easily contained, but soon it mutated into a confusing, all consuming entity determined to destroy me one cell at a time. Not intent on merely irritating me into submission, with an annoying degree of ambiguity and painful pseudo-science, the game insisted on being an entertaining shooter as addictive as it is frustrating… possibly.
With Sheldon Pacotti (writer behind the first two Deus Ex games) at the helm I was expecting a high calibre narrative that, somewhat unfortunately, never really arrived. Ambiguity is fine to an extent, with the inclusion of untranslated Spanish in particular creating a wonderful sense of confusion and intrigue, but at some point all bare bone narratives should acquire some meat and Cell HD: Emergence fails to ever become truly substantial. The basic premise is that you, a medical nanobot, have been injected into a young girls body to wage ‘nanoscale warfare’ upon the rapidly mutating disease within her. The story unfolds through fully voice acted comic book style cut scenes that provide a charming, somewhat unnerving contrast to the voxel laden gameplay.
This ambiguity permeates into many of the ‘missions’ leading to trial and error gameplay that goes from the obvious to the downright obtuse. More times than I would care to admit I was at a complete loss as to what success entailed. There are hints that display upon repeated failures but these often brought with them more confusion than clarity. With “I don’t care anymore I hope she dies”, and other less reproducible variants, streaming from my mouth I came to some conclusions: I would be a terrible doctor (and are in fact a questionable as a human being), and that much of this games difficulty is disappointingly derived from frustration rather than genuine challenge.
For the scientists amongst you let me reassure you by saying that the underlying scientific concepts behind the game are questionable at best and that there is indeed flagrant misuse of terminology throughout. Okay perhaps reassure wasn’t the most apt word to use, but I have been grimacing through terms like Prion Gel (which would apparently stimulate an immune response if sprayed on a membrane) for the entire day and my brain is somewhat destroyed. It is completely harmless of course, the misuse of terminology that is not prions, but as a Biochemist I often found myself lamenting many of the futuristic fallacies that this game presents. I know this is incredibly petty and that most (hopefully not all) of you will be reading this with a grimace of your own directed at me rather than the game, but I find that inaccuracy infects immersion.
Reminiscent of, and openly drawing inspiration from, 80’s arcade games such Centipede and Missile Command, Cell HD: Emergence is a futuristic shooter steeped in a wonderful nostalgia and underlined with the simple but solid mechanics of the age. That isn’t to say the combat doesn’t evolve, it just evolves through the inclusion of various simple elements as opposed to intrinsic difficulty in any one aspect. What this brings to the game is not only a wonderful sense of progression, as you are constantly mutating, but a surprising amount of variety. From the initial disease destroying beam to the ability to create ‘buckyfibre’ strands in order to expand the reach of local T-cells this is one shooter that manages to sustain itself almost to completion.
Navigating your way around the body is initially a rather torrid affair with forwards/backwards movement in particular feeling slightly restricted. However, the ability to quickly rotate your view, somewhat reminiscent of the screen switching in Sequence, alleviates this annoyance to a large degree and ensures excitement at every turn. Similarly shooting, or rather the strange ‘over the shoulder and then some’ perspective you have, takes a little while to adapt to but soon becomes second nature and crucially provides excellent visibility. Launching an attack upon the various guises the disease takes is always met with an incredibly satisfying explosion of voxels and watching vast swathes of them dissolve in a sea of antibodies is as rewarding as it sounds.
This games real strength is in the implementation of the AI which ensures, through what I can only assume is magic (i.e. maths and programming that I don’t understand), that you have to remain adaptable at all times and even, more impressively, upon replaying a mission. Upon death (of the girl not you – your some sort of robot thingy remember) you are given the option to iterate. Not retry, not reload but iterate and this is an important distinction. The objective of the level (if one can deduce what it is of course) and the basic structural set up remains but where the disease spreads and how aggressively it does so can vary considerably. Failure to show a similar degree of flexibility within your tactics will often result in failure meaning you have to stay attentive throughout – Unless you want the sickly child to die of course… You monster you.
Feverous in its action but somewhat feeble in its narrative execution Cell HD: Emergence makes it easy to recommend… that you download the demo. Whilst limited the demo does a far better job of portraying how the game feels than I ever could. Some of you will be convinced instantly and navigate to GamersGate, Green Man Gaming or any of the other sites listed here and throw your money at the screen (note: this does not constitute an actual transaction), others will prove immune to its charms. This particularly novel strain of shooting game offers quite a lot for its ~£8.00 value – even if it is somewhat short-lived.