Review: Emergency 2014

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Many moons ago, when slices of digital entertainment were served to the proletariat aboard silver discs, affixed to the covers of disposable tomes, I found myself playing the most curious of strategy games. It was an age when Starcraft was new and Homeworld was but a year out. Dark Reign had been going toe-to-toe with Total Annihilation and the pointless battlelines were drawn.

And here I was, a young man with his life ahead of him, staring at a crumpled sedan and wondering where the heck my ambulance was.

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The game was Emergency: Fighters for Life, a very different strategy for the day. A time well delineated as the RTS Glut; to have a non-violent entry in the genre was refreshing, and although it was as unwieldy as they come, the series continues today. Step behind the tape, let the fly-car through. It’s Emergency 2014.

Essentially a collection of expansion packs, Emergency 2014 takes you through three discrete scenario bundles – Emergency 2012: Quest for Peace plus the two subsequent yearly expansions – and free play modes, along with multiplayer. The value proposition for series veterans regarding any sort of individual purchase of the 2013 or 2014 instalments is not particularly compelling, but for people fresh-faced and ready to see what this German-made business is all about, 2014 is a good and rather meaty start.

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I figure I’ll just speak to the mechanics, rather than the scenario design. The scenarios are good, but the reason one should come to this particular compendium is the free play endless mode. It’s just that addictive.

Faced with a specific occurrence, be it a multi-car pile-up, an explosion, random citizen somewhere keeling over due to dehydration, etc., it’s the player’s job to send out the right cars and personnel for the job. A car accident, for instance, requires a heavy rescue vehicle – think the fireman’s toolkit on wheels – as well as a fast-response medic, an ambulance, often a squad car to divert traffic and flatbeds to remove the wrecks. Victims must be cut from vehicles before they can be tended to or evacuated, so firemen must be told to get the jaws of life in order to extricate them. Cars might also be smouldering or spilling fuel, so that needs to be added into the equation.

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Emergency 2014 becomes a series of managerial checklists, which sounds like a hideous proposition. But it isn’t. At least, for this bum, feeling the pressure to manage vehicles and personnel at multiple emergencies is rather rewarding. It triggers the same satisfaction as an airport management game or a well-oiled supply sim. Vehicles are not infinite, emergencies can quickly spiral or flare, and there’s often in upwards of three or four different situations across the map. Prioritising responses is paramount to having the right staff and hardware on call, an issue often the undoing of a quick, clean operation.

I’ve had games where a fly-car medic has been swung from one scene to another, keeping victims alive until they’re stable enough for a paramedic team to haul them off to hospital. I’m sure there are mods in earlier games, and undoubtedly in Emergency 5, but I would have loved to see fatigue be a factor in the game.

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And therein lies perhaps the issue. Once you’re aware of what action is required at what scene, it becomes a little bit too reliant on that cerebral proxy of muscle memory. Scenarios don’t require too much thought, just the right vehicles to arrive and get the job done. Single player campaigns mitigate this nicely, but their lack of dynamic elements makes it a touch less appealing in the replay department.

The interface is thankfully brisk and easy to parse, even with selecting the right equipment for units on the ground. Telling a group of firemen to grab hoses will send them barrelling back to their respective trucks to do so, then delegating them to douse a fire will have them race to nearby hydrants or water tankers to attach their hose and get to business. The game offers the standard WASD camera panning, with tight mouse controls and just the right amount of iconography and menus on the main screen.

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And here I am, left in a quandary to heartily recommend Emergency 2014 to anyone other than those who stride proudly about the RTS outfield. The series is a quirky one. But as I was discussing with a friend of late, we need more games like this. These games, or at least their themes and sources of inspiration, are equally potent in the race for medium maturation. As far removed from alien invasion as it is from some high-falutin preponderance on Randian ideology; here, the drama is small. It is merely illustrating the fraternal, highly specialised tools of surviving the concrete jungle. The civil pact. Be it Victorian era handcarts and firemen, or modern riot police and SWAT helicopters; Emergency 2014 – and all the games prior – has done wonky justice to not so much the reality of those crucial services, but their place within a vast social construct.

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Some, perhaps most, will miss that. Many might think it’s offering far too much credit for a game that is – at heart – a checklist. But that’s the reality.

Help requested. Respond. Save the day.