There are emergencies and then there are emergencies. I didn’t know what to expect upon installing Emergency 2: The Ultimate Fight for Life onto my hard drive -- I hadn’t even heard of the original Emergency until its sequel came out -- and so for all I knew it was going to be loosely based on the old television show, and I was going to end up rescuing cats from trees, putting out residential fires, and helping out elderly people who had fallen and couldn’t get back up. Nope. These are emergencies with a capital “E” -- the stuff summer blockbusters are made of. Floods, meteorites, and volcanoes, oh my! But is the game as impressive as the catastrophes it presents?
Emergency 2 is essentially a real-time strategy game. You don’t have to build a base or harvest resources, but you’re given a budget for each of the game’s 25 missions, and from that you choose the personnel and vehicles you want to send into the field. If a fire is raging then you might want to send out a fire engine or two. If people are hurt, then you might choose to throw some paramedics and an ambulance into the fray. The number of vehicles and personnel included in the game is impressive (over 30 total), and they help to make you feel that you’re really commanding an emergency task force.
The missions are also fun. The game starts out “slowly” with a train hitting a jeep, and then it gradually introduces you to more vehicles and personnel as it works its way to the bigger and better catastrophes, including an alien invasion at the end. Generally the objectives are the same -- rescue the people and put out the fires -- but the variety in the circumstances and the wonderfully detailed maps make the missions different enough to stay interesting all the way to the end.
Now for the bad news. Your units are as dumb as rocks. With the exception of fire engines, which will attempt to put out any fires that are within range, all your units need to be told exactly what to do, or else they won’t do anything. This makes Emergency 2 a game of extreme micromanagement. For instance, if you want to heal some poor injured guy, you have to order your doctor to stabilize him, then you have to order your paramedics to put him on a stretcher, then you have to order your paramedics to take him to an ambulance, and then you have to tell the ambulance to drive to the hospital. Now imagine that there are lots and lots of injured people, and that there is also a fire, and that, what the heck, there are also people shooting at you. You get the idea.
Worse, the interface helps you out almost not at all. You can’t pause the game to give orders, units are more difficult than they should be to select (not to mention command), and the game doesn’t give enough feedback about what’s going on. For most games where you have to meet objectives, the objectives are presented in a friendly list and you’re shown when you’ve met them. Not in Emergency 2, where the objectives are presented in paragraph form, usually vaguely enough to be annoying. And that means, among other things, that sometimes missions don’t end when you expect them to. Then you have to go through some non-fun trial and error to figure out what you’ve missed. In the earlier missions it’s not too bad, but later when the mission maps include entire cities, trying to find some obscure injured person, when you’re not even sure there is an injured person, gets old fast.
And so I had mixed emotions about Emergency 2. I liked the premise -- it’s nice to play a game where you try to prevent damage rather than cause it -- and I thought the missions were well made. It’s just that, between the unhelpful interface and so often wondering if I was doing the right thing during the missions, Emergency 2 ended up zooming between intriguing, annoying, and frustrating, and I found I had to take breaks every so often to prevent myself from damaging my computer. Still, the “intriguing” aspect of the game kept drawing me back, and there are far worse ways to spend $20.