Emergency 3 is the latest North American release in Sixteen Tons franchise, published by Montreal based Strategy First. Having been given the opportunity to play (and review) the 2003 release, Emergency 2: The Ultimate Fight for Life, I can safely say that the same elements that made the second release enjoyable are back. Unfortunately, the same overly difficult and frustrating puzzle designs, as well as the non-intuitive and unresponsive user interface have followed it as well.

As I said with Emergency 2, this is a title I really could enjoy. It touches on a field where I have derived interest - the co-ordination and management of emergency services for both standard and extreme crisis management. Like its predecessors, you are responsible for saving lives, and averting larger disasters. You dispatch emergency vehicles, police, fire, ambulance, as well as engineering teams for controlling environmental hazards. Using a 3D isometric view, you send emergency crews to the scene of a disaster, unload them, and secure the scene, resuscitate and remove victims, restrain criminals, put out fires and control any other dangers in the vicinity. You are put into the role of crisis coordinator, and it certainly isn't an easy one.

Let's start out with what's new in Emergency 3. Aside from the stuff you'd expect, the game features an enhanced physics engine supporting crashing buildings and flying debris, as well the graphics have also been vastly enhanced. The higher resolution textures and enhanced detail in the world look outstanding, as well as the improved fire and smoke effects. Character and vehicle animation are still lacking, but at least the world around them looks good. Also new is dynamic rotation in the 3D world (would could have been very helpful for that blasted "virus infected monkey escape" level in Emergency 2). Finally, the game introduces a new mission editor, and unlimited scenario mode, better known as free mode.

Emergency 3 offers two modes of play, free mode where you face an endless number of challenges in managing the emergency services for a large city, and the campaign mode similar to that found in its predecessors. In free play, you are given brief and vague descriptions of incidents in which you have to respond, accidents, minor fires, unknown medical emergencies, and the like. The challenge here isn't necessarily solving the puzzles, it's balancing a budget (each unit costs money to dispatch), and micromanaging these units - it quickly becomes tiresome and repetitive.

On the campaign side of things, Emergency 3 offers twenty new missions that vary in objectives, techniques, and difficulty - ranging from hard, harder, and hardest. I'm glad I've played the second game in the series, as I can only imagine how difficult it would be to just step into this game for the first time. Emergency 3 opens with a relatively straightforward missions and the difficulty ramps up quickly - much too quickly for even experienced gamers (not to mention beginners) to really want to continue playing deep into the game.

The objectives of each mission are quite varied, forest fires, blazing buildings, massive traffic pileups, train crashes, terrorist attacks, you name it, it's likely here. Your mission is always the same, get people out of harms way, secure the scene, save lives, and take care of any remaining threats. At your disposal are thirty-five vehicles and a wide array of personnel, everything from pumper and ladder trucks, police and airvac helicopters, fire boats, water bombers, heavy salvage trucks, etc. The standard units are pretty self explanatory, what makes the game difficult to step into is the lack of description as to what each of the specialized units actually does, and what it is useful for. The included documentation is mediocre, and the included tutorials only describe a handful of the units found in the game.

Similar to its predecessor, at the beginning of each mission, the game introduces the environment and the incident through a brief rendered cutscene. What makes the game so frustrating is the exact sequence of steps you have to figure out to complete a mission, even missing one minor step will cause the mission to fail and restart from the beginning. An example, in one scenario early in the game, a bus driver not paying attention to the road causes a massive pileup. You're on the scene, and the game quickly tells you to make sure you divert the traffic. After several attempts to divert traffic with police officers (resulting in their deaths and the mission ending), you'll eventually figure out that you have to send an engineer to a little tiny control box to enable a traffic signal at the exact point of the accident (handy that it just happened to be there).

So, after spending ten minutes dispatching units to the scene, cutting open cars, stabilizing victims, and transporting them to hospital, the game lets you know that you may be forgetting someone. You dispatch a diver looking for something in the water next to the highway. A few minutes later, another warning appears that a few stupid pedestrians are getting out of their cars on the other side of the highway to take a closer look at the scene. Unless you dispatch a police helicopter right away (because the police cars and officers can't get to the other side of the highway for some odd reason), land it in the field, and clumsily direct these people off the highway, you'll fail the mission as one of them will be hit by a car. I know this firsthand, I failed many, many times because of this exact issue. And this isn't an isolated incident; expect to repeat most of the missions a few times because you didn't follow the routine to a tee, or missed a minor step. It's what makes Emergency 3 so inflexible and a very frustrating gameplay experience. It's really a shame, because the missions themselves are quite creative and diverse, but this rigid gameplay model takes away much of the fun of looking forward to the next mission.

I've got another minor nitpicky point that I noticed in the second release, and hasn't been changed for this one. Sound localization would be a big asset - the game was developed in Europe and as such all emergency vehicles have the British siren effects. The game would feel much closer to home if the developers had localized it for a North American release. The rest of the sounds are quite mundane and repetitive, you'll hear the same sound clip whenever you issue orders to a unit, and the same moans and groans from victims lying on the pavement.

If you could put aside the overly high difficulty level, frustrating mission design, and really dumb AI, Emergency 3 still has one major issue. The control schema uses a simple point-and-click context-sensitive interface; unfortunately its clumsy implementation leaves a lot to be desired. On occasion, when directing units to a specific position they'll end up in the middle of nowhere. Without first rotating the camera, it's very difficult to perform certain actions (like hooking a hose up to fire hydrant if a tree is slightly blocking your view). I've even instructed a police officer to direct traffic, only to have them turn their back on the traffic and start directing while facing the wrong way. Placing and directing units often turns into a chore when they get stuck, and even when stuff does work, you'll find you often have to click on the buttons more then once for the unit to actually respond to your command - another annoyance to add to the pile.

Emergency 3 isn't a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination, it's an innovative title based on a unique premise. Where it falls short is in a few key elements, the rigid gameplay structure, dumb artificial intelligence, overly challenging missions, and poorly implemented control scheme all greatly detract from the overall enjoyment factor. Hopefully, the next game in the series will address these issues, but in the meantime it's very difficult to recommend Emergency 3 as an enjoyable game unless you can overlook its many significant flaws.