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I am Andreas. Day time programmer and technical consultant. Night time musician and game developer.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Marathon: Durandal XBLA, a biased review

Halo's granddaddy.

There's something strange about seeing this game running on the 360. Last time i played it in earnest was 12 years ago, on my family's Mac IIsi (if you can believe that). I spent a ridiculous amount of time making mods, maps and scenarios for it, being quite active in the Marathon Map Makes Guild. Rarely you'd see a game inspiring such lavish worship from its fan community on the grounds of its single player experience.

It converts staggeringly well to a console title. I played it primarily with a keyboard as mouselook was jittery, and the translation to analog sticks has worked better here than it does in most big budget 360 FPSes. Put into context; i can play Durandal with aim assist off just fine, turning speed is sensitive enough that 180s are almost mouselook fast, and the look stick deadzone is small enough to make minute adjustments to aim a cinch. The movement stick at its extreme is sprinting speed, substituting the original title's need for a run key, and the addition of analog movement is overall hugely successful, much more so than the 360 Doom port. The more i play the game, the more it seems at home on the 360, which is a very impressive achievement.

The core game is, as always, an objective based first person shooter heavy on exploration and text driven exposition. The classic argument of Doom versus Marathon is side by side proven to be completely pointless, as the games serve different purposes. In fact, Durandal has more in common with the Metroid series than it has with Doom, as a methodical approach is entirely necessary for effective progress, checking your maps and paying close attention to your surroundings. The basis of progress is not so much about getting from A to B as it is about solving riddles and accomplishing objectives in the labyrinthine levels, all named with hints as to the experience that awaits you. It's quite a sizable game, even for today, easily outsizing the original Halo and many other modern action adventures, and considering the story can be quite involving (given the will to fill in a few blanks with your imagination) Durandal feels like you get your money's worth based on the single player campaign alone.

Combat is surprisingly intense, making up for its admittedly retarded AI with large numbers of agressive and strong opponents, color coded like insects for easy threat reference; The richer the color, the more grenades you should lob at it as soon as possible. The game can be quite hard, given that enemy placement often puts you at a distinct disadvantage, ammo conservation and scavenging is a far bigger deal than it was in Doom, clip sizes and reload times have to be taken into account, and health recharge terminals are few and far between. The result is a slow methodical approach, where you often find yourself planning your attack before pushing on. The AI can also be ambushed from behind, as they have a limited cone of vision, often leading to some very satisfying moments when you're down to your last bar of health.

Further improving combat is the inclusion of several interesting firearms with distinct areas of advantage; from crowd control to anti mech to long range, Durandal's weapon selection remains useful from top to bottom throughout the game, with no weapon clearly better than any other depending on the circumstances. In addition, certain weapons can be dual wielded, and most that can't be have twin firing modes, ranging from the pulse rifle inspired assault rifle/grenade launcher to the chargeable fusion pistol. The absolute joy of the collection is still being able to dual wield shotguns, which is still ridiculously enjoyable.

The enemies themselves are an odd crew of alien soldiers, monsters, android suicide bombers, insects, gestapo-style alien inquisitors and monstrous hovering tanks, often from opposing factions. The AI is able to switch allegiance on the fly, so tricking an alien storm trooper to fire a grenade into his comrades may make his comrades very upset with him indeed. Often when low on ammo, using the enemy's numbers against them is a viable tactic, especially with some enemies firing homing weapons that can be pulled into their own ranks with some quick maneuvering. Sometimes you find yourself walking in on battles between opposing factions, choosing sides to take down the tougher opponents first before you mop up the survivors. On occation, this gives an almost emergent feel, as the larger combat scenarios rarely play out exactly the same.

A returning gimmick for the franchise is the motion detector, cleverly updating far slower than is convenient, and completely ignoring any lurking enemies. Seeing the detector erupt in a flurry of red as you blunder into an ambush is remarkably intense.

The end result is a very enjoyable combat experience which belies its age and seems almost up to date in how it approaches large scale battles. Today first person shooters rarely put you up against more than 4-5 opponents to compensate for advanced AI, and it's strangely refreshing to be put up against large numbers where the properties of each opponent are what you need to take into consideration rather than merely surviving how bloody smart they are.

Durandal was known in its day for per-level physics models, which allowed each level to essentially rewrite the rules of the game. Fan mods made the rocket launcher fire people, or made the assault rifle fire fusion pistol bolts. Suddenly the weakest enemy of the game could be nigh unstoppable should the designer wish it so. In the campaign, this translates to shifting allegiances, altered gravity properties, vacuum space walks, underwater missions and other such oddities, and even for today Durandal still keeps you guessing. The basic physics of the game take some getting used to. There's no jumping or crouching, but the game encourages you to exploit its physics to use momentum to take you where you want to go. Occationally this includes what was known as "grenade hopping", using the recoil/blast of the grenade launcher paired with lateral movement to produce a jump. Exploration is constantly rewarded with secret messages, ammunition, health and sometimes weapons.

All this, and i still haven't mentioned the multiplayer. Marathon LAN play was legendary in its day, and what they have basically done here is give it a huge overhaul. 8 players can play games of deathmatch, team deathmatch, tag, "kill the man with the ball", king of the hill or the single player campaign cooperatively. You heard me, 8 player co-op. Play can be done with up to 4 on a single console split screen, through system link or on live. As an added bonus, you and 3 friends on the same console can join live games together. Network play is fast, unsophisticated and frequently hilarious, with king of the hill a complete riot. The real boon here is the co-op however. The campaign is long, difficulty gets ramped up considerably according to the number of players, and ammo conservation becomes a far bigger issue. It's impressive stuff, and makes for one of the most enjoyable multiplayer titles on live arcade as of the moment.

Visually, the game has seen some considerable upgrades, moving from the classic raycaster engine to a true 3d engine (albeit with the same properties as the original raycaster), HD sprite and texture updates, a new interface and the aforementioned updated controls. It also runs at a blistering 60fps that obviously never see a single hickup. The original textures are still available for purists, although this purist found the updates consistently flattering.

Sound is an adequate bunch of bangs, clicks and hisses, while the traditionally crap explosion sounds are still completely crap. But it grows on you. There is, aside from the title theme, no music to speak of, leaving you with the ambient sounds of the world. I wouldn't have it any other way.

There are unfortunately some downsides. Achievements were something i was hugely looking forward to, and Freeverse have really dropped the ball on this one. An early achievement is awarded for merely picking up the assault rifle (along with a reference to the level it is attained in the original marathon). A couple more are given for completing specific chapters, and one for killing 7 enemies with melee attacks. The rest is tuned to multiplayer, with the typical "won 20 games" types of requirements. It's just so incredibly typical and boring. There are no time trials, no "hit an enemy full on with a grenade from 200 yards", no actual exploitation of the intrinsic challenges of the gameplay. Just a list you will easily fill out through normal play. Boo!

There have been reports of motion sickness, particularly IGN's otherwise favorable review, and i'll have to agree. The tight confines, the close perspective, the sensitive motion controls and the constant silky 60fps contribute to some serious nausea if played without precautions. I found very quickly that pushing either movement stick to its extreme is indeed an extreme, with the move stick in particular putting you at a run that in the original was used primarily to exploit the game's nearly weightless default gravity to "jump" across chasms. Moving with a sense of moderation will greatly improve the experience. Games like The Darkness make us curse the protagonist for moving so slowly. In Durandal you want to take it easy.

Overall, i'm astonished. This is clearly a labor of love for Freeverse as it was for Bungie, and by far the best first person shooter experience on live arcade. It puts titles like EA's Wing Commander utterly to shame, and makes for a compelling argument for Marathon's historical place in the FPS family tree. A strong single player campaign, silky and challenging gameplay and a ridiculously well equipped multiplayer suite make this 800pts feel like i paid too little.

Heartily recommended.

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