bshirk's Marathon: Durandal (Xbox 360 Games Store) review

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A Sci-Fi Predecessor To Halo

Ah...Marathon.  This series holds a special place in my heart, because an old friend of mine introduced me to several great obscure games like this at a young age.  He was one of the few people I knew that had a Mac (or computer for that matter), and he loved Bungie games like Myth (a strategy game) and Marathon.  For those of you who don't know, the Marathon series is basically a predecessor to Halo.  It's the first FPS series that Bungie produced, and it was quite impressive when it was initially released.  My favorite thing about the Marathon series was the incredible multiplayer.  The friend who introduced me to Marathon managed to set it up on several computers in a middle school computer lab, and some of us snuck in a few rounds when the teacher was gone.  What we experienced, was quite similar to Halo LAN parties.  As you can imagine, we had a blast.

Fast-forward several years, and Bungie's Halo series had become a megaton hit that propelled the Xbox to success.  Halo 3 had nearly arrived, and Bungie wanted to whet our appetite with a classic FPS--Marathon: Durandal (aka Marathon II).  Marathon II was initially released on the Mac, but it was soon ported to PC, so it eventually grew to become the most popular game of the Marathon trilogy.  Several years later, after the release of Halo, Marathon had become forgotten, much like road kill.  I realized that Marathon II had probably become archaic, but I decided to put it to the test anyway. 

When I booted up Marathon II, memories of its classic, but cheesy theme song resurfaced.  After I'd grown tired of hearing the word Marathon repeated numerous times, I decided to load up the single- player campaign.  Marathon II appeared to be visually dated, but there were some notable differences from other XBLA First-Person Shooters.  For one, the game wasn't in a tiny computer monitor format; rather, it filled up a whole widescreen display with no sidebars.  Besides having updated visuals, Marathon also ran at a brisk 60fps.  This framerate was so smooth, that some reviewers actually complained that the fluidity of Marathon's visuals made them sick.  In Marathon II, you aim in all directions, unlike Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, so you can quickly become disoriented or made to hurl if you have a weak stomach.  Being a superhero in disguise, it didn't faze my washboard abs, so I pressed on.

The smooth animation and updated visuals impressed me, but how was the gameplay?  Well, I actually ended up as disappointed as Al Gore after he lost the presidential race.  The main reason for this is the incredibly convoluted level design.  Marathon II has you hitting all sorts of random switches, and oftentimes they affect a far away object, so you rarely have any idea of what's going on.  Sometimes, I felt more lost than Kevin McAllister in Home Alone 2.  I played several campaign missions in co-op with my brother, and eventually, we had enough.  He just couldn't take it anymore, and I felt like I was on the brink of insanity, so I had to give up.  I played through several levels however, and I have to say that not everything reeked of un-emptied garbage.

Fighting enemies was pretty fun with a somewhat standard arsenal.  You get several weapons that are similar to what you'd find in Doom, but this time, you can actually aim them in any direction.  As a result, players will feel like they have a greater degree of control.  Unfortunately, you still can't jump, so you'll have to dash if you want the game to make your character auto-jump over a gaping chasm.

Besides being able to aim vertically, Marathon: Durandal is also unique in that it has a sci-fi aesthetic.  You could argue that Doom has one as well, but Marathon feels like even more of a futuristic title.  Your weapons are complex; they have primary and secondary fire modes; and you're often fighting aliens on distant planets.  Marathon ties everything together with a complex storyline, but most of it is optional.  Unlike Doom and Wolfenstein, the story isn't told to you after each episode; instead, it's delivered to you by computer monitors scattered throughout Marathon's numerous levels.  Unfortunately, the small, bright-green text makes reading a hassle, so it's unlikely that you'll want to put up with it unless you're a hardcore sci-fi geek.  There are no cutscenes here Halo fans, so you'll have to read again for the first time since high school (sorry, there aren't any CliffNotes).

Even though Marathon has a heavy sci-fi tone, the worlds aren't all that convincing.  Part of this is due to early 3D graphics technology, but the backgrounds just look drab and unoriginal.  Besides having mediocre (albeit updated) visuals, the music doesn't really manage to impress.  Much of the game is silent, so you'll have to suck it up and be satisfied with the sound of bullets spraying into alien scum.

The single-player experience is dated, but how does the multiplayer fair?  Well, it's a mixed bag.  It's nice that you're able to take eight other players into co-op (if you can find them), and getting your frag on in death match is amusing, but only for a brief period of time.  Running around in circles killing each other is fun for a bit, but with no vehicles and bland maps, death match quickly becomes a bore.  This type of gameplay was still fresh back in 1995 when the game was originally released, but we've moved on since then.  Try popping in Goldeneye (which used to be my favorite FPS before Halo) if you need any more proof.

Marathon II was a fun game during the era in which it was released, but unfortunately, it hasn't aged gracefully.  The level design is some of the most convoluted you'll find in an FPS, the guns aren't very original, and the way in which the story is told is archaic.  It doesn't help that the game's biggest draw--multiplayer, just isn't very fun anymore.  As much as I love Bungie games, I have to argue against downloading Marathon, especially for ten dollars.  You might miss out on one of their classic games, but who cares really, when you could be spending that time pwning n00bs in Halo.

Pros:

  • Updated visuals that fill a widescreen monitor
  • You can aim vertically
  • Finally you can experience the predecessor to Halo on console
  • The theme song is memorable for those who played it back in the day
  • A wealth of multiplayer options


Cons:

  • Almost non-existent music
  • Convoluted level design
  • Bland multiplayer arenas and single-player levels
  • It's difficult to find other players online
  • The map and radar are terrible
  • Most weapons feel uninspired
  • It's ten bucks

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