"The Unreal Tournament games we've done have all been very multiplayer focused. Pariah is our attempt to try and take everything we've learned from developing strong multiplayer games and really try to replicate that in the single-player experience." In essence, this is the goal behind Pariah, the new FPS from Digital Extremes - so says the studio's founder and creative director James Schmalz.
Words And Pictures
As you'd expect from a game built on Unreal technology, the graphics in Pariah are gorgeous, with especially nice touches like weapon physics, water effects and a general feeling of life in the game's Halo-like environments. However, the developer is keen to press the importance of Pariah's Hollywood-penned storyline, which is thankfully refreshing in a genre that has a tendency to delight in developing bigger and betters ways to blow shit up (but don't worry, there's plenty of that too).
To play the game, you assume the role of Jack Mason, a military doctor in the year 2520. When Jack is drafted onto a ship to oversee the moving of a female prisoner with a mysterious virus and that vessel subsequently crash lands, like Gordon Freeman before him Jack has to adjust to being the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Alongside Jack there are also NPCs in the game, the most important of which is the prisoner Karina who remains a constant presence in the storyline and is rather charmingly depicted with normal-sized breasts and a scruffy ponytail.
"We wanted our main female character to be as convincing as possible," explains James. "We wanted her to feel real, not like the traditional game character. Now that technology alows us to have facial animations and expressions, we have the ability to make our characters more believable and movie-like."
Of course, it wouldn't be Unreal technology without some impressive weaponry at your command. Pariah has favourites such as the sniper rifle and grenade launcher, and also includes a few beasts like the Bulldog and a massive Redeemer-like weapon known as Titan's Fist which actually plays a part in the storyline. Using items known as Weapon Energy Cores even enables you to customise and upgrade your weaponry.
It may not have Unreal in the title, but Pariah certainly has Unreal in its heart. With a decent storyline and single-player mission, coupled with the ever-excellent multiplayer offerings from Digital Extremes, it may just be the FPS hit of next year. We'll bring you more updates throughout the year.
Storylines in games are shit. Not a new observation by any means, but one that's as true today as it was ten years ago. For all the credit we give games like Sam & Max, Knights Of The Old Republic and Max Payne 2. most game plots are wafer-thin excuses for slaughter, daubed on the back of a napkin by a semi-literate, attention-disordered metal fan. If a game's not a rip-off of Aliens, it's probably a rip-off of Neuromancer or The Mathx, with a level of character development slightly less sophisticated than your average porn film. Which is why it came as such sweet music to our ears when we found out that Pariah, the new FPS from Unreal-developer Digital Extremes, is all about telling a great story.
We really want to push the envelope in storytelling." agrees James Schmalz. founder and creative director of the esteemed Canadian codeshop. I've played too many games, especially in the FPS genre, where the story is like 'ho-hum'. and the game's really not that compelling. Even Doom 3 - an amazing game - is at best a B-movie. We're putting a lot of effort into making a really interesting story - one where you have an emotional investment in the situation and the characters, and we're trying to do that more so than anyone has done before.
The game itself is a handsome sci-fi shooter set on a far-future Earth. Like many of its ilk. you've got a selection of vehicles, some big guns, a few enemies and the trusty old Unreal engine humming away beneath it all. The big difference, as far as James is concerned, is that these factors are matched by an equally advanced emotional aspect, something he sees as increasingly critical in today's hi-fidelity game environments.
With the level of graphical detail, the facial animation and the physics, you need to have a much better storyline that blends in with and matches that level of realism. And if you don't, it's that much more disappointing. As the technology gets better, you need to have the better actors and the story to deliver a compelling overall experience.
It might sound like hype, but Digital Extremes is leaving nothing to chance in its quest for the perfect story, enlisting the help of two Hollywood scriptwriters, spending painstaking hours casting voice-actors and generally laying out a shedload more time and cash than most FPS developers would ever dream of.
"Oh yeah, we're going crazy. enthuses James. We've done all sorts of research about how stories are made and what makes a great story. We're on the fifth revision of the script right now, and we still want to tweak the dialogue, make sure everything's just right. Then, when we record the voice-actors, we're going to videotape the actors' faces too. so the animators can match the facial expressions. We don't want our characters to look like manikins.
Feel The Force
Unfortunately, the results are so far a bit difficult to judge. Not only are the final voices yet to be recorded, but Digital Extremes is also being understandably cagey about the plot. After all. it is the game's key feature and the company doesn't want to spoil it. What we can tell you however, is this. The year is 2520. You are Jack Mason, a suicidally depressed doctor called to Earth - now a horrific prison colony - to escort a patient off-planet. You've been told your patient is a prisoner with a dangerous virus, but when you get there you find she's also a hot ex-military chick called Karina. On your way back, your dropship suddenly goes out of control (sabotaged) and crashes into a forest. All hell breaks loose, and you find yourself fighting for survival with Karina at your side. As you make your way back to the prison however, the real story starts to unfold...
Who's That Girl?
We've tried to create a lot of really interesting mysteries right from the very beginning that draw you in, says James. You find out who Karina really is, what the virus is and why they want to nuke the planet to get rid of her."
If you don't mind a slight spoiler (skip ahead a paragraph if you do), we've already discovered some of the answers. The so-called virus Karina is carrying turns out to be - no prizes - an immensely powerful weapon. She's been experimented on to be the first of a new breed of super-soldiers that can generate energy from the molecules in their bodies and project it outwards. And needless to say. you eventually get the power too.
Now. I know what you're thinking - what's the big deal? It's a bit of Jedi power mixed with a bit of military conspiracy, boiled up with a bit of despite-the-odds romance. Seen it all before. However, it's worth remembering that your beloved Half-Life was basically a skilful re-telling of Doom - scientists inadvertently open portal to another dimension, violence ensues. And as James points out, a good story has more to do with character and emotion than any sort of plot summary.
"When you think of a great movie, it's usually not the great effects that you remember. It's the emotional experience that's the important thing. Having a good story and having some sort of emotional buy into the characters is what's going to make a game more memorable and satisfying to people."
Digital Extremes is particularly mindful of the player's - your - relationship with Karina. Seeing as you inhabit the body of Jack in the game and rarely get to see him - er. you - Karina is very consciously designed to be the primary emotional and visual tie with the characters and situations.
We've really worked on the relationship between Jack and Karina, says James. We didn't want them to be stereotypical game characters, we wanted them to be much more believable. Karina isn't your scantily-clad female with big boobs. Jack isn't the typical asskicker guy. He's balding a little; he's got no background in weaponry. Even though they've crash-landed and have to fight for survival in the forest, he finds it difficult to trust her. and the way they gradually bond is a big part of the storyline.
Of course, we could talk about the story all day, but it doesn't tell you much about gameplay. From what we've seen, think Halo - especially in the use of vehicles - and possibly Far Cry, as Pariah is set 80 per cent outdoors.
There's also a strong nod to Half-Life in the way the story elements are integrated, with minimal use of cut-scenes and a strong sense of pace. Standard run-and-gun sections are interspersed with short on-rails shooting sequences and free- roaming vehicular jaunts. The vehicles are a bit UT2004-\sh," says James. We've got single, two-man and four-man varieties - six in total, though we may add more."
As you'd expect from the creator of Unreal Tournament, Pariah also boasts a full multiplayer component. It seemed slightly skewed towards an Xbox audience when we played it, but nonetheless offers a few interesting features. For a start, there are two new multiplayer game types: Siege and Front Line Assault. Siege sees you and your mates trying to protect a base from an onslaught of Al opponents, while FLA is a team-based game centred on capturing control points - similar to Advance And Secure in Joint Ops.
Classic modes like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and CTF are also in the mix, but with a new gameplay device to help keep things fresh. Says James: We wanted to have all the familiarity there but with a different spin, so we've introduced upgradeable weapons. All the standard FPS weapons are used - the shotgun, the rocket launcher and so on - that's what people are used to. However, we didn't just want to do the same thing over again."
So, all the weapons in both single- and multiplayer are upgradeable through two or three levels, using pick-ups known as Weapon Energy Cores or WECs - left behind when you kill an enemy (see Tweak Your Tool', opposite). Using a popup menu, you can choose to upgrade your weapon, increase your dash time (a standard sprint function), top up your health or boost your shield: Though we may change the health in favour of increased ammo capacity," muses James.
Look Before You Leap
The idea is, you have to think strategically about what to spend your upgrades on: whether it's a more powerful rocket launcher, a silencer for your sidearm or a stronger shield.
What this gives us in the multiplayer games is the ability to grow into the role you want to play, says James. Instead of picking a class at the start of a game, like medic or engineer, you work on developing the tools you need for it as you're playing. If you want to be a medic, you focus on upgrading your healing tool - the final upgrade of which allows you to resurrect your team-mates." To make sure people who get a few upgrades don't become invincible, the final, most powerful upgrade you get in single-player is not in multiplayer. The first two levels are more functional, says James. So the grenade launcher upgrades to a poison grenade, the sniper rifle gets a heat-vision scope. So you get things that make your weapons more functional, without necessarily being more deadly.
It may sound cumbersome, but the process happens quickly in multiplayer matches - a matter of seconds or minutes, though WECs are significantly harder to come by in the solo campaign. It really adds a different flavour to the multiplayer game, grins James. We wanted to get away from people running routes through the game, knowing the timing of when pick-ups were going to spawn. Now you have to confront enemy and kill them before you get a pick-up. It's a far more strategic way of handling things.'
While this may well be true, we suspect that these features will ultimately be far more interesting in the single-player game, where you have more than a split-second to think about how to distribute your WECs. Indeed, we can't help but think that Pariah's multiplayer game is a bit too console-oriented to have much of an impact on the PC - we'll wait and see.
In the meantime, Pariah's true power remains a mystery. With so much emphasis on things that must remain secret to preserve the experience (the plot), or that must be experienced at length to be fully appreciated (the emotional aspect of the storyline), it's nigh-on impossible for us to truly assess the game. Despite that rather large caveat, one thing we can say for sure is: if Digital Extremes gets it right. Pariah could be a revelation.
Barrel Of Laughs
Best Barrels Ever' Claims Proud Developer
The first-person shooter genre is full of outdated conventions dating back to the early days of the form - warehouses full of crates, mysteriously roomy air con ducts, chainsaws in space stations and of course, the good ol' exploding barrel. The latter items feature quite heavily in Pariah, but rather than making excuses, the lads at Digital Extremes have decided to have a bit of fun with them.
Every FPS has to have barrels," grins James Schmalz, but we've tried to take them to the next level. So we've got these barrels full of fuel, and of course you can tip them over, you can blow them up and it's all physics-based; but you can also shoot them and poke a hole in the side. Then, if you push one over, you can roll it around wherever you want, leaving a path of fuel behind. And when you shoot the fuel, this huge wall of flames shoots up.
Seeing a rudimentary version of this trick in action, we can't help thinking of old Looney Tunes episodes. Exactly," laughs James. But it's got so many cool gameplay uses. You can create a path of flames, set traps, cut off pursuers and funnel enemies where you want them. It's the ultimate barrel experience." Quite.
Dr. Jack Mason has been given yet another milk run. Assigned to escort a virus-infected prisoner between prisons in the not-so-distant future, Mason finds himself with yet another boring assignment at the twilight of his once illustrious career. However, after his transport plane is struck by a well-fired SAM missile, Jack and his now awakened Typhoid Mary find themselves confused, lost, and behind enemy lines.
And now both of them have the virus.
Pariah, the futuristic first-person shooter from Groove Games, seems to have all of the elements of the more successful adventure-based shooters out there, such as Doom 3, Unreal Tournament, Halo, and Half-Life. But how does it stack up against these heavyweights in the FPS world?
Let's look at the good first: For graphics, Pariah uses a modified Havok engine, which has been very successful with Unreal Tournament, among others. This makes for crisp skins, 'rag doll'? body effects, and good detail to surrounding areas, and Pariah exploits this with very few problems on high-end graphics cards. In game vehicles are also fun to use and very effective in usage throughout the game. Controls are easy to use (The WSAD keys default for movement) and simple to modify, so getting control up to speed for the average FPS fan is quite easy. What this makes for is a game you can get into quickly and enjoy all of the scenery while you're at it.
Alas, this is where Pariah starts to show its flaws. Though the game starts off well, the storyline in the game becomes almost completely incomprehensible after just a couple of cut scenes. Audio is well done for the most part, but becomes repetitive VERY quickly, and dialogue is weak at best. Enemy AI is not exactly something to strike fear into the hearts of competitive gamers, even at the highest settings. Though in game bots tend to be fairly accurate with their armaments, their movements become quite predictable.
Speaking of weapons loadout, what is up with the cookie cutter FPS games out there? You have your obligatory automatic (Bulldog), the completely ineffective shotgun (Frag Rifle), and the high end exploders, and that's about it. Pariah tries to innovate a bit with Weapon Energy Cores, items that can modify and boost your weapons stats, accuracy, or special abilities, but they're mostly hit and miss. They can make some weapons very effective, but add almost nothing to others.
Pariah's single player game is also obscenely short for an FPS. I finished the whole thing in under 6 hours, and I'm no power gamer anymore. Add to this the almost incomprehensible story and absolutely no connection with your protagonist, or even an understanding of your enemies and friends, and you'll understand why I was less than please with the single player game.
Pariah does have a small but loyal multiplayer following, with multiplayer games following the basic standard of death match, capture the flag, assault, and variations on these themes. The action tends to be fast and furious, and one feature I found surprising and actually likable is that all players are limited to two projectile weapons per person. These are selected via prepackaged loadouts before you begin fighting (Bulldog and Grenade Launcher, or Rocket Launcher and Sniper Rifle, for example). While I at first found this somewhat restrictive, I soon began to enjoy the ability to specialize in certain weapon types and boost my skills with others, while learning to use tactics on teams.
Still, unless you're only into multiplay, Pariah quickly loses it's appeal. First person storyline has low appeal and almost no replay value, and frankly, there are other titles out there that do it much, much better. Fair to good multiplay keeps this from being a complete waste of time, but not by much.
It is an unfortunate thing when we can see what a game could've been, but ultimately was not. Pariah is one such a game, that from the very beginning roped me into what I thought would be a satisfying ride through a cinematic paradise. Opening with what I'd call one of the best cinematic title sequences I've ever seen, it was a painful realization that I came to, understanding that this game wouldn't blow my expectations away.
First, the gameplay in Pariah couldn't be blander. The only thing saving you from essentially the most default and basic of arsenals is the upgradeable nature of the weapons, and using them against the enemy is definitely not the most enjoyable experience. Prepare to kill lots of goons that don't seem to stand a chance of defeating you, and pilot a great many vehicles that couldn't survive impact with a gnat, let alone actual combat.
Pariah's plotline, while somewhat interesting, is wasted by a game that fails to appropriately deliver that story to the player. A normal problem in games like this, you'll go from objective to objective, literally stumbling across elements of the major plotline, with virtually no explanation helping you understand what they represent. Fortunately, the plot does see fit to deliver you in to some really visually appealing scenes.
While the level design itself is dull, repetitive, and fails to take advantage of the environment present in the game, the backgrounds and production design makes the game seem big, with epic settings that show you at least a glimpse of what the design was meant for. On the small scale, the game looks beautiful. There's detail where you wouldn't expect it, and some really nice effects that just stand out. Sadly, for every well done graphical element, there's a piece of the game that's bereft of detail and basically lacks the great look that other parts of the game have.
I can't really understand how Pariah was designed, because there's so much here that could've been a great game. The gameplay is lacking, but somehow slightly functional, as the basic weapons are basic for a good reason. Machine gun, shotgun, grenade launcher, these all work because they're solid. But with the other elements, graphics that don't seem entirely finished, or a plotline that's seemingly half done, Pariah is fun to play, but ultimately one of my biggest disappointments of this year.