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Xbox Live Arcade Review - 'Marathon: Durandal'

by Mark Melnychuk on Aug. 31, 2008 @ 1:04 a.m. PDT

Marathon: Durandal is a compelling sci-fi first-person shooter cult classic that continues the tradition of great gameplay while remaining faithful to the spirit of Bungie lore as the predecessor to the Halo franchise.

Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Freeverse Software
Release Date: August 1, 2007

While Bungie is best known for their multimillion-selling, Xbox-saving Halo series, they are also infamous for another sci-fi trilogy set within the same genre, Marathon. A brief history lesson for all you whippersnapper gamers: Back in the '90s, Marathon was the Macintosh owner's answer to the Doom series, carrying FPS gameplay and monster-blasting that Mac players couldn't get anywhere else on their respective platform. Apparently, Microsoft thought that enough 360 players might be interested in experiencing the spiritual predecessor to Bungie's Halo franchise, along with several modern-day updates like HD graphics and online multiplayer. Unfortunately Marathon: Durandal contains far too many glaring issues that overshadow any possible nostalgia that may be extricated by Halo historians. Curious fans might as well read up on Bungie's past rather than trying to relive it in this very poor port.

Marathon: Durandal is actually the second game in the Marathon trilogy. Originally released on November 24, 2005, and taking place 17 years after the original game, it tells the story of a young colonist sent by an AI known as Durandal to the world of Lh'owon, where the hostile alien organization known as the Pfhor are using the planet as a stepping stone to reach Earth. While fighting a mix of alien races with names that contain too many consonants, the player will uncover ancient ruins and reveal the mystery behind an ancient civilization known as the Jjaro. Does any of that sound familiar? Throughout the game, you'll gain access to a variety of weapons such as the standard shotgun and assault rifle, but also a few familiar items, such as the fusion pistol, which can be charged like the plasma pistol found in Halo.

Despite some striking similarities to another FPS game, Marathon possesses no real canon connections to the Halo series, telling its own unique story through 11 different levels set across nine chapters. The player will continually teleport across these levels in varying order through computer terminals that play a role in many elements of the game, such as dispensing health and telling the story. The one problem I had with these terminals was that, while absorbed in them, it is still possible to take damage from enemies, which is kind of lame when you're trying to read the plot. The teleporting also gets to be a bit of a pain, as you'll continually warp from place to place, sometimes as far back to where you started in a chapter, and all without any consistent direction or list of goals. An in-game map can be accessed through the d-pad, but it contains no objective icons or any other useful information.

But all of those things are faults that you could have easily drawn from the original game, right? So instead let's focus on what makes the modern version of Marathon bad. The game controls as any current shooter does, with the right trigger acting as a weapon's primary fire and the left for secondary functions. The A button serves as the activation button for objects in the environment, B for fist attacks, and the right and left bumpers cycle through weapons. Strangely, the Y and X buttons are used to glance left and right when held down, something you would expect to find in a '90s PC game, but not a modern console title. Most players will also want to adjust the extremely low aiming sensitivity, but unfortunately won't be able to tweak their character's ability to fly like a wild bullet in any direction. When you tally up these errors and look at the controls as a whole, Marathon: Durandal just doesn't feel like it was properly calibrated for a console.

Most of these problems mentioned are annoying, but the one thing that will make Marathon unplayable for most people is the inherent motion sickness that results from the 60 FPS frame rate (increased from the original 30) and the incredibly fast speed in which the player can move about the environment. This became such an issue that during the first few play sessions, I had to stop after 15 minutes and go focus on something stationary. Adjusting the viewing angle and turning off the weapon bobbing does help, but still doesn't keep the game from making you feel incredibly uncomfortable. Such a glaring problem as this is yet another piece of evidence that Durandal was not given the proper care to be presented the right way on a home console, and when you're looking at it in 16:9 on a 32-inch TV, you might want to have a bucket nearby.

If you don't have the stomach or patience to make it through the game's campaign, there are a few alternatives, such as the newly added Survival mode, where the player is dropped into a random level with a loadout of weapons and never-ending supply of enemies. Your score can then be uploaded to a leaderboard to compete with friends, but it would have been nice to bring one or two of them along for the ride.

Marathon comes with an adequate split-screen multiplayer offering that is capable of being taken online or via system link. Local play supports up to four players, while the others allow eight to duke it out over 13 different maps, all containing names that make nifty pop culture references like "Thunderdome" and "No Disintegrations." Most of the maps contain open areas, which make motion sickness less of an issue, but a few feature similar mazes of corridors with a change in color palette as the only discernable difference. Game types include Deathmatch, Kill the Man with the Ball, King of the Hill, and Tag (all of which can be played with or without teams). Thanks to that speedy player movement, the battles are rapid and quite intense when the right amount of players is present.

Some power-ups are included, like temporary invisibility and shielding, making the fast-paced matches a bit of fun at times. Some younger gamers probably won't find the experience that enjoyable because of the time period of its initial design, and may find the lack of functions, such as jumping, a bit dated. One issue that I experienced cropping up was being spawned in the exact same place I died at one time or another, but for the most part, Marathon's multiplayer remains serviceable, if it's the kind of thing that you're looking for. Cooperative play also makes an appearance and allows up to eight people to traverse the game's final few levels. However, there isn't really anything new for seven extra people to do in the campaign, and once you start playing with more than two people, the gameplay within Durandal's narrow corridors becomes quite disjointed.

For its Xbox Live Arcade release, Marathon was given a complete 720p visual makeover that even included redrawn character models. The environments and characters all look very clean, but the only problem is that some areas are pitch-black, with no flashlight or light switch to be found. When looking at the original Marathon: Durandal, the current version almost appears to be completely different game. Of course, such things as the interface must be changed, but when we get into redrawn characters and objects, I can't help but feel that some of the original's charm is lost. Keep in mind that although the game does contain some sharper visuals, Freeverse didn't take care to ensure that they wouldn't induce nausea.

The game's audio, or lack thereof, can also contribute to the feeling of motion sickness, given the absence of any in-game music or environmental noise, directing all the focus to the movement on-screen. While the game was given such an overhaul in terms of visuals, you would expect the same to occur in the sound department, but the weapon and creature effects seem to be without a similar kind of upgrade.

A Marathon title on XBLA could have been a fantastic way for Halo fans to see their favorite developer's roots, but thanks to bad controls and an illness-inducing interface, the game struggles to even serve as a window into the past. The multiplayer is fun to some degree, but with no modern enhancements such as a party system or matchmaking, your time with it may only be good for a few sessions fueled by curiosity. And that really is the main draw with this version of Marathon: Durandal, the desire to know more about Bungie's former success. If that really is all you want, then perhaps it will suffice, but don't go into the game expecting to have the same fun you would with Halo, or any other resurrected old-school FPS game, for that matter.

Score: 4.8/10

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