Marathon: Durandal Review

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Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Freeverse

Platform: Xbox 360
Reviewed on Xbox 360

The AI known as "Durandal" has awakened you, seventeen years after you survived the attack on the ship Marathon by the alien Pfhor. Your new task – to explore an ancient citadel on the planet Lh'owon, homeworld of the S'pht, searching for information about a lost tribe of that friendly race.

Kyle Ackerman

I'm glad that I played Marathon: Durandal on the Xbox 360. Marathon 2: Durandal is one of those PC games that I remember fondly from more than a decade ago, back when I refused to believe in console gaming. It wasn't the high point of the Doom-style shooters – when PC shooters only barely cleared the hurdle of being 3D, enemies were paper-thin and secret doors were everywhere (and were harder to find than some of Mario's Warp Pipes). That was back when a LAN session of Duke Nukem was worth endless hours of quashing technical glitches. Still, Marathon 2: Durandal was a good game that I was excited to play, and I wasn't disappointed. Back when it was released, in 1995.

That's because back in 1995 I was excited for the breakthrough AI, brilliant graphics and edge-of-your-seat action. Now the appeal is different. The game is, in a way, an ancestor of Halo, a series of games so popular that it can sit at the same table as Madden, Grand Theft Auto and The Sims, holding its chin up high. Unfortunately, as a game, Marathon: Durandal just doesn't stand the test of time. That makes playing Marathon: Durandal more like archaeology than fun. You dig through layers of ancient graphics to get at the heart of gaming's past, and to understand the inspiration behind your favorite summer blockbuster game. You might be bored out of your skull, but you'll probably learn something interesting. You might even have fun. But you might not.

Mostly, Marathon: Durandal reminds me of all the computer game conventions we used to accept that we've been fortunate enough to move past. Blocky mazes. Endless find-the-key puzzles. And hours of pointlessly bumping into walls because you failed to read the last sentence on a computer terminal. Secret doors were fun in the day, before ubiquitous cheat sites with broadband accessibility started posting their locations on every virtual streetcorner. Back then, I would call friends to exchange secret door lore. Now secret doors seem like a nuisance – an way of taunting me as a player, or artificially pumping up the difficulty of a game.

Some games stand the test of time (go back and try Fallout, for example). Even a game like System Shock is worth excavating from the ancient past of PC gaming. As harsh as the (then-stellar) graphics might seem, the story is still riveting. The lore of Marathon: Durandal isn't exciting enough to make me want to trudge through every maze in the game.

All of that said, Marathon: Durandal may still be worth the money to hardcore Halo fans looking for a teaser to get them through to the Halo 3 release. Like the grandfather of a baseball player enjoying his own moment of fame when his grandson pitches in the World Series, a little of Durandal's genetic material made it to the modern Halo franchise. I found myself staring at the ammo indicator on the screen and wondering if I should reinstall the original game. Is that really what the guns and ammo looked like in 1996? How could I not remember just how cool the design was? Perhaps because I was being charged by flat aliens dressed in purple charging me with staffs?

Of course, this is the second Marathon game, and I can only imagine that the gods of Xbox Live wanted to release something with a ring of Halo. You do slog through a bazillion 2D foes with the help of an AI (Durandal), even if it only interacts through computer terminals and interminable strings of text. The player weapons are similar (dual pistols! fusion pistol!) and several of the foes are pretty clever in their concept. Fortunately, the graphics have been tweaked, or the graphics would be even more shamed by modern displays than they are. Flying drones sometimes zap genetic monstrosities from the air, and you get allies to fight with you, although they're recently thawed civilians instead of trained marines. There are enough Halo-like elements to satisfy Halo-devotees.

There's also multiplayer, vastly improved from the original game, but so mired in gaming of yore that it's only good for a quick laugh. It's hard to find a match, and those you find are likely to be filled with players just trying to fill in their achievements for the game.

Mostly, playing Marathon: Durandal is a reminder of how glad I am that gaming continues to improve by leaps and bounds. Plenty of folks within and outside the industry decry the massive budgets of modern games as stifling creativity. That may be true. But those massive budgets, backed up by powerful hardware, also mean we get spectacular-looking games. That have experienced writers to make sure the story is engaging. And playtesters (usually) to make sure the game works. Teams of designers and test groups ensure that we aren't following an obscure set of gaming conventions, as alienating as a five-minute secret handshake (grenade jumping, anyone?). Instead, we interact with the world according to intuition. If something makes sense, it usually works. In modern games.

If you play Marathon: Durandal, think of it as a chance to relive the past. And to remember how good we have it today. At least, if you do want to revisit the past, it's worth the Xbox Live Arcade price to get the updated textures and a hassle-free install, rather than picking up the original game at a massive discount. But, unlike gaming's historical greats like X-COM and System Shock, this game doesn't stand the test of time.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on August 19, 2007 8:46 PM.

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