Pariah is set in the year 2520, a time where plasma rifles capable of inflicting heavy damage burn holes in vicious mercenaries who roam the earth prowling for trouble. Puzzling then, that playing Pariah through the first person perspective of the instantly forgettable Jack Mason, you would think the FPS genre had learnt nothing from the Halo franchise and had gone back 500 years, not forward into some hellish future.
As tiresome as the comparisons will be to developers Digital Extremes, I'm going to repeat them: Pariah, being a futuristic first person shooter, isn't as good as Halo 2. This shouldn't take away from the fact that the game is a sound FPS, and, if released pre-Halo 2, would have stood out among others of the genre. However, times have changed. Most Xbox owners who buy Pariah will have fragged some Covenant at one point or another. Those gamers expect games to evolve and improve, not step backwards.
Our hero, Doctor Jack Mason (the medical schools of 2520 obviously teach a lot more than scalpel use), works for the Transgenic Control Commission, transporting patients and prisoners for the many prison complexes around the solar system. The game begins when Mason's ship crashes while transporting a very special passenger - Karina. All Mason knows is that she is reported to have a transgenic virus and his task is to transport her off earth to a medical facility.
Immediately the good Doctor is faced with all manner of scavengers and mercenaries hell bent on his destruction as you move from open round to complex. No explanation, no reason: just kill or be killed. In terms of storyline, not much can match Halo 2's over elaborate shambles, but at least there was some cause for the mindless destruction from the off. You eventually team up with Karina for some mundane vehicle combat, but, in the main, she dishes out annoying, clichèd soundbites as the plot proceeds.
From a screenshot standpoint, Pariah does well in magazines and on the back of game boxes. Running on your plasma tv in the comfort of your own home, however, the action jerks when you enter an admittedly beautifully drawn wide open expanse with a number of enemies in the distance.
Then there's the feeling that your firepower is actually connecting with something. In Halo, a bullet that hit its target felt as if it had actually left a gun in Master Chief's hand, flew through the air and pierced whatever skin the Covenant like to call their own. In Pariah, you never feel this. Despite using the Havok engine, bullets spray with little accuracy (accuracy is by no means necessary), and, after a while, enemies drop in unconvincing fashion. Grenades cause enemies to fly into the air like some comical Hollywood mock up. Of the items of scenery that are explodable, none demand attention.
The weapons themselves are unimaginative. Machine gun, shotgun, plasma rifle, grenade launcher and sniper rifle types are all included. There's no dual wielding, nor are you going to need to use certain weapons against certain enemies. The ability to upgrade through cores that are laying about the various interiors fails to save them. There's no standard melee attack either, instead, random swipes from the good doctor's Bonesaw (see surgical knife) suffice. In short, Pariah's destruction isn't satisfying.
The AI in Halo has been applauded, setting standards for routines in FPS games. But in Pariah, it seems any attempt at providing smart enemies to dispatch has been eschewed in favour of a few commands that amount to shoot on sight, duck twitchingly or charge. This means the imaginative and expansive surroundings Pariah provides are ruined by the mundanely banal set pieces. In short, find cover, shoot. Not that these enemies are compelling in any way. Divided up into a few classes: scavengers, mercenaries, military etc, these grunts never vary or improve in technique until the game's latter stages. One is instantly reminded of the cannon fodder Captain Kirk would bring down to a hostile planet with his away team.
Vehicle use is also rudimentary, although offers relief to the general trudge of gameplay. All are ground based. The Bogie offers multilayer opportunities for a driver/shooter combo, but these sequences are too short, and they are not challenging or compelling enough to warrant a second chance. Compared to the dynamic air and ground vehicle combat of Halo 2, Pariah seems like a kid brother yet to reach puberty. When alternative modes crop up, for example fending off dropships with a twin mini-gun turret atop a speeding train, they are never anything more than repetitive and pointless rather than a refreshing change of pace.
Because Pariah is battling to be heard in perhaps the most competitive gaming genre there is, for it to be successful, it needs to push boundaries. Look at the leap Halo infused, and the dynamic physics Half Life 2 introduced. Of course, a little bit of marketing always helps, and publishers Hip Games have certainly pushed the boat out on that one, as anyone who makes use of London's tube network over the last couple of months will attest. But marketing isn't enough. Pariah just doesn't offer anything significantly new to the FPS family.
But enough of the bashing - Pariah has a few nice touches and redeeming features that would compliment any FPS on a Microsoft console. The weapon selection wheel is innovative and, after about ten minutes, quite pleasing to the thumb. Hitting Y on the Xbox controller brings up the wheel, and by moving the analogue you can select your weapon of choice.
The game soundtrack is impressively atmospheric, and bullets fly out of weapons with a shockingly good feel on your eardrums (reload the plasma gun for a nice animation and wonderful sound effect).
There are also some surprisingly refreshing multiplayer options too that add some longevity to the game. Playing with a friend, via system link or two-player co-op split screen, breathes life into the campaign mode, especially when vehicle combat lets one player drive and the other shoot, ala Halo. Log on to Xbox Live and the most fun you will have with Pariah presents itself. It's only a mini-thumbs up though, because the Live modes (deathmatch, team deathmatch, ctf, assault and siege) offer nothing Halo 2 doesn't. There aren't an awful lot of players online either, which makes it difficult to find a game.
One thing that Digital Extremes have implemented into Pariah's Live service that might catch the attention of Bungie's ideas people is the map editor. It's simple and slick: players can intuitively raise and lower terrain and generate buildings to their hearts content. But the best bit is being able to swap them online and use them on Live, supporting up to 12 players. Perhaps an additional feature for Halo 3?
Unfortunately, these isolated gems do not offset the overall dullness of Pariah's main hook - a futuristic FPS with a weapon selection twist. The game picks up towards its climactic end. The environments expand in richness and texture, and a new enemy class spices things up a bit, but it's too little too late.