This futuristic first-person shooter from the makers of Unreal Tournament puts players in the role of a down-and-out medical researcher named Jack Mason, whose spacecraft has crash-landed. He survives the crash, along with his only remaining patient, an incarcerated test subject called "Katrina J." who was exposed to an experimental drug that killed all her male counterparts. The prisoner escapes in the crash, but not before infecting Mason with her mysterious affliction. The hero then finds himself far from civilization, alone in the wilderness of one of Earth's most notorious prison sectors.
Luckily, Mason has access to an arsenal of sci-fi weaponry, which can be equipped with custom upgrades. "Energy cores" can be found throughout the game world, and used to add more power and new abilities to weapons and other equipment, as the player sees fit. Mason can also commandeer vehicles to help him move around the overgrown wasteland of the sector. Although designed to offer lots of run-and-gun shooter action, the game's levels include vehicle-based and adventure-puzzle challenges as well.
Along with the full-fledged single-player campaign, Pariah also offers a number of multiplayer modes and options. Traditional match types such as "Capture the Flag," "Deathmatch," and "Team Deathmatch" are available, along with a "Front Line Assault" mode, and the game comes with integrated editing tools that allow players to design and share their own maps.
There are worse ways to carve out a living as a doctor in the galaxy than escorting diseased prisoners on transport shuttles. Sure, you'd love to be an attending physician at a hospital or open up a nice private practice in a rural area, but at least you've got a job -- which, sadly, is about to get a lot harder.
When your shuttle crashes onto a heavily forested planet, your patient's hyper-sleep pod breaks open and she awakens, unsure who she is or what's going on. In a panic, she levels a weapon at you. Intending to rescue you, the pilot manages to stumble out of the wreckage and take a shot at her -- a shot that splatters her infected blood all over your face. She's wounded, but manages to get away. Suddenly, you find yourself in combat against heavily armed thugs who, like you, are intent on finding her, wondering all the while whether you've been infected. You'll find out around chapter 12, but until then the premise of Pariah is set.
A visual treat with a catch, an action spectacle with an asterisk, Pariah is just the kind of game to make a reviewer turn all wishy-washy. It's great fun, but it's wholly unoriginal. It's enticing, but it should have been exciting. For every two sequences that bring to mind Half-Life 2, it has another that more resembles Shadow Ops. Plus, it has a few bugs, one of which is on the level of a Madagascar hissing cockroach.
Playing the role of Dr. Jack Mason, you pick yourself up from the crashed ship and stumble upon a melee weapon, the bonesaw (which you'll probably never use) and a health booster, the re-loadable and creatively named "Healing Tool." The health system borrows liberally from Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. You start with four health bars, and when wounds shorten one, a period of inactivity will allow it to refill itself. If one bar is completely obliterated, the next one in line starts to feel the pain with the ability to refill itself; and so on, until you have none. The Healing Tool can restore full bars, and by upgrading the Healing Tool with weapon energy cores you can add even more bars.
Most of the weapons in the game can be upgraded with weapon energy cores, which you'll find scattered about the landscape. Some are right out in the open, and others are hidden in the deep, dark corners of installations. Each weapon has three upgrades, costing increasing amounts of weapons cores. Weapons include the usual assortment: a machinegun called the Bulldog, a shotgun dubbed the Frag Rifle, a grenade launcher, a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher, a laser gun (plasma rifle), and a secret super-weapon. A sample of upgrades: for the Bulldog, you can increase its rate of fire, calm its recoil, and add an armor-piercing ability; the rocket launcher can be made to fire multiple rockets at once; and the Plasma Rifle can release excess energy in deadly spheres that float toward your enemies. The weapon upgrade system adds a touch of nifty to the otherwise rote weapons.
The gameplay in Pariah is faithful to the FPS canon: it's neither groundbreaking nor a washout. As Mason, you trek through the woodlands and base structures in search of Karina, your wayward, wounded prisoner. You take on various baddies, which, in most locales, are as common as houseflies, and it almost feels as though the level designers are using them to replace the idea of puzzles. Pariah doesn't force you to think very much at all. There's always an obvious path stretching out before you, and your progression is hindered only by attackers and the occasional hunt for a hard-to-reach weapon energy core.
The good news is the bad guys feature strong artificial intelligence. They're truly a team: they often attack in coordinated groups, with some staying behind cover while others scramble to a better hiding place to get a cleaner shot at you. They'll pop up, fire a burst and hit the dirt, making picking them off more of a challenge than fighting, say, the imps in DOOM 3. There's also the fact that many of your weapons aren't terrifically accurate: rather than giving you a nice crosshair with which to line up would-be victims, Pariah often gives you an imprecise circle. Of course, the sniper rifle is as accurate as your ability to line up its blue laser sight, but other weapons make you work for your headshots.
So even though it lacks originality, the action is unquestionably solid. You might even forgive the few times it degrades to console-licious sequences (Pariah was released simultaneously for PC and Xbox). For example, after battling your way to a turret at the rear of a long, moving train, you're told to fend off drop ships. You man the turret, fire away at drop ship after drop ship, until you think you'll never get back to real, free-form FPS righteousness again.
Throughout the game, you catch up to and lose, catch up to and lose, and catch up to and lose Karina. At first, in the semi-engaging storyline written by (as the game's marketing puts it) "Hollywood script writers," she's frightened and confused and wants nothing to do with Mason. Later, when she comes to trust and even team up with Mason, the bad guys make it hard to stay together. They do things like take Mason prisoner, and later, swipe Karina from him.
Drivable vehicles, which are all the rage lately, punch up the cool factor, especially those armed with powerful weapons. They drive Halo-style, moving whichever direction you're actually facing. It might have been a better solution to let the mouse move the vehicles' weapon turrets and the WASD keys steer, but Pariah isn't having any part of that.
Online play is enjoyable, and the net code is surprisingly smooth, handling lag even upwards of a 150ms ping with grace. The usual modes are supported (albeit unexplained in the game's skimpy manual), including deathmatch, team deathmatch, CTF, and assault. Unfortunately, online servers are scarce, so hooking up can be a problem.
Graphically, Pariah looks splendid. Except for the jaggies created by the lack of anti-aliasing support, the game looks almost as good in its forested world as Far Cry, with a few exceptions. Water looks terrible and seems to flow in all different directions at once. The outdoor areas are more satisfying than the indoors, because they use the nasty Halo trick: they are mostly made of the same cookie-cutter styles, lacking much in terms of originality. With a ragdoll skeletal system, Pariah's physics match the keen graphics -- watching bodies fly around and crumple to the ground like crash-test dummies when you blow them up is great fun.
Digital Extremes, the outfit responsible for Unreal and Unreal Tournament games, has shown that it's capable of excellent gameplay and sexy graphics engines. It's only a matter of time before this development house knocks a single-player rocket out of the park with a Half-Life level tour-de-force. It just needs to concentrate more on level design, logical puzzles, and instilling its games with other touches of greatness.
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