It is by now an Agreed Fact that I am interested in 00s first-person shooters. Such an Agreed Fact, indeed, that when a friend was clearing out his collection of old PC games, he offered me first refusal on claiming any of it. Among the classic titles I recognised, one stood out that I did not: Pariah.
An Unreal Engine 2 game by Digital Extremes? The people who worked with Epic on the original Unreal Tournament? You don’t have to ask twice.
Alas, rarely before have I started a game and so immediately understood why it has been abandoned to the mists of time.
I’m a pretty big fan of many Unreal Engine 1 and 2 games, so traditionally I’d take it as a given that movement Just Works; it’s something you’re supposed to get For Free from the engine. Not so, apparently! Pariah‘s jumping is insanely floaty. Your walking pace is middling enough to be annoying but not so slow you ever need the sprint key. There is a litany of simple little problems that it never quite gets over (probably because there’s an invisible collider above them even though they look jumpable).
But I’m a game designer, so to me it’s as important to explore the duds as often as we get to wallow in the timeless classics. Let’s keep going!
There is a storyline. The manual paints a picture of a suitably edgy future where Earth is a wreck and is mainly dominated by huge prisons, with marauding bandits in all the badlands in between. Don’t worry, though, it’s mostly irrelevant. You are assigned to transport a cryogenically frozen woman who has a mysterious disease, you get shot down, she wakes up, and then you have to chase her about. Don’t worry, it’s not a Daikatana-style escort-quest-a-thon; barely a hundred words are exchanged across the whole 5-7 hours of the campaign and she seems to exist only to lead you into the next level.
“Find Karina” it’ll say, after she’s flip-flopped from trusting you back to not trusting you, and then sort of point you at a random building. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be a pretty enough Unreal Engine 2 industrial hellscape, but the cinematics are so terse there’s no sense of continuity or flow between narritive beats; stuff just sort of happens. Just when you think you’re about to get some much-needed exposition, it’ll fade to white and start the level.
Shooting is another thing you’d like to take for granted, given the pedigree here, but the weapons are a very generic bag. A machine-gun. A grenade launcher. A shotgun. A sniper rifle. A rocket launcher. The burst-fire plasma assault rifle is about as flashy as it gets (until the final level’s laser-nuke gun).
Now those can be done well, we’ve all seen how UT‘s Pulse Rifle makes a machine gun utterly delicious (more exciting than the actual minigun, no less), but… well… the shotgun is about the most satisfying weapon in the roster, and this is coming from a man who doesn’t usually like shotguns!
There is something faintly novel in the weapon upgrade system, at least.
Scattered about in many secret places (well, in air vents and behind crates, “secret” is maybe a tad generous) are generic upgrades that can be applied to guns to give them some new capability. Every gun has three levels of upgrade and each costs more, so you can get something simple for one, something good for two, then the final level costs three; since you get to choose where to spend your upgrades, you can sink all your money into the weapons you actually use and ignore the rocket launcher.
I did not find enough upgrades over the course of the campaign to max out the whole arsenal, but I did spot some in places I never managed to reach so maybe there are just enough if you search harder. Anyway, this upgrade system allows the game to give you access to the full weapon roster rather early, while still leaving room for further RPG-lite progress, so it’s a nice touch… in theory.
I say “in theory” because, yep, the upgrades are not particularly worth it.
While the machine gun just gets reduced recoil and more damage (snore), other weapons get some strange trick-shot mechanics. The shotgun starts leaving shells embedded in walls if you miss, and then the next time you hit somebody these get magnetised in from all angles. Kinda cute but also a bit too convoluted to be meaningful. I think you can use this to shoot people in the back and the front at the same time?
These novelties are also let down by the lack of alt-fire, of all things. Every weapon’s right-click is cut-price iron sights, a pointlessly miniscule zoom with the faintest tightening of the massive crosshair (except the sniper rifle of course, which has a proper scope but no variable zoom). This means that the new firing modes have to make do with the single fire trigger.
For example, the Grenade Launcher, once upgraded, will not let you launch more grenades until you have triggered remote detonation of the one projectile currently in flight; the remote detonation trigger replaces the ability to launch another grenade. Why can’t I carpet the place and then set them all off at once with alt-fire? It’s not like anyone has ever wanted a scope on a fucking grenade launcher… have they?!
Even worse, however, is the plasma rifle. While the normal attack is a click for a burst of three bolts, upgrades unlock the ability to shoot a big bolt that lasers everything it flies past (a very weak-sauce version of Quake II‘s BFG10K superweapon). In order to get that, you have to press the fire button to let off one normal burst and then hold it until the bonus ball charges up. It’s every bit as awkward as it sounds and I didn’t even realise how to trigger it until I checked the manual, after wondering where my upgrade point had actually gone.
There are destructible buildings, though! A few explosives round the supports of a watchtower will send it crashing to the ground in glorious Havok-powered chunks, destroying the invulnerable turret that was at the top and any hapless enemies standing around or below. If somebody hides behind a metal panel it’s also probably worth shooting them anyway, in case that panel comes off.
… but, yes, this also comes with a downside. It’s very easy to get stuck on these chunks of debris as they scatter across the path (those enemies with riot shields are a particular menace as they’re almost guaranteed to drop them right in your tottering way).
Flying chunks are also a hazard to your health, with an errant touch killing you instantly. Did I mention it’s only got checkpoint saves and the checkpoints are just a little bit too sparse for comfort?
I want to say that Pariah is a solid 7/10 shooter but, I’m sorry, it’s actually just Not Very Good. It feels utterly undercooked; the plot is sparse and the twists range from weird to unnecessary; the levels are sparse or repetitive; the weapons are boring or convoluted; the enemies are boring; the vehicles are obtuse to steer and have useless weapons; the two major boss fights have weirdly obscure defeat mechanics…
The only sparks of light, like the weapon upgrade system, are quickly doused by wonky mechanics all around. There really is little of value here — on a charitable day I’d say it’s Fine, but in all honestly it’s stunningly mediocre.
Ah well, it’s only about five minutes long so nothing ventured and all that. At least it gave the new GeForce 6800 a good work-out!