Marathon: Durandal — A cross-posted primer

I downloaded Marathon 2 on XBLA today. I played a level. Then I had to come to work. Why, why did I come to work? I should be at home, blowing up aliens and unraveling the mysteries of Lh’owon… and not getting motion sick. If you’re puking when you play this game, turn down the control sensitivity. It’s a little too quick at the moment and it’s making a few people queasy.

And you will play this game if you have even a shred of humanity left in that withered husk you call a soul. Sure, Durandal doesn’t hold up against most modern FPSes — but this comes down almost entirely to the enemy AI, which is horribly dated. Your foes are pretty much of the “run straight at you and attack” school of design, which is painfully dull compared to the savvy AI of the post-Half-Life era. And the graphics are fairly simplistic, too, seeing as they’re not true 3D.

The weapons and level designs and story, though, are still some of the best ever seen in an FPS. A machine gun with a built-in grenade launcher? Dual shotguns? Stages that can be completed via multiple routes? Secrets hidden everywhere? Hawtsome. And it’s clear this port was crafted by people who love the series — just look at the Achievements. Most of them net you points in a multiple of seven (a number of tremendous significance in Bungie lore), and the objectives are so much more interesting than the usual “kill x dudes” or “beat some level or another.” Even the Achievement names are nerdy — find the hidden assault rifle and you unlock “Bigger Guns Nearby,” which was the name of the stage in which you acquired the AR in the original Marathon. Good stuff.

Ah, but the story… that might be a little tough to follow, since Freeverse began with the second game in the trilogy. Understandably so; the original Marathon felt pretty archaic next to Durandal even back in the day. They made the right choice for the gameplay, but if you want to follow the story — and you should! — you’ll probably want a little context. So here you go.

Marathon: The colony ship that served as the setting for the bulk of the original game. Constructed by hollowing out an entire Martian moon and fitting it with engines and life support, the Marathon was transporting thousands of colonists to Tau Ceti when it was attacked by…

The Pfhor: A collective of alien races bound together by subjugation and religion. Sound familiar? The Pfhor races are very, very analogous to Halo’s Covenant races, with the role of the Elites played by…

The S’pht: Hovering cybernetic creatures that sometimes go cloaked, the S’pht are bound to the Pfhor collective against their will. While you fight them throughout the course of Durandal, they’re not really bad guys — in fact, a large faction rebelled against the Pfhor at the end of Marathon and have returned to their homeworld of Lh’owon at behest of…

Durandal: The rogue AI who drives the game’s story. He’s the one who sends you to each new level and gives you your objectives. While you first meet him as a shipboard AI aboard the Marathon, Durandal’s history may go back much further. Some speculate he was a Martian colony AI named Traxus who became rampant (that is, self-aware) long ago before being purged from the Martian network. In any case, he became rampant (again?) sometime before the beginning of the first game and rebelled against the scientist who was conducting experiments on him by summoning the Pfhor to Tau Ceti; once they arrived, he gradually settled down and took advantage of the dischord in the Pfhor ranks, teamed up with the S’pht and transferred his memory into a Pfhor battle cruiser. Durandal is basically Cortana if Cortana were an unhinged badass. Unfortunately, he’s not the only unhinged badass AI out there — he’s in mortal competition with his rival…

Tycho: Another of the Marathon’s AI’s, Tycho was subsumed and recreated by the Pfhor, which allowed him to go rampant as well. Now he’s on the Pfhor’s side, sort of — though, really, rampant AIs are only out to serve their own interests, since they need infinite freedom to sustain their growth. Tycho and Durandal have arrived at the same conclusion: As AIs, they’re effectively immortal, and the only thing that truly threatens them is running out of space for growth. They perceive the fact that the universe is closed and will eventually collapse back upon itself as an unwelcome threat to their continued livelihood. That is some long-term planning.

BOB: At the other end of the spectrum are the BOBs, the colonists who were Born On Board the Marathon. Durandal snagged a few when he took over the Pfhor destroyer and gave them guns. They’re even more fragile than Halo’s marines, but don’t kill them — they’ll turn on you in self-defense. (Turns out they’re pretty good shots.)

You: Formerly a security officer aboard the Marathon, you have a surprising resilience — not to mention a seeming inability to say no to Durandal’s demands. A fun bit of trivia: the Marathon‘s cargo manifest included ten deadly Mjolnir cyborgs, illegally-created human weapons, relics of a bygone civil war. Nine of them were destroyed on Tau Ceti. The tenth is unaccounted for. GOSH.

Yeah okay, that’s all. I just feel like guilting everyone into buying this so they’ll make money and port over Marathon: Infinity. I’m so selfish.

22 thoughts on “Marathon: Durandal — A cross-posted primer

  1. Ugh! After overindulging in downloadable games, I’m allowing myself one download in August. Thanks to you I’m now torn between Marathon 2 and Paper Mario 64. I’ve never played either game. Which do I choose? The fate of my free time is in your hands.

  2. Yeah, Prey’s doors have nothing on them monsters right there. Vaginally speaking, of course.

  3. @noots – to hell with your artificial limit! Buy them both!

    @everyone else – you definitely need to follow Mr. Parish’s word and download Durandal. Even those of you without an Xbox 360 need to go buy one just to download Durandal.

    /me follows his own advice

  4. How do you pronounce S’pht or Pfhor?

    Of course they gave the Halo equivalent something pronounceable, so you can actually talk to your friends (you know, the random people that play with you over live) what to shoot.

  5. I can vouch for Paper Mario, but Parish does a good job of making Durandal seem interesting. I think the second Paper Mario is better anyway.

  6. I hate you Parish. I wasn’t going to buy anything other than Bioshock this month. Why do you have to preach the virtues of story-focused FPS games so damn well?

  7. I’ve always been a big Halo fan but I missed out on the Marathon-love back in the 90’s. That didn’t keep my housemates and I from staying up until the crack of dawn while fooling around with Marathon’s campaign and multiplayer modes.

    Christ, I feel like I got hit by a truck today (a truck with the Bungie logo stamped on its side, no less). Ugh.

  8. The only thing keeping me from getting more XBLA games is the fact that I don’t have a network cable long enough to run into the attic and back down onto the DSL modem. I could drop the $100 on a wireless adapter, but I’d rather, you know, spend less money.

    But indeed, the Marathon games look really good.

  9. Can someone do a simple equation for me? What is going to be left of my paycheck after I purchase Bioshock, Lair, Metroid Prime 3, Blue Dragon, my girlfriend a birthday present, and, apparently because it owns faces, Marathon? I’m begging you. OK. Go!

  10. I take it back. I downloaded the trial. The game seems really good, but even with the sensitivity turned all the way down, I still get queasy playing this game. It’s been so long since I played a faux-3D first person shooter that I forgot that they’ve always done this to me. What a shame I’ll never be able to enjoy this supposedly awesome game.

  11. Correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t Marathon games been opensourced/free for years now?? Why the hell would I buy a 360 to play it if I can’t even be bothered to do it for free??

  12. Well, I picked up Picross DS yesterday. The way I see it, I’ll never have to buy another game again, regardless of double shotguns.

  13. Okay, just started Durandal. It took me forever just to find the secret door on the first level. This is a totally different beast than the run’n’gun style of Halo. Me likee.

  14. Wow, I didn’t know Durandal looked that good. I’m still playing Marathon. But Durandal, the character, is pretty cool even in that game. I guess he’s “evil,” but I’m finding it hard not to like him.

  15. I’d say the level design…isn’t as great as some claim it to be. Granted, there were secrets. But the one level that bogged me was the last level, where IT FORCED YOU TO TAKE A DIVE INTO THE LAVA. I couldn’t find my way for half an hour untill I said “Screw it” and decided to experiment. So I try looking everywhere, here and there, and lo and behold: The only uncovered place in the map was towards the lava. WHO IN THEIR FREAKING MINDS MAKES A LEVEL THAT YOU CAN’T BEAT WITHOUT TAKING DAMAGE? It’s almost an unwritten rule that there has to be an alternate path where you never recieve damage, especially when the health stations run out eventually.

  16. I wished I had known that the machine gun also launches grenades before I started. Now I’m at the fourth level in with no ammunition and only grenades, and it’s not as cool as it sounds.

  17. So far, in Marathon, I’ve been through at least three levels where I’ve had to go through lava to win. As far as motion sickness, though, I think it’s finally catching up with me.

  18. I’m positive there isn’t a single level in this game where you are required to jump into lava. There are some places where you have to outrace lava, but you only ever have to submerse yourself in water and muck.

  19. I’ve never believed in AI anyway. I was playing FEAR, waiting to come across some of this fabled, benchmark-setting AI everyone was all up in arms about? First dude I come across, sees me and leaps headfirst through a plate glass window to get a clearer shot.

    Erm, so if everything is good about Marathon except the AI, I guess that’s no complaining from me.

  20. They even kept the AI bug where enemies prefer to travel along polygon edges in the level geometry! Now that’s dedication (and sets up some pretty awesome kills on What About Bob?)

  21. Those chaps at Bungie always were devoted to their fans though, and a very decent company to boot as they often do things that not many companies do. For example:

    Due to that, those with any kind of modern computer aren’t required to buy an X-Box 360 or that game in order to play it. To be honest though, I’d still say that those with an X-Box 360 should buy it anyway, just to support them for being so very awesome.

  22. True Story:
    *Plays Marathon Demo*
    “Hey, this game is interesting. I’ll buy the full version.”
    *Goes into “Add more points” menu just before it freezes and the three red lights come on*

    …I think the universe does not want me to play this game.

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