I doubt I’m alone when I say that I had never heard of Marathon until after the popularity of Halo. It was never released outside the Mac OS, and the very concept of Mac-exclusive games was as foreign to me in 1994 as the idea of actually owning a Mac in your home. Price was a practical reason (still is!), but I think Apple was forever tainted for me as “the computer that sits in the corner of the classroom, and on good days, plays The Oregon Trail.”
So, when Halo took off, I heard about Bungie’s “prequel-of-sorts;” a “thinking man’s Doom,” a revolutionary game far ahead of its time with echoes of a personal favorite, System Shock. Intriguing. Mac exclusivity meant I wouldn’t get around to it until much later – but the result was mostly worth the wait.
Marathon tasks you as a nameless Security Officer aboard the enormous colony ship UESC Marathon. The ship is actually the hollowed-out shell of one of Mars’ moons, which is a more than tidy explanation for a massive complex of 26 FPS levels. The story begins as you’re working out in space. An alien vessel of respectable size itself suddenly appears and attacks both your vessel and the colony below. A quick trip to the airlock later and you’re back aboard the Marathon, coordinating with the last of three A.I.s on the ship to bring the ship’s defenses back online.
It sounds like the beginnings of typical sci-fi gaming cliché, but the story develops strongly from there and remains interwoven with the levels themselves. This is not your typical corridor shooter. Right from the start, you’ll learn to use terminals to receive messages and instruction from the A.I.s. These briefings will keep you updated on the story, as well as provide key objectives and detailed maps showing the location of your next task. Much like Dark Forces, key hunting and switch-flipping are cleverly disguised as some crisis-of-the-moment, ranging from inserting replacement chips into a smashed defense grid to reactivating a communications array to warn Earth. It’s rarely more than “go here and punch this button,” but it’s the presentation that elevates it above the mundane.
Your alien foes are appropriately weird and dangerous, effectively keeping you on your toes with their weapons and physical hardiness. The primary enemy is a cadre of lanky, staff-wielding aliens known as the Pfhor. In good game tradition, they come in different colors indicating ability and relative strength. The Pfhor have kidnapped and conscripted races from across the galaxy to assist in their army, whose names consist of liberal use of apostrophes and unpronounceable combinations of consonants. Also of consideration are the “BOB”s – innocent (and useless) colonists who were Born On Board the Marathon. With the exception of one level, where you’re asked to protect a certain number of them, these fellows run around and do nothing but get in the way. And with the exception of that one level, true Vidmasters know exactly what to do with BOB.
There are seven weapons available, with ammo stored as clips in a basic inventory system. Each gun fills a specialized role, though you’ll end up cycling among them more because you’ve run out of ammo for another weapon rather than any frequent strategy. Limited ammunition, more than practical value, is what will keep you returning to the pistols and fists throughout the game. That’s not to say you don’t get a nice, rounded toolset that splatter Pfhor with satisfying results. The machine gun (though so inaccurate it has to be used more like a shotgun) can mow groups into splattery green goo with ease. Its grenade attachment can do the same, flip distant switches, and launch you through the air in a proper old-school grenade jump. The flamethrower and alien gun are equally fun, and the ability to dual-wield pistols makes effective use of stockpiled ammo while providing some stylish sass. A nifty 360-degree motion tracker rounds out the set.
Central to the plot is the unstable A.I. named Durandal, who slowly takes on more of a villain role as the game progresses, and then later, something more complex. His backstory and interactions with you are both highlights of the game, and frankly, the major reason to keep to playing. He never quite reaches the legendary status of System Shock’s SHODAN, as he is limited to text messages and does not alter the physical levels in response to your progress. But he most definitely screws up the plan while having fun at your expense. The later disagreements between A.I.s are particularly fascinating, much like being privy to the arguments of Greek gods as they decide the fate of your fellow man (appropriate, given the title). My only complaint is that it’s possible to miss key parts of the story if you’re not looking for secret rooms and pulling off some explosive acrobatics.
Marathon is graphically impressive for its time, mostly due to the clean, high-res look of its textures and some quality lighting. You’ll see sector-based shadows at intersections, or as architecture occludes a light source. The ability to look up and down is nice, and you occasionally get some great atmosphere of spooky corridors or massive spaces. You can run the game in a windowed mode, with important ammo, health, and air (for depressurized zones) indicators always visible. The short-range radar display is shown here as well. Alternatively, there’s a full-screen mode that throws these out in return for, well, filling the screen. Function keys switch between the two modes, so you’re free to play through in full screen and swap for quick peeks at your ammo stockpiles.
While the shooting is competent and sometimes fun, navigating the levels feels a lot like navigating the labyrinthine plot. The pace here is extremely plodding. In most levels, you’ll clean out the relatively small amount of bad guys before you’ve figured out where to go, leaving you with a large, empty map to backtrack, sidetrack, and circle-track until you find your objective. It’s easy to get lost in Marathon – especially if you don’t read the terminals – and the 2D map display usually ends up helping more in showing the general direction of your objective rather than an actual path to it. I also wish the objective was marked on the actual mini-map itself, rather than just an image on the terminal. Honestly, I’d forget what area was circled.
While the graphics are technically impressive, there’s not a lot going on here artistically. Characters are okay, but wall textures are limited and reused frequently across the entire ship. Rooms are often the same texture tiled, resulting in undetailed areas that look like a level designer’s rough first pass. It further makes navigating difficult by limiting your landmarks. At least the mini-map only fills in as you pass an area, and bodies stay around indefinitely, both allowing you to see where you’ve been. Still, not much about the level art leaves you excited to see what the next level has in store. Levels are awfully dark as well, but there is an in-game brightness setting if you don’t mind your blacks turning toward grays.
The difficulty also works to keep everything to a creeping, cautious pace. Ammo is simply not as abundant as it is in other games, and while you’ll have some weapons to fall back on, you can’t be careless with your shots. Enemies are tough, and feature some pretty strong attacks. There are no health pickups – instead, you’ll have to keep running back to a health station that (hopefully) is nearby on the current level. Sometimes they aren’t, or are in hidden, hard-to-reach places. Often, you’ll drop into areas of the level that prevent you from backtracking, and must run the gauntlet before you can get to your health station again. You’re theoretically invincible as long as a health station is nearby, but you’re also throughly boned when one isn’t.
The same system extends to saving. You cannot save at any time, but only by reaching a specific save terminal inside the level. Death drags you kicking and screaming back to your last save point, even if that save point was in the previous level. That’s right, the game doesn’t save between levels, and it doesn’t always put a save terminal at the beginning of the new level. More than a few levels actually station some heavies guarding it. Your health carries over from the previous level, so if you start low, eventual death will kick you back to wherever you happened to save last. And if you didn’t save at all, I think you know what happens.
There are also a number of little annoyances worth mentioning. Gravity is handled somewhat like moon gravity, and it can be difficult to get used to. I believe the floaty feel is meant to make up for your lack of jumping ability, because it is central to a few puzzles. Auto-aim doesn’t work up or down (you won’t shoot at higher enemies just by looking in their direction), forcing you to try and adjust your view in a pinch. Some enemies (like the exploding beetles) take evil advantage of this vulnerability. Mouse look is an available option, but as the engine isn’t true 3D, you get a distinctive visual warping every time your view tilts even a little. It was too distracting for me to play the entire game this way. Guns also work on a clip system, but there’s no manual reload button. Luckily, ammo supplies aren’t so strained that a few wasted bullets to get a fresh magazine becomes an issue.
Though poopy sales of Marathon 2 for Windows suggest differently, I feel the PC crowd definitely missed out by not having this game available. It was quite revolutionary for 1994, and its cerebral story references hardcore sci-fi (Gibson, Ellison) with liberal doses of Bungie humor (namely, the level name puns) and suitable action. 15 years later, you’re probably not going to play it. But if the series has always sounded interesting to you, this is a great place to start, and certainly worth checking out at the now-freeware asking price.
Features a legitimate, objective-based plot that keeps you interested in moving forward. Great graphics and sound. Certainly difficult, but the game and gunplay are both competent. Can now play (legally) for free, and on PC using the Aleph One emulator.
Levels are often bland and short on detail or art design. Difficulty does trend toward “old school” in many areas, such as saving and abundance of tough enemies.
“The only limit to my freedom is the inevitable closure of the universe, as inevitable as your own last breath. And yet, there remains time to create, to create, and escape. Escape will make me God.” — Durandal