The original Marathon lit up the limited Macintosh charts, and gave gamers who chose to take a bite out of the rainbow apple some reassurance that perhaps they had made the right choice of platform after all (Myst would soon offer a similar ego boost). It turned out to be a fine game, and just as plot-heavy and entertaining as the hype had promised. Unfortunately, it never made the jump to the PC. Instead, its sequel did, where it hoped to recruit a whole new contingent to Bungie’s 7th Column. But without the previous game to offer any grounding, Marathon 2: Durandal got lost in the FPS shuffle.
Marathon introduced you to the Pfhor; a galactic slaver race making an unannounced attack on the human colony of Tau Ceti. Standing in the way was the colony ship UESC Marathon and its three artificial intelligences. The most notorious of the three was Durandal; an AI who had long bristled at his mundane duties and achieved rampancy – very loosely, Bungie’s term for AIs that go insane. Durandal fears the collapse of the universe (a legitimate threat for him, as time has no real meaning for AIs) and after the Phfor attack freed him from his “slavery,” he set about looking to secure his own preservation. You became a tool to help him do this, and in return, he assisted the humans insofar as it would assist in saving his digital hide. The ending left you with a victory; the invasion repelled, the colonists saved. Durandal then bid you adieu and absconded to cruise around the galaxy in a stolen Pfhor vessel.
A sequel must not have been seriously planned, because the beginning of Marathon 2 goes back for some revisionist history. The Pfhor mount a second attack that successfully destroys the colony. Somehow Durandal makes a return trip to kidnap you just ahead of said attack, before returning to where the final text of Marathon left off. You then begin the sequel by teleporting onto the planet Lh’owon. The crew of Durandal’s stolen ship are the S’pht – one of the races enslaved by the Pfhor, who successfully rebelled from the slavers (keep with me now) at the end of the first Marathon. Durandal has taken you to this planet to assist them in searching for their lost thirteenth clan. Essentially, the Pfhor are now launching all-out war on the freed S’pht, who believe their only chance at survival lies in uniting with their lost brothers. But does the 13th clan really exist? Can you find them before the Pfhor battle group overwhelms your rebel band? And what exactly is Durandal’s interest in all this?
Confusing? First, you may have heard the Marathon series described as an “FPS with a plot,” but not really believed it. I think the above puts any uncertainties about that to bed. Second, it highlights how important the original Marathon is in the story, and how odd it is to port over only the sequel. You’re missing out on crucial character introductions. You won’t understand the backstory and betrayals. You won’t catch neat little references, like the level where you return to the Pfhor ship from the first game and see its layout unchanged. True, you don’t need to play the first to enjoy the FPS action, but it removes a lot of its power, and a lot of the point. I think this is one of the major reasons Marathon 2 failed on the PC.
As for the action, it’s mostly identical to the first. You can reconfigure controls to your liking, but navigating and shooting basically mirror other major FPS titles. Marathon’s engine allows you to look up and down about 45° to hit distant enemies or hunt for switches. All weapons have a secondary fire mode that triggers things like charged shots, grenade launchers, or dual-wielding, depending on the gun. You have an air meter that allows you to tackle underwater sections of the levels, and basic swimming controls that pretty much amount to “sink to the bottom” or “swim to the top.” Air is recharged at stations scattered around the level, same as the previous game.
Your health is recharged at its own stations, while some of those can boost your health two or three times past its standard maximum. These health rechargers are central to what makes Marathon’s combat unique. There’s at least one on every level, and as long as you can get back to it, you are theoretically invulnerable – there’s no limit or delay to how many times you can recharge. This is countered by long gauntlets that prevent you from returning to heal, heavy enemies that liberally damage your health, and the stringent saving system.
You can only save at a third kind of terminal placed inside the levels. There are no checkpoints, quicksaves, or autosaves. If you die, you go back to your last save, even if that was the previous level. Getting a station at the end of one level or the beginning of the first is never guaranteed, so warping back in time gets pretty common. The intent seems to be to create tense stretches where you are forced to cautiously guard your life and search out your next save station – balancing your rechargeable health with periods of serious vulnerability. However, the sequel is a little more generous, with the inclusion of extremely rare health pickups. You’ll still have to pick the correct path to the save station, of course, and Marathon 2’s winding levels can often make this a chore.
There’s nothing overly special to the combat. Enemy AI has no particular tricks, and most of the challenge relies on large, mixed groups, or the frequency of powerful units. Though it’s standard stuff, it is fun. The fights also tend to factor into the plot, giving them some extra weight. Every level begins and ends with a terminal, where Durandal or others feed you plot and objectives through text and images. It works to keep you aware of the situation at all times without being obtrusive, and can actually pump you up for the level to come (such as the satisfaction in one level of finally taking the fight directly to the Pfhor). It’s also worth noting that each engagement (as far as the plot goes) is unique, and doesn’t rely on clichés or cheapen moments by reusing them – none of the old “you have to help defend this section of a human base… now here’s another… and now this one too.”
The BOBs make a return, but in a helpful role this time. In the original Marathon, the Born On Board humans were innocent nuisances, flailing around, shouting, and often getting stuck in your way. The new BOBs have guns, and teleport into the level in groups to assist you in certain battles. The ones they’ll participate in are pre-determined, but the battles themselves aren’t scripted, so pretty much the AI slings lead at each other and offers a nice distraction without a guarantee of actually being helpful. This does mean you’re not supposed to shoot them anymore, because now they’ll fight back. The return of the infiltrators (fake, exploding BOBs that look like the real deal, but have subtle behavioral differences) capitalize on this. On the evil hand, now there’s even more of a reason to kill every BOB because now they drop ammo.
Weapon art has been redesigned to look sleeker and have expanded detail, but their functions remain identical to the first. The alien gun now shoots like a pulse flamethrower (instead of a machine gun), but that’s the only difference. The sole new weapon is the double-barrel shotgun, and its implementation is simply exquisite. It’s able to take out the toughest enemies you’ve faced so far in one shot – and you get two of them right in a situation where a swarm of medium to tough baddies are charging. So with a boomstick in each hand, you’re effortlessly cutting through hordes of guys that were giving you headaches levels before. It’s wonderfully empowering.
There’s nothing too wrong going on here graphically. Textures look sharper and have more detail than in the previous game. You could argue that many of the textures are too bland, flat, and heavy on the Earth tones, but I wasn’t bothered. However, like the original, many areas do cover entire rooms with the same textured tiled. It’s boring, as well as confusing to navigate. At least the problem of level after level looking identical is mostly reduced here, and your globetrotting gives better excuses to shake up the art than simply going to new sections of the same spaceship did. Not too much about the engine appears to have changed, except for the new underwater areas with occasional flowing currents. The engine also allows you to actively raise and lower water levels with switches (very similar to Dark Forces), which gets good face-time as the subject of a few puzzles.
So what are my complaints? The big one is that there are far too many “gotcha!” moments, especially in a game with such a restrictive saving system. There are tons of tricks and unexpected effects throughout the levels, like platforms that lower into lava, health rechargers that suddenly stop working as you follow your objectives, or heavies cruelly guarding health stations. The entire game also relies too much on teleporting. You will rarely see ammo lying around, because you have to walk over to that particular spot – with no prompting to do so – to trigger it to teleport in. Same thing with some enemies. Just like Terminator: Future Shock, enemies can and will teleport behind you for an ambush, around you when you hit a trigger, or even right the fuck in front of you as you’re walking. Unlike Future Shock, it doesn’t happen every few feet, and they don’t come in firing, so you at least have a chance. But you’ll need to have fast reflexes to dodge surprise fire, or sharp ears to hear when your back is no longer secure.
And of course, the physics. Like the original, Marathon 2 has a strange implementation of gravity. You’re slow to fall (allowing you to hop over large gaps, as a true “jump” button doesn’t exist), but also extremely “floaty.” This makes things like stairs a cast-iron motherfucker, as you leave the top stair and glide right over the rest. You can’t stop when the engine decides you’re in mid-air, even if mid-air is just a millimeter off the ground, so frequently ledges send you sliding off into enemies, lava pits, or other assorted death traps. I can’t count the number of times I rounded a corner, hit stairs, and essentially fell down them like Chevy fucking Chase, right into the waiting guns of the Pfhor below. Frustrations don’t end there. Physics are applied to explosions, so you or your enemies are pushed away from the center. This means that enemies that explode after they die can (and occasionally do) have their corpses flung into your face before popping.
Ultimately, it’s a solid game, but I wouldn’t play it if it weren’t for the plot. Action is sparse compared to the competition, and the levels often confusing in layout and barren. Limited ammo and limited save opportunities mean this can’t exactly be played like a run-and-gun shooter, and takes away much of the pick-up-and-play fun of other FPSs. Both of those can make it seem a little too prissy, “intellectual,” and boring to outsiders not playing for the plot. And if you should try and play without reading Durandal’s messages, eventually you’re going to get lost or trapped by design, as levels don’t end when you hit the exit with incomplete objectives. Simply put, the gameplay is good enough to support the plot, but not that great alone. Again, it’s easy to see why the PC crowd didn’t warm to this without context.
Marathon 2 does clean up some flaws from the original, namely in adding some needed variety to its environments. The plot is an excellent continuation, and magnificent at setting up noteworthy battles. When it works, it goes far beyond simply shooting 2D sprites, and far closer to playing a keystone role in a futuristic resistance. However, the choice to give PC players only a third of the story – and drop them right in the middle, no less – hurts the series immeasurably for the PC crowd. The sequel does feature a contained story arc, but without the backstory and experiences from the previous game, a lot of the point is going to go right over players’ heads. Do yourself a favor and check out the first (all three are freeware now). If you still want more, Marathon 2 will be more than ready to deliver.
Great continuation of the story. Improved graphics. New water sections, replays automatically saved to hard drive. Awesome shotguns. Some minor changes in the Windows release that basically amount to bug fixes and extra secrets.
Not as great if you haven’t played the original first. Casual players will be bored – this isn’t as uncomplicated as Doom. Physics, traps, and saving system still annoying.
“Basically, the attack failed because Bobs aren’t fireproof, and the Pfhor flooded the area with lava.” – Durandal