Rarely a month goes by in which a new first-person shooter isn't released on the Xbox. The console is ripe with them. Every time a new one surfaces, there are plenty of benchmarks to measure it by. Unfortunately, in the sci-fi realm, that means the biggest comparison of them all. That hasn't stopped Digital Extremes, of Unreal and Unreal Tournament fame, from unleashing Pariah. I'm sure comparisons to Halo will be made, but how does the sci-fi first-person shooter stand on its own? Strap on your space boots, we're about to find out.
In Pariah, you take on the role of Dr. Jack Mason, temporarily transferred to hazardous materials transport after an apparent court martial on insubordination charges. You're tasked to escort a cryogenically sealed, virus-ridden woman named Karina to Earth, which in the year 2520 has become a vast wasteland, not to mention a poorly-managed prison. But it all goes wrong when your vessel is shot down, leaving Mason and Karina stranded in enemy territory. To make matters worse, the disease Karina is carrying winds up getting transferred to you shortly after the crash. What ensues is a game of cat and mouse as you attempt to track down the mysterious woman.
That's about all I can tell you regarding the story, and it's not because I want to avoid revealing spoilers. By the time the game reached its explosive conclusion, I was left confused, still searching for answers to questions from previous acts. Pariah never really explains itself. The cutscenes act more as a vehicle to get Mason from Point A to Point B. The poor plot development eventually negates an otherwise intriguing premise.
Pariah is your typical run-and-gun shooter. The game mixes indoor and outdoor levels nicely but the indoor environments are terribly generic. It's got that Flintstones effect happening. You know, as Fred runs through his house or down the street, the same backdrop keeps repeating itself. Luckily the outdoor levels outnumber the indoor ones. They're much more dramatic, including an exciting sequence in which Mason boards an enemy aircraft mid-flight. Pariah also mixes on-rail and vehicular sections to help break the monotony but unfortunately, these moments aren't executed all that well.
The enemy AI in Pariah is governed by two basic principles: rush or retreat. Half of the enemy soldiers will run head on to your position, leaving themselves susceptible to fire. The other half will fall back in search of cover. You can take those enemies out with your Sniper Rifle. It's really that simple. There's the occasional enemy soldier carrying a full body shield plodding towards you but a well placed grenade will take him and the rest of his squad out. So the lesson here is this: unless you have no other choice, long range combat is the way to go. That is, of course, until you reach an indoor level. These are a little more challenging since you can't avoid the close-quarters situations.
Pariah features your standard issue FPS weaponry. You've got your Assault Rifle, Grenade Launcher, Frag Rifle, Plasma Rifle, Sniper Rifle and Rocket Launcher. To kick things up a notch, each weapon has three upgradable levels. Upgrading a weapon requires a Weapon Energy Core (WEC). These are scattered throughout each level. There aren't enough WECs to max out all your weapons so you'll want to choose your upgrades carefully. For example, by upgrading the Assault Rifle, you'll increase the rate of fire, decrease recoil and inflict more damage with armor piercing rounds. Upgrading the Rocket Launcher will result in heat seeking technology, as well as the ability to fire dual or quad warheads. The best upgrade is arguably for the Grenade Launcher, which features a remote detonator to set off your grenade around unsuspecting enemies.
Rounding out the gear is the Bone Saw, a standard tool in any Field Medic's kit. Of course, you won't be using this item for medical purposes. Interestingly enough, you might not use this tool much at all. Mason has those magical pockets thats lets him carry every weapon in the game's arsenal, your only limitation is on ammunition, so you may only use the Bone Saw at the very beginning of the game, when the variety of weapons and ammunition is a little more scarce. The only non-combat item is the Healing Tool, which restores your character's health. This item is also upgradable, decreasing the healing time and increasing your maximum health bars.
Pariah is powered by Unreal Technology so visually, it's a solid if unspectacular looking game. The wide-open outdoor environments, despite their barren nature, look far
better than the futuristic indoor environments, which suffer from bland and repetitive textures. The character models, with the exception of Karina, are a little underwhelming as well. Pariah also features the Havok physics engine so be careful shooting explosive canisters, a lid just might catch you on the way down (happened to me twice, killing me in both instances). Unfortunately, Pariah suffers from an occasionally choppy frame rate, a few graphical glitches and long load times. I even managed to get stuck jumping between a couple of rocks. Problems such as these should have been ironed out prior to release.
Aurally, Pariah doesn't do much to distinguish itself. The weapons feel a little underpowered due in large part to the mediocre sound effects. The soundtrack kicks in at key moments in the game but nothing especially memorable in terms of music. Enemy troops often have a word or two to say and the voice-overs in the cutscenes are decent, but what's with the amount of vulgarity? I'm all for adding a little realism to the dialogue, but the angle is a little overplayed here.
When you're finished with the single-player campaign, which also supports a split-screen co-operative mode for a second player, you can jump on Xbox Live for some competitive gameplay. The usual array of modes are available, including deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag and siege. If you need some practice, you can populate the world with bots, though they aren't much more intelligent than their single-player counterparts. One of Pariah's strongest features is unquestionably the map editor. It allows you to create three map types: deathmatch, team deathmatch and siege. You can raise and flatten terrain, insert ramps, paint surfaces and place objects and vehicles in no time at all. And when you're done, you can jump online and trade the maps through Xbox Live.
I can see ambition in the eyes of Pariah, but the sci-fi shooter falls short of its mark and as a result, the gaming experience is average at best. The upgradeable weapons and map editor are solid gold features, but a confusing plot, uninspiring indoor environments, predictable AI and occasional visual quirks hinder its best intentions. There are just too many good shooters available on the Xbox to really recommend Pariah. If your curiosity is peaked, a rental should be the cure.