When I first heard about Pariah, I was excited that Digital Extremes, one of the developers of the incredible Unreal Tournament series, was trying their hand at a more story-driven serious FPS. Science Fiction is the shooter flavor of choice for me, and Pariah looked like it was right up my alley.

You play as Doctor Jack Mason, escorting a strange woman in a stasis tube on a transport ship flying over the ‘wastes’ of the Pacific Northwest (enemy territory). Naturally, your ship gets shot down, and the woman escapes, but not before she infects you with some bio-warfare disease she’s apparently a carrier of. Time to shoot your way through enemy territory and nab the girl, before whatever she infected you with starts affecting you.

Ok, so the set-up has potential, but is the game any good? Read on….

To be fair, Pariah does pretty good with the aging Unreal engine and at first blush it looks pretty, but this late in the life cycle of the Xbox- especially in the shooter genre- I would hope to see better. All of the enemies pretty much have the same bland look and explosions just aren’t explosive enough. For the most part there are two types of environments- inside and outside, which is fortunate because if there was only one of those types I would have had trouble figuring out if I was progressing through the game. The outdoor settings are pleasant enough, but textures get very repetitive, and combined with the mediocre level design (more on that later) I sometimes found myself back where I had started without even realizing it. Indoor levels are of the stock industrial complex variety.

When you actually get close up to a character that isn’t fodder for your weaponry, things actually start to look good. Outdoor lighting effects are exceptional, too, but given that the framerate took a significant nosedive during some heated outdoor battles and became more pronounced as the bloom effect came on screen, I would have toned them down a bit to preserve gameplay. Another big plus is the destructible environments, though it did seem a tad selective with this feature, taking away some of the immersion factor.

The only thing you can really say about the audio in Pariah is that it gets the job done, which is to say that it doesn’t really distinguish itself in any way nor is it noticeably bad. Well, except for one area that is- weapons. The main machinegun type weapon sounds so wimpy, it’s like it inhaled a balloon full of helium. In fact, none of the weapons sound particularly like real weapons, and the one thing I really want in a shooter is to feel a visceral satisfaction while shooting, sound is crucial.

Voice talent does what it can with the sparse story without adding much to the characters, and the music barely seems like it is there at all (but get used to the sound of bongo drums!).

The control scheme stick to the standard Halo configuration, which is good because you can easily just pick up the controller and play. The addition of a dash feature is nice, and I found myself using it several times to get behind/under cover from enemy fire. All similarity to Halo is lost, however, once you step into any of the vehicles. Between the spastic jerkings of the Bogie and the sluggish meandering of the Dozer, the relatively few vehicle related levels left me frustrated and eager to see them over with, which is unfortunate as it really was the only real attempt at lending some variety to the gameplay.

From the getgo it’s obvious that Pariah was designed to reel in those Halo-junkies who are looking to kill some time between Bungie’s map releases. It’s as if they said ‘hey, let’s remake Halo but instead of a helmet you can actually see the guy’s face, instead of a bioengineered soldier he’s a medic, and instead of aliens he’s fighting other humans!”. If it actually played like Halo a bit more, it might’ve been fun. Instead, it’s just tedious.

Shooters these days generally place emphasis on either story or action, and Pariah supposedly aspires to both. Of course when your story sets up your character as a medic and the majority of your time is spent as a one-man army singlehandedly taking down hordes of faceless grunts it becomes fairly obvious that characterization just isn’t a high priority. Ok, sure, medics undoubtedly have some kind of combat training, I’m sure, but it would have been nice to see Mason actually exhibit some kind of doctorly skills or attitudes. What little plot there is is further confused by a handful of poorly written cutscenes and most level objectives are basically to get to the next level with no frame of reference as to how your actions tie into the actual story. Also, level design gets more than a little repetitive, which is further augmented by the feeling that you may have actually played a level just like this in another game.

Who needs a good story if you’ve got good action, right? There IS good action, right? Sigh. Sadly, Digital Extremes dropped the ball in this area as well. If you aren’t trudging through a level that looks uncannily similar to a level you passed through earlier, shooting up the same helmeted goons you’ve been shooting up all night, you’re crossing your fingers that the vehicle level that you’re on is almost over with so you can get back to tedium that you actually have some control over. Even something as basic as weapon reloading feels like a chore, as not only do you reload, but you switch out clips, too, putting you in a bad situation more often than not by forcing a reload/ reclip during crucial moments in battle. Of course, if the weapons actually packed a punch this wouldn’t be much of an issue. It seems a little unbalanced if a basic enemy grunt requires a clip and a half or more to kill, especially considering that your ammo will run out and the whole reloading scheme. The energy knife is tiny and inconvenient to equip, not that you would use it anyways as enemies rarely come close enough to use it. The health gadget for some reason is included in the rotation with the weapons, and charging it up and using it is fairly awkward and time consuming. Oddly enough, the only weapon that seem to do any good was the grenade launcher, which unfortunately has a low ammo capacity preventing it from becoming the default weapon of choice. I was hoping that the weapon upgrades found scattered throughout the levels would address some of this, but ultimately it was too little, too late.

Enemy AI is very spotty, sometimes very shrewd and capable of pinning you down with suppressive fire while another baddie sneaks around for the ambush, and other times just downright retarded, either setting each other on fire with flamethrowers or jumping off a moving train. When they actually start shooting at you, they are very accurate, and it seems as if they have a higher grade of weapon than you do as they seem to use much less ammunition than you ever have to on them. Sure, as long as you don’t lose the whole bar on your health gauge it will automatically fill up again after a little while (insert Halo regeneration sound effect here), but you don’t really have time to sit there in the middle of battle with your healing doohicky for several seconds if things get even slightly intense.

The really sad thing about all this is that Pariah actually has some really nice features for multiplayer and map creation. Fully equipped with 2-player splitscreen co-op (the second player can play through the campaign with you), a variety of game types for player vs. player, full Live support, the ability to make maps and share them online (a feature that would have been nice to see in Halo 2). All of this would be great…. if the game were actually fun to play. As it is, the very robust map-editor is a first for the Xbox, and map-makers should have a blast with it. Good like finding people to play your maps, though…