When I was a kid, back in the politically non-correct days when one could still secure a realistic looking plastic M-16A1 at Toys 'R Us, my days and nights revolved primarily around the simulated wars I and my fellow warriors waged for control of our respective backyards. I'd won more medals by the time I was ten than Generals Patton, Powell and Swartzkopff combined. A good many of them were, I'm afraid, posthumously awarded. For in our contests grisly, though painless and temporary, death occurred with alarming frequency as our invisible bullets and hand grenades found their marks. Inevitably there would arise questions over marksmanship. At such times the age-old cry, "I got you!" was followed by an equally passionate, "No, you didn't!" Generally that's when the real war would start.
Though I know there may be some out there who will think less of me for saying it, I must confess that those times provided me with some of my very best childhood memories. I and my fellow kid commandos generally had a wonderful time playing "guns." And, I must further state, there have been times since when I've truly wished I could go back and do it again without appearing to be as immature as I actually suspect I am.
Enter Bungie Software's Marathon!
According to the manual, in Marathon you are "a security officer aboard the interstellar colony ship Marathon. The Marathon is attacked by a vicious alien race of slavers known as the Phfor. You must defend your ship and crew from the invading Phfor... ." To accomplish the mission, one basically runs around any one of the forty available labyrinthine levels of the station utilizing a first person, Wolfenstein 3D-like interface, collecting ammunition and ever more deadly weapons while annihilating everything that moves.
The solitaire game is good. I suspect, however, that most folks will be immediately attracted to the networkable, multi-player features Marathon offers.
Once gathered into a network contest, it's quite possible to operate as a single team against the computer controlled aliens. But it's much more fun to turn the aliens off entirely and have at each other in a classic computerized, real-time shoot-out. When one does this, one gets to participate in what I believe to be one of the best arcade/action games ever produced.
Gameplay is quick and clean and there's never any argument over who got who. Luckily, just as it was in the days of my youth, when you die in Marathon you are never gone for very long. A simple tap on the 'TAB' key provides instant resurrection. Available weapons include a pistol, a combination machine-gun/grenade launcher, a rocket launcher and a very nasty flame thrower. The sounds are highly realistic: bullets ricochet, rockets sizzle and targets scream bloody murder when hit. Tapping a "~" allows players to communicate with each other using their built-in microphones. All weapons have to be reloaded when empty and become useless without the correct ammo. In another nice bit of realism explosives effect everything within a pre-determined blast radius and misuse of a device can often lead to suicide.
A while back I reviewed a much tamer game in which I said that "those who can't live without screams and flying gobs of platelets had best look elsewhere." Well, this is where they should come. There's gore a plenty in this one as the aliens, your fellow players and, probably, you are blown away in various fashions. After twenty minutes of play one will quite likely find him or herself surrounded by the jello-like remains of the recently departed. There's very little time to mourn though, as it quickly becomes apparent that on board the good ship Marathon one's chance for a relatively long life are directly related to how well one moves. He who hesitates is meat!
I imagine that, given a few hundred hours of play, even network Marathon might eventually become somewhat stale. The thrill of turning each other into post-toasties may wear off in time. There are, however, several third-part hacks out there which allow the manipulating of the game's physics (i.e. the recoil from the rocket launcher could be set to carry the user backwards) and/or playing field. The basic engine could well be used, I imagine, to recreate person-to-person combat in almost any environment. Could an Old West or World War 2 version be far behind?
Since Marathon arrived on the scene at my office a little over a month ago, there has been held a nightly session in which six to eight computer industry executives electronically wage war on each other. As of this writing, the enthusiasm generated by this game is quite undiminished. The major problem seems to be that the "old pros" who have become electronic super-soldiers manage to completely dominate the battlefield and it takes several frustrating sessions for novices to find their feet.
Given the tone of the times, there will probably be not a few out there who will object to the truly massive amount of violence contained in this title. Parents may do well to steer younger children away from it. Killing alien slavers is one thing, but realistically perforating people is another. I will leave it to more philosophical chroniclers to muse about the morals (or lack thereof) this game engenders in its players. There's little doubt that it appeals to some of our darker instincts. But, as it's been said many times before, wouldn't it be great if all acts of violence were perpetrated within silicon chips.
The folks at Bungie have created what will probably be considered a milestone game. I have simply never seen a multi-player action game which worked as well over a network and was as hopelessly addictive as Marathon. Whenever a session is over, it seems to be customary (almost mandatory) for all the players to assemble and discuss the fight wherein tactics, lucky shots, defeats, victories and near-victories are all enthusiastically discussed. The tone of these conversations make it quite clear that, after all is said and done, Marathon is a unique game playing experience.