Few FPS developers can fail to be affected in some way by the release of Half-Life 2, so dazzling and unrivalled is Valve's achievement. Fewer still, however, can claim to be wholeheartedly thrilled by the game's ascendancy, but one such group
is Canadian powerhouse Digital Extremes. For these FPS veterans, Half-Life 2 doesn't set an impossible precedent, it simply paves the way for the company to follow.
"We're pleased to see Half-Life 2 taking the next step in gaming," says DE founder James Schmalz. "Our goal is the same for Pariah: to evolve the genre by immersing you in a well-presented story with interesting characters."
James, like Valve, recognises that evolving the action genre isn't just about having bigger guns and better shadows. Pure action and old-school twitch gaming simply doesn't cut it with today's gamers, and high-fidelity graphics demand an equally convincing experience across other areas. For Digital Extremes, the only way forward is, well, back - by returning to age-old values of storyline, character and dialogue.
Despite these common ideas, Pariah takes a slightly different approach from Valve when it comes to execution. While Half-Life 2 thrusts you into a world of great depth and atmosphere, it keeps traditional narrative elements relatively sparse. And true to FPS convention, the character of Gordon Freeman is silent and one-dimensional, leaving a space for you to occupy as hero.
Pariah, on the other hand, attempts a more cinematic approach, usually reserved for third-person games. Rather than the taciturn ass-kicker, you enter the piece as Dr Jack Mason, a washed-up and disgraced medical scientist who's been sacked from his research project for insubordination. Demoted to the hazards of the Biological Threat Assessment Unit, he's pondering suicide until he's jolted into action by crash-landing on the prison planet called Earth.
Inevitably, some evil conspiracies emerge, but at its core, Pariah is the story of Jack Mason himself (however cheesy that might sound on paper). As you play the game, Jack gradually redeems himself through heroic action, as well as finding a reason to live in the form of Karina, the mysterious female virus-carrier he's been sent to evacuate. And, because this is a sci-fi action game and not a romantic tragedy, he also eventually gains superhuman powers and becomes a one-man killing machine. It's your classic hero's journey.
"In any good story the protagonist changes and grows in some crucial way," explains James. "I don't think any FPS has done that before - really have that critical element where the lead character goes through some emotional change through the telling of the story in some really obvious way."
Whatever the result, it's great to see an FPS developer thinking in these terms. Digital Extremes is attempting to imbue action games with a bit more substance and depth, which is exactly what the medium needs right now. And if it ends up being the first FPS to elicit a tear from the PC ZONE team, so much the better.
As for the rest of Pariah - the gameplay that's actually going to keep you playing long enough to discover the story - you should have few concerns. After all, this is the team that brought you Unreal and Unreal Tournament, and when it comes to explosive action, these guys definitely know their stuff.
Rip It Up
In this case, the gameplay seems to be built on an idea of spectacular variety. Like Half-Life 2, the action shifts tempo and style continually, never giving you a chance to grow jaded or frustrated. Already, we've seen some of the game's impressive set-pieces. One involves leaping from ship to ship as two giant hover-ships skim across a desert plain, crashing through dunes and throwing up mountains of sand as they go. Others see you piloting vehicles through canyons and forests or manning rocket launchers as Karina takes the wheel.