I've enjoyed Pariah, I honestly have. But. I've completed it and I'm unsatisfied. Me and lead female character Karina had some good times and killed many people in exciting ways, but I've got some severe issues that aren't going away in a hurry. So, if you'll excuse the deviation from the expected 'Good stuff. Bad stuff. Score' game review template, here are my niggles. Or, more accurately, here's my main gigantic niggle.
Pariah has been selling itself on the basis of its story. Digital Extremes has bigged-up its Hollywood scriptwriters, told us how painstaking the casting of voice-actors was, told us how it's researched story-telling techniques to death... But I'm sorry to say that the story doesn't work.
You play as Dr Jack Mason, crash-landed in hostile territory with the aforementioned Karina, a woman infected with a virus that many men with guns want to get their hands on. Now all the right stuff is here for a damn good yarn, don't get me wrong: a balding and mysterious hero, twists and turns in the plot, occasional events and sightings that won't make sense until several levels later, a world living in the shadow of an often referenced but never fully explained war against an enemy known as the Shroud and an attractive (if contagious) lady for the good doctor to protect. All the ingredients are here. But it just doesn't work.
It's clear that the idea is to keep you in the dark, but whereas a good story would put you in as much darkness as, say, sitting at the bottom of a deep well, Pariah is content to sink you several levels of strata into the Earth's core. You just don't know what's going on: enemy characters appear from nowhere, the aims and origins of rival factions of enemy are never explained, information and back-story that should be underlined in red felt-tip and hammered home to you are daintily skipped around - pretending to be enticing, coy and mysterious, but ending up being simply bemusing. It's like filling in a dot-to-dot puzzle of a lovely bunny rabbit, but only being given five dots to play with. It's called exposition, but Pariah has none of it.
WHERE'S IT AT?
Now, you may argue that Half-Life 2 does this too, relying, as it does, on a slow-drip feed of environmental and atmospheric detail to fill you in on what's been going on in your train-bound absence. What Valve succeeds in doing, though, is at least giving you the right information, whereas Digital Extremes is quite happy to feed you on random scraps. What's more, in Half-Life 2 (or Deus Ex, or Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, or Far Cry, or System Shock 2), the lead character knows diddly-squat about the world around him - he experiences and learns simultaneously with you, the gamer.
In Pariah, this doesn't happen. The guy you play knows everything - he knows more than you ever suspect he does - and as such there's an impenetrable distance between you. Furthermore, this means that you can never really connect with Karina either - although this is made pretty difficult anyway because the script is peppered with lazy ways to disinvolve her from the single-player action. Christ, she runs
away more than the Littlest friggin' Hobo.
Having completed the game, I'm aware that there is some clever stuff at work in the plot, but none of it is of any help when you're playing the game through for the first time. It just feels like Digital Extremes has been playing around with so many 'higher' narrative devices that it's clean forgotten to ground you in the most basic of details. Stuff like 'this man is called x, he works for y, he is nice/nasty (delete as applicable), he is chasing after you for reasons #1 through to reason #4. Although there may well be further reasons. Reason #5 for example'. The plot the developer was aiming for is a very good one, and highly dramatic at its close, but its attempt to package a novel's worth of cleverness into two-minute post-level cut-scenes renders it almost unfathomable.