Marathon: Istoria is a single-player RPG scenario set in the Marathon universe and designed for the Aleph One engine. It pushes the engine to its limits by using advanced character progression, combat, and storytelling.
Customize your character by choosing from seven different player classes, each with their own unique active and passive abilities. Decide which conventional weapons you want to specialize in, and make use of a brand new arsenal of spells. Explore Istoria while discovering its secrets and how you fit in the world through a combination of terminals and communicating with the recently deceased. Istoria features an original soundtrack by Jon Irons.
This is an amazing single player campaign that includes a number of fun innovations that are really groundbreaking. Istoria almost feels like a whole new game, and I mean that in the best possible way, since the innovations are not only really neat ideas, but their execution is nearly flawless.
Before playing the campaign I downloaded the 8k landscapes off the Istoria website, and I also in-game enabled “HD Monsters” under Preferences->Plugins. If you have a modern computer I strongly suggest you do the same to get the best visual experience.
Upon starting a new game you’ll be prompted to choose one of seven classes. Each class has a unique active and passive ability that lends itself to a different playstyle; I’m sure every sort of Marathon player will find at least one class that they like. This class system is really great because it increases replayability. Initially, I chose to play as the Timekeeper class, because it had an active ability that actually freezes time for a few seconds, and that sounded really cool to me. Later, after beating the game as a Timekeeper, I went back and replayed Istoria, this time using the Pyrotechnic class, which is focused on fire-based attacks. There was a significant difference between my two playthroughs, because the classes play so differently.
Also, there is a “Hard” and “Extreme” mode that can be activated in addition to the normal difficulty settings. These modes make your health replenishment less efficient if you’re looking for a bigger challenge. For my first Istoria playthrough I was on Normal difficulty, but for my second playthrough I played on Normal difficulty with Hard mode enabled. Because of the large amount of customization possible, I would say that Istoria has more replayability than any other Marathon scenario.
In Istoria the player gains magic spells! Now, you might be wondering how magic can exist in the Marathon sci-fi universe. Without being too spoilerish, I’ll just say that there is a good explanation given that syncs with existing Marathon lore. Magic isn’t just a huge part of Istoria’s plot, it also is very useful in combat. For example, one spell is called “Reflect” and it causes enemy projectiles to be pushed back onto the bad guy that fired them. This is very useful when fighting enemies like enforcers that tend to have a large number of projectiles in the air at any given time. There are many spells, each of which is useful in a different kind of combat situation.
There are also non-combat utility spells. One spell lets you speak with the dead. This hearkens back to the days of Bungie’s game “Pathways Into Darkness” and it allows for some really interactive storytelling. By interrogating the deceased and asking the right questions, the player can discover useful information. That is so cool!
There is also a weapon expertise system. The more you use a weapon, the higher your skill level will get with that weapon, which gives damage bonuses. Now here I messed up the metagame without really realizing it until the late game. My initial feeling was that I should be trying to level up my weapons as much as possible, because if I didn’t it would come back to haunt me in the late game. As a result, I wasn’t making use of spells in combat very often because I was focused on dealing damage with weapons to buff up my expertise level. Well, it turns out that it’s very easy to level up weapons in the late game because tougher enemy types give more expertise credit. But not having a good appreciation of how to utilize spells effectively actually can be a liability in the late game, so really I was hurting myself by not making more use of magic in the early game. Perhaps it could be better telegraphed to the player in terminal text that using magic early and often is encouraged? Or perhaps the player could get some kind of tangible reward for using magic similar to how using weapons awards expertise?
I was also a little bit concerned about gameplay balance and the “Ammo Selector” utility spell. Using this spell awards the player ammo for the weapon of their choice. My fear was that some classes, such as the Pyrotechnic, are just focused on only one or two weapons. I thought that the combination of weapon-focused class abilities+weapon expertise+Ammo Selector spells would mean that the player would spend the whole game using just one or two super-buffed up weapons with a huge ammo stockpile, and that would be boring and imbalanced. However, my fears were misplaced. The addition of magic spells vastly increases the choice of offensive options open to the player, and the enemies of Istoria are varied enough that there is no one weapon or spell that can dominate everything; the player must adapt their arsenal and tactics to a variety of different situations.
The campaign also features some impressive RPG elements. The player gains experience points for defeating enemies. Once enough points are gained, the player levels up, which increases the potency of class abilities and the maximum health pool. This level-up system leads to one of Istoria’s greatest strengths, which is that combat is dynamic, and gradually but persistently escalates in intensity. Basically, in the early game you are weak but so are your enemies. By the mid game you’ve got more health, more spells, and probably some good weapon skill levels — but your opponents are much tougher to compensate. By the endgame the player is in a truly unique situation; you’ll have godlike spells and abilities allowing you to decimate entire armies, but there will be times that even this isn’t enough because the bad guys are throwing everything they have at you. What an adrenaline rush!!!
There are no shield rechargers in this campaign, which is a good thing because constant backtracking to rechargers is boring and can be abused to make difficult fights easy. Instead, Istoria features health canisters that you carry with you, and which can be used on demand. In this way, combat has consequences, because you only have a finite supply of canisters and can’t afford to waste them. I suppose it might be possible for a player to completely run out of canisters and then have a hard time completing the game, but for my two playthroughs on Normal difficulty I felt that combat was well-balanced and health canister acquisition was reasonable.
There is a custom HUD which shows all of the new class and experience information in an unobtrusive and organized way. The auto-map has a useful elevation filter which can help rationalize the display of levels which have large numbers of overlapping polygons. Corpses show up on the auto-map, and can be searched for loot.
In Istoria the player can go back to previously visited levels, and their state will be saved. At first I felt that this would be a bad thing, because the biggest, most common problem in all Marathon campaigns is getting lost with no idea of where to go or what to do. I knew that Istoria’s maps were complex, and I figured that the only thing worse than a complex map is several complex maps linked together, creating some sort of super complex mega-map that would be a recipe for getting totally lost. And…thankfully that just didn’t happen. Istoria was actually really good with telegraphing to the player where they need to go and what they need to do. Terminals provide maps, pictures, and useful information. Levels may be complex, but they feature routine use of prominent landmarks so the player doesn’t get lost. Hitting switches or wires will usually have a visual cue as to what just got triggered. Furthermore, many levels feature non-linear gameplay so it doesn’t matter in what direction the player goes, they will eventually end up at their objective. The only improvement that could be made here is that maybe some of the locked doors could show up on the auto-map? For example, maybe a door that requires a red keycard could be labelled “red door” on the auto-map? But, in any case, Istoria’s levels were easily navigable; there were no hellmazes or obnoxious puzzles to mess with the player.
It should also be noted that traveling between levels isn’t just a neat gimmick that the devs added for the novelty factor. There is a point in the campaign when, for both plot and gameplay reasons, the ability to travel to previous levels becomes incredibly important. I’m hesitant to say more due to the spoilers involved, but basically the ability to travel between levels allows for some amazingly intense gameplay/firefights that would not have otherwise been possible. Even better, the devs essentially “coach” the player on how level transit will become important later, by assigning a few minor missions that require getting a keycard from another map to open a door on the current map. This is really solid level design.
A common mistake in many Marathon scenarios is to have monsters that don’t activate correctly for some reason or other. However, despite the massive number of enemies in Istoria, incorrect monster triggers were never an issue. This appears to be due to a new innovation that the player will never see unless they open up the Weland mapmaking tool. Basically, the devs have figured out a new way to have monster triggers using goal objects. This makes sure that firefights trigger correctly no matter what direction the player is coming from, and allows for some pretty impressive set-piece battles. Furthermore, enemy AI has been improved; for example, Pfhor drones are now capable of taking evasive action to avoid the player’s attacks.
Istoria features a new soundtrack which can change based on what is happening in-game. For example, when the player enters a new area, or a major ambush triggers, that can be reflected in the soundtrack.
There is also a Survival mode that is completely separate from the main campaign. There are a large number of maps to choose from and your goal is to survive as long as possible while getting the highest score possible. It’s pretty hard to survive longer than ten minutes!
Istoria features lots of new graphics. There is some great terminal art, new in-game textures, a new main menu screen, and some beautiful landscapes that change according to the time of day. For example, if you spend a lot of time on one map that has a daytime landscape, if you return to that same map later it might have a sunset texture instead. This is the first campaign that I have ever seen do something like this, and it’s really cool.
Escape From the Sky: I had to spend a few minutes to familiarize myself with the new controls and magic system. I did appreciate that the player got some magic spells right off the bat. The dichotomy between the player’s human dropship and the surface of the alien planet was a nice touch, and the massive battle that breaks out after leaving the dropship was great fun. I also appreciate that the player will get weapons in the initial armory that are appropriate for their chosen class. For example, when I played as the fire-based Pyrotechnic I got a TOZT flamethrower in the starting armory, rather than having to wait to find it in the mid-game.
Upstream: These levels have great architecture that’s aesthetically pleasing and includes good use of lighting. I like that Istoria’s elevators are fast and usually have an option to drop off them; this may seem like a small thing but you’d be surprised how many scenarios have long, tedious elevator wait times.
Lockdown: The architecture looks like it serves a purpose. There are roads, a canal, and other identifiable features. Even better, the devs were able to show how the recent fighting has changed Istoria; for example, one part of the road is shattered.
Trimmed and Burning: The part in which the player must hug the cliff face was scary but I never fell off. Some of the secrets on this level were quite difficult to find. The combat also ramps up; I suffered my first deaths on the northern cliff area. At least I got to die with a spectacular sunset view on the horizon.
Central Command: This was my favorite level. It featured my favorite Istoria soundtrack, “Map All Arrivals,” which I thought synced well with the story of the level. That is because on this level the player is trying to salvage an increasingly desperate situation by breaking into what was once a major human strongpoint on Istoria; the music features some distorted radio broadcasts that sort of lend themselves to the narrative of a chaotic battlefield and a faltering human resistance.
No pun intended, but this level is the pinnacle of Marathon mapmaking. The tower the player must climb is the most impressive I’ve ever seen in the Marathon engine; it is a work of art. It even has an elevator in it! But then, after climbing really high to the top, you eventually get a key to the basement, and discover huge underground lava caverns beneath. Aesthetically, it was incredibly impressive.
Snake River: Architecture looks good and demonstrates functionality; there is a river bed, a warehouse, and a circular water sieve that looks very cool.
The Hot Gates: This is Istoria’s version of the Bungie level “What about Bob?” The lava escape is difficult but satisfying. The pitched battles against hordes of blue troopers in the streets really drive home the utility of certain magic spells.
Born Under Punches: As the player descends under the Central Command a theme starts to show, which is that you need to keep going lower to make progress. This becomes incredibly important both for traversing the current map, and for the campaign’s conclusion, as the theme of “go down” suddenly gets turned on its head. The Flame IADD mini-boss was hard, but the challenge was appreciated.
Don’t Sweat It: The player has now got some really powerful magic, but the opposition is so fierce it’s needed. The transition to the Jjaro structure, complete with music cue, was very nice.
Armageddon Games: So there is a branching endgame to reward players that paid attention to the plot; I approve! As far as the climactic ending sequence, it was exhilarating! It is definitely the most intense combat I’ve seen in any Marathon scenario. The final battles were one crowning moment of awesome after another.
In conclusion, this campaign is very professional and very fun. It does a lot of new things that have never been attempted before, and the execution is superb. All Marathon players owe it to themselves to give Istoria a try.
Spells? In Marathon? Sure. Arthur C Clarke wrote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So go for it; they're fun and that's the point o the exercise.
Already played three runs on it, and I loved every single one so far. This gives a level of variation to the game which has never been used before, and it's awesome.
Even when you do more plays, the different classes make you consider different techniques to try so that it's never just the same thing all the time, and that kind of variation in the gameplay is a lot of fun.
A lot of the monsters are tougher too. But not in a bad way, and it really considers you to try your spells a lot of times instead of always just the weapons. You will need to use some extra keys, but it's real easy and quick to learn.
Give this a play. You won't be disappointed.
While this is not my cup of tea (I dont particularly like facing hordes of enemies) and there is lots o new stuff, I like it because it's fun to play. The new stuff is easy to accommodate, there is an intelligent story, and it is fairly easy to make it an exploration game with combat rather than just fight after fight. The scenery is visually pleasing and the little touches like the exploding enemies delight. The revisiting levels on demand is an excellent feature. If you are low on O2 but want to explore, you can go forward until you find O2, fill up, an then go back and explore.