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Pariah hands-on

At first glance Pariah's "Can You Survive?" tagline seems inconspicuous enough and, considering the primary objective of any first-person shooter is one of self-preservation, perhaps just a tad unimaginative.

But during a hands-on session with the game in the company of its Canadian developers, Digital Extremes, we discovered that there was a much deeper meaning to those three little words.

Set on Earth in the far away future of 2520, players will assume the role of Jack Mason, a down-on-his-luck doctor, who, after suffering a series of demoralising demotions, is assigned to the transportation of inmates between Earth's prison sectors and health facilities.

Basically, he's sucking scum through a straw from the bottom of the barrel.

Mason's latest assignment - the transportation of a female patient infected with an unknown virus - takes a dramatic turn for the worse, and echoes his own spectacular personal decline, when the transporter is shot down over hostile prison wasteland.

Heaping misery upon misery, the ill-fated Mason is then inadvertently infected by the mysterious pathogen. And the story is set.

Besides the normal rigours of a FPS, Mason's infection adds a degree of urgency to the story and, despite their reluctance to give too much away on the effects of the mysterious virus, Digital Extremes did allude to it having some significant influence on how the final section of the game will be played.

Rather than dwell on plot detail, the Unreal Tournament co-developers were more intent on drawing our attention to some of the natty features that their latest project boasts, and top of that list is the upgradeable weapon system.

Indeed, this element is something that Digital Extremes are particularly proud of, as the company's director of corporate communications, Meredith Braun, explained. "We see the upgradeable weapons as our one new contribution to the first-person shooter genre.

"With Unreal Tournament, we initiated the alt-fire action on the PC, so that was our contribution then and these upgradeable weapons are our new contribution."

While we didn't have enough time to fairly judge the merits of the upgrade system, initial impressions are of something not too dissimilar to the power-up mechanic that's been employed by shoot-'em-ups for years.

Each of the game's seven weapons can be upgraded a maximum of three times using Weapon Energy Cores (WECs), which are found scattered around the game's 18 levels.

At their most obvious, the upgrades include recoil reduction, larger weapon clips and armour piercing capabilities. Digital Extremes assured us that other, more inventive, upgrades were incorporated, such as the mag grenade - the final upgrade for the grenade launcher.

Once launched along its trajectory the mag grenade creates a magnetic field strong enough to attract debris, which, in turn, becomes deadly shrapnel when the grenade explodes. The longer the grenade is in the air, the more debris it collects and the more lethal the final explosion. Nice.

To complement the upgrade system, and because all weapons can be carried together, Digital Extremes have very kindly invented the wheel, or rather, the 'weapon wheel'.

"With Unreal Championship we found that players were having a hard time scrolling through all the weapons so quickly," Braun explains, "so our solution was to add this wheel to select your weapon."

An intuitive method of armoury selection, just a press of the B button summons the wonderful wheel of weapons and a simple flick of the analogue stick in the direction of the required killing tool is all it takes.

Once the layout of the wheel is memorised weapons can be selected between the beats of a heart - it really is that fast and makes selecting killamajigs in the midst of a frenzied gun-off incredibly painless.