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What is Marathon? Bungie’s mysterious Destiny 2 follow-up, explained

This week’s PlayStation Showcase featured a lot of surprises, from Square Enix’s Foamstars to a full Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater remake. The biggest shocker, though, came when Bungie’s logo flashed on the screen. The developer has been solely focused on the Destiny series for the last decade, so any new announcement would be significant news. For a moment, the sci-fi trailer looked like a teaser for Destiny 3. The truth would be far more surprising when we saw the game’s title: Marathon.

Marathon - Announce Trailer | PS5 & PC Games

Your reaction to that reveal was likely very different depending on your age. For younger players who only know Bungie as the studio behind Halo and Destiny, it might have seemed like a new IP. But for those who grew up as PC gamers in the ’90s, it was a triumphant return for an important piece of first-person shooter history. However, the new version of Marathon appears to be nothing like its predecessors, so it may as well be a new series entirely. Here’s what you need to know about Bungie’s classic series and the entirely new direction its modern revival is going in.

What is Marathon?

Marathon may not be as known a shooter franchise as Doom or Wolfenstein, but it’s just as important to the genre’s history in its own way. While Bungie wouldn’t become a household name among gamers until 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved, the studio had been making games well before that, starting with a simple Pong clone called Gnop! in 1990. The developer would experiment with classic Mac OS games in the early 90s, testing the waters with multiplayer titles and shooters.

It would land its first true hit in 1994 with a futuristic first-person shooter called Marathon. The sci-fi title put players in control of a security guard aboard a spacecraft called the UESC Marathon, which is on a mission to populate a new planet. Aliens attack the ship and players are paired up with an AI named Leela that helps them navigate a maze of corridors. It was a surprisingly narrative-heavy experience for games at the time, with the story doled out through records scattered around the ship. Coincidentally, it would launch the same year as System Shock, a very similar shooter that would break ground for the genre.

A character shoots a gun at aliens in Marathon.

Its gameplay was typical for shooters at the time, taking a lot of design cues from Doom. The series’ more unique innovation, though, came in the form of its multiplayer mode. Marathon featured a fairly standard deathmatch mode, but it would bring something new to the table in the form of its maps. While other shooters at the time tended to just set battles in stages from the single-player campaign, Bungie created smaller maps that were custom-built for multiplayer. That would earn the game some buzz and set the stage for Bungie to become a leader in the multiplayer shooter space.

It would follow that momentum up immediately with a sequel one year later: Marathon 2: Durandal. The core single-player mode would expand on its predecessor with a more in-depth story and a new setting, but the biggest innovation would come from its multiplayer. It would feature six different modes, which was far more ambitious than most shooters at the time. Those modes would include campaign co-op, King of the Hill, Tag, and Kill the Man With the Ball. Marathon Infinity, the third and final game in the trilogy, would include all that one year later and throw in a level editor tool called Forge.

If you’re familiar with Halo, you can probably see why Marathon was important at this point. In many ways, it set the stage for everything Bungie would accomplish with the Halo series. Its narrative, about an AI-guided hero fighting an alien war, shares a lot of DNA with Master Chief’s tale, and all of the multiplayer features in Marathon would become the very staples that turned Halo into a sensation. You do not get Halo without Marathon, which means you don’t get the last two decades of first-person shooters without Marathon. The genre simply doesn’t exist in its current form without it.

So, what is the new Marathon?

With all of that history behind it, a return to the Marathon franchise is a huge deal on paper. It could signal that Bungie is once again ready to change the shooter genre. However, the upcoming revival may not look anything like those old games, which makes it a bit of a strange project.

Marathon is a multiplayer PVP extraction game. While we’ve yet to see gameplay, Bungie went into detail about the project in a six-minute video explaining how it connects to the series. Multiple teams of three players, who control cybernetic mercenaries called Runners, are dropped onto the planet Tau Ceti IV, a core location in the original games. The goal is to scavenge the hostile planet for artifacts and weapons that appear to carry over to later runs in some way. The goal is to collect as many artifacts as possible and safely extract with them to win a round — though teams can kill one another and try to steal their loot.

Marathon - Official Behind-The-Scenes Interview Video

While there’s seemingly no single-player campaign, Bungie emphasizes that narrative is a big part of the game. However, it’s unclear if it’s using the term to discuss written story or emergent gameplay narratives that pop up during unpredictable rounds. The developer does mention that there will be seasons, a format that Destiny 2 currently uses, and that the story will unfold in some way over that time. The only vague example that it gave was the idea of a player placing an alien key on an altar that opens up a new zone for all other players.

There seems to be an emphasis on fashion too. Bungie notes that players will have ways to visually express themselves, and it describes Runners as “stylish.” We can probably expect a similar approach to Destiny here, where players are able to equip and customize gear.

A runner runs in Marathon.

The details are sparse aside from that. Bungie is still working on getting the game into its alpha stat,e and it won’t reveal more details or show gameplay in that lead-up. It sounds like we won’t really see it again at all until its close to release. What we do know, though, is that it’s coming to PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC, and it will support full crossplay and cross-saves. That detail is surprising considering this is the first game the developer is releasing since it was acquired by Sony.

While the new version of Marathon sounds radically different from its predecessor, it does seem spiritually linked in some key ways. The setting and the world are shared, but the connection is more of a philosophical one. Bungie is looking to continue that series’ short, but important history of multiplayer innovation. Considering the company’s sterling track record, there are plenty of good reasons to be excited about what Marathon has to offer.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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