Games Currently Playing:
Global Agenda (well, a bit)
Strange Adventures in Infinite Space
Red Faction

An architect’s nemesis

I’ve been vaguely aware of the shooter series called Red Faction for some time now, though for some reason or another I’d never actually played one. I was aware that they were known for interactive, destructible environments and were generally well received, but never I think considered quite “A” list. Indeed, the latest game, Red Faction: Guerilla, scored seemed to score mostly 8s of 10 in the gaming press. I put it on my “I might get to that” list but as usual never did. I was aware that the game had later been released on PC for a slightly lower price and some extra content, but I still hadn’t managed to gather up enough interest to bite. I recently booted up Steam, however, to find that it was THQ week and that Red Faction was on sale for 75% off. A year ago the game had been given an 8.0+ review by IGN and called a good value at $40, and here it was staring me in the face at $5. Well, Steam will slowly but surely lead to my financial ruin.

Red Faction: Guerilla

One of the first things I noticed about RF:G was the developers: Volition! I had always wondered what had happened to them after the glory days of Descent and Freespace (and they were glorious!) and it looks like they’ve been devoting themselves to the Red Faction franchise. I immediately felt a little ashamed I hadn’t been aware of that. With solid reviews and a good developer behind them, my expectations or the game were up, but there was one thing that had always bothered me. In the Red Faction games you play a vaguely communist-y revolutionary with bombs. RF:G was also being touted as an open-world game. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind violence in games; in fact I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I really enjoy a good fight. That is not the same, however, as enjoying killing civilians or committing crimes; the dark fantasies of the GTAs never really appealed to me and playing a terrorist bomber is perhaps even less appealing given current real-world realities.

I needn’t have worried. It was perfectly clear within 10 minutes of starting the game who the bad guys were in the game, and you are actually penalized for harming non-combatants. The oppressive enemy faction is so openly corrupt and cruel that Hitler might’ve blushed. I was pretty sure then that I wasn’t in for an amazingly deep story on the one hand, but on the other I was happy to note I’d have no lingering moral qualms about blowing the crap out of stuff. The first thing Red Faction tasks you with doing (shortly before your brother gets killed off and the corrupt military decides to kill you too for being there without even pausing to twirl their collective mustaches) is break stuff. With a big hammer. And then… some bombs. It turns out that you’re playing a demolitions engineer. It is apparently a bad idea to piss off someone who has earned a University degree in blowing things up. And that’s where Red Faction shines, as advertised. Almost everything in the game can be blown up. It’s the game’s greatest strength, but also the cause of its weaknesses. It becomes quickly apparent that the designers concentrated all their resources on developing the ultimate engine for destructible environments; unfortunately one single activity, no matter how well crafted, is not enough to make an open world game come to life.  The designers are aware of this, so you are given other tasks. Conventional gunfights, driving challenges, and other quests compliment the explosive mayhem. The problem is that none of these other gameplay tasks have been given anywhere near the same level of attention as the destructible environments. The shooting feels a bit sloppy (perhaps forgivable because the character is an engineer, not a space marine), the driving is not great, and the enemy AI is reasonably insane. I know these guys are heartless, but I witnessed truly excessive amounts of friendly fire “accidents” in  the game.

Granted, for the purposes of this analysis I only played the first of four sectors; the game’s high-end goal is to liberate sectors by destroying enemy buildings, raising morale, and then completing scripted missions in each zone. It reminded me somewhat of taking down Crackdown’s three gangs in order to liberate different areas of that game’s city. The problem is that to add variety, some of the scripted missions rely too heavily on these flawed systems. The final mission I played, the last one to liberate the first district and one that made a lasting impression, involved essentially running over some destructible towers with a large truck, while enemy vehicles tried to intercept me. By intercept I essentially mean ram. Repeatedly. And more and more vehicles kept spawning out of the thin air. Even more ridiculous, as I got off my vehicle to escape it (as it was smoking and soon to explode) the vehicles ran me over, and did minimal damage. Suddenly APCs piled up on top of me like a defensive line on a too-slow quarterback. It was funny, which given the context I don’t think was the intended effect. Worst of all, it took me a minute or so to die from this, and die I did, many times. I eventually beat it, liberated the zone, and finished up my play session with very mixed feelings. Keep in mind that this was the final story mission for the zone, and therefore unskippable; I can live with subpar design on secondary tasks on a large game like this, but not if its something that is going to interfere with completing the main plot or even reaching other areas. The game has enough going for it that I’ll probably give it another chance, but I found it significantly flawed.

I believe its all tied up with the same thing; as much as it wants to be an open world game, Red Faction is basically a one trick pony. Destructible environments have long been seen as desirable to new cutting age games, but here we have a game that exposes and exemplifies the best and worst aspects of that possibility. Destructible environments are simply not something you can drop into a game and it’ll magically be better. First of all, anything and everything not destructible will stand out as an arbitrary game design decision, making the invisible walls/magic circle that much more obvious.  And second, dealing with its effects on gameplay may be far too much work for all but the very largest teams to handle, unless the game itself centers on the destruction. When it sticks to its “thing”, Red Faction is a great game. When it shines a spotlight on its lesser systems though, the imperfections become glaringly obvious and off-putting.

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