Wot I Think: Red Faction Guerrilla

By Kieron Gillen on September 24th, 2009 at 7:37 pm.

It just went off in my hand, officer.
We’ve been following the development of Volition‘s Sci-fi open-world terrorist freedom-fighter game for a while. But now, finally out on the PC, we can review say wot I think…

The more I played this, the more I found myself incredulous. Can they get away with this? Yes, the series has always played in these political waters, but from its Blackwater-esque PMCs to its insurgency escalating in proportion and in response to corporate-statism, it’s Iraq the game. It’s at times like this Volition should think itself lucky that no-one actually takes videogames seriously. If someone had made Red Faction as a film, make no mistake: it’d be pilloried as anti-American propaganda.

It also says much to Red Faction Guerrilla’s character that I’m not entirely sure that Volition are aware of how political the material they’re playing with. It treats everything incredibly lightly. It’s only every fortieth building you flatten do you stop, have a quick double-take, before shrugging and getting back to seeing exactly how destructible that destructible scenery actually is.

Rewind time to around 00s. I was working for PC Gamer, and we’d just given the first Red Faction a preview cover with a coverline along the lines of “Meet The Half-life Beater”. It’s something which people still occasionally drag up to try and discredit the magazine’s opinion, because when the game arrived, it really was no Half-life Beater. It wasn’t even a SiN beater. We said as much at the time, giving it a mark that was so Meh I can’t even remember it. The cover comments were prompted more by the incredibly exciting technical demos Volition were showing off, which seemed to promise everything. Except it became clear that they were unable to work out a way to work out to leverage this fantastic tech into actual splendid things to do.

Fast Forward to until 09, when Volition – finally – manages to do exactly that. While the far limits of the tech have been abandoned – there’s no longer any way to mine into the landscape – this is a game which understands that the key point of Red Faction was blowing things the fuck up and just spends as much time trying to turn blowing stuff the fuck up into actual game. It helps that they’ve swapped genres. Rather than a post-Half-life linear game model, they’ve switched to the open-world adventure game, like their recent Saints Row 2. If your key feature is about brutally redefining your environment, for the environment to be an environment rather than a level makes it a lot more meaningful.

Third person shooting, yesterday.

This also makes it interesting, becoming one of the first post-GTA games to go for a sci-fi theme. You play a semi-reluctant recruit to the Red Faction, the Mars Insurgency, and your aim is to – er – insurgize. To free each of the game’s regions, you have to complete a mixture of set missions and more freeform task. The latter – rescue hostages, defending from EDF (EDF! EDF! EDF! – Console Shooter Ed) attackers, blowing up important buildings – generally reduce the control level, so unlocking the main missions. In other words, you alternate between the dramatic narrative-related tasks, and smaller ones which allow you to play the dramatic ones.

There’s a couple of other resources to worry about. The population morale is how likely you’re to be supported. You gain it often at the same time as lowering control, but also by tasks like blowing up propaganda – normally by driving whatever you’re controlling at high speed directly into its supports – and offing the pigs. It also lowers when you do terribly counter-revolutionary tasks like shooting civilians in the head by accident (or by accidentonpurpose) or dying. When high, passersby are more likely to throw in when you kick things off, grabbing weapons and fighting against the powers that be. When low, they’ll run around screaming.

There’s also the issue of salvage, which you collect from the ground like a Bakunin-reading Womble and give to a lovely lady who gives you new toys. Volition have gone to town with these weapons of mass destruction, clearly focusing with one eye on the property damage potential. The remote-control charges are a explodtastic perennial throughout the game, but picking up the Nano rifle (dissolves anything it hits into tiny pieces of glass) and the singularity generator (creates a miniature black hole, which has severe consequences for nearby property value). The game is at its best when you’re thrown into a dangerous situation, and forced to improvise a solution with the toys at hand. For example, finding myself pinned down in a structure that’s being dissolved around me, with the last sniper I have to kill a building over. He’s invisible from where I am. I don’t have my guns to shoot through the twenty people in the way. I resort to throwing hand-charge after hand-charge between the holes that have been shot in the building, and start leveling the whole adjacent three-story structure with thirty roughly aimed demolition blasts. Eventually, he breaks cover and I take the shot. Victory!

Hello, brother. You're my best friend, always. I'd hate to think what would happen if you were killed by some fascist policemen. That'd be terrible. I'm not sure if I could keep on after something like that. I'd probably just give up and die.

As far as Open World games go, it’s – perhaps predictably – more in the Saints Row 2 school than the GTA4 one. There’s a narrative, but its vestigial. Yes, it’s a touch more serious than SR2, but it’s fundamentally interested in creating a reason to do a wide variety of stuff rather than worrying about the eco-politic-social epic. It’s narrative as an enabler of action. You have an objective – lower security level – but how you do that really is up to you. Don’t like a certain sort of mission? Just don’t select them. Bar the Badlands – which seemed to spread its events too widely – you’re free to make this your revolution. And so you understand, my revolution involves an absolute minimum of driving. If you have to taxi drive, it’s not my revolution.

This spread of Stuff To Do spreads outside the actual main game. There’s a Wrecking Crew mode, where you get a chance to perform set tasks against a clock for points – which includes an online leaderboard. There’s bonus missions included. There’s also a pretty fun multiplayer, which puts its assets to good show. As a design mechanic, I appreciate its floating class-system, where your role is defined by whatever backpack you pick up – hyperspeed running if you pick one up, healing with another, extra-damage-blasting with a third and so on. As a perennial idiot twelve-year old, I appreciate being able to whack people with my splendid hammer and take apart the landscape. A classic Capture-the-flag set-up of fortresses separated by bridges is enlivened when you can blow up that bastard bridge.

I like Red Faction Guerrilla a lot… but I think that stops just short of actual love. Which is odd, because I was suspecting I’d adore this. While reviews have been “only” in that 85% region, the word of mouth among the chattering classes have been Dark Horse For Game Of The Year. After playing it at a press event earlier in the year, I was convinced it’d go that way. I still smile at that moment when blowing up my first tower-stack, I managed to make it fall to crush another target I was planning to take out. That’s joyous.

Or maybe I'll just go apeshit and blow up everything I can see.

But what stops it ascending the complete heights is a number of smaller elements. The technical issues are one. While I think it’s a better conversion than the oft-insulted Saints Row one, it took some playing with settings to get a frame-rate I found acceptable – and even then, it’s going to drop when something genuinely totally ludicrous happens. Go have a nose at ”EG’s PC-tech comparison for more details. While it’s a decent port in many ways – getting the DLC for free, is one bit where they’ve treated the PC Gamer well – it doesn’t stop it feeling like a port.

That’s not the source of my reservations. I think it may be that its basic combat mechanics never quite feel robust enough. The rechargeable energy gives a quasi-indestructibility in a lot of cases – especially at a range – but when death’s start occurring, they often don’t quite feel connected to your actions. The line between what is fatal and what is totally survivable never quite seems firmly demarcated. It think it may be the game’s odd lack of character – while it does a fine job at making you feel like a heroic figure of the resistance (Better than – say – Half-life 2 in this area) it doesn’t do as well at giving anyone or anything in the game personality. I think it may be that – typical for an open world game like this – the friendly AI isn’t exactly particularly sharp, which hurts in those heroic escort missions especially (Quinns argues that the rescue missions are literally impossible on hard about half way through the game, and I can entirely believe it). I think it may be – in fact, I think this is the big one – that a lot of the actual missions aren’t exciting enough. Get in an enormous robot suit and all the tension drains away as swiftly as District 9’s amusing but empty last half hour. You’re in a heavily armoured killing machine and fighting things that explode with one hit. You’re going to win. Eventually, even explosions as beautiful as these get boring.

And then go crazy in a robotsuit. Yeah, that sounds more like it. I always was a mad bastard.

That takes a while. Its approach to destruction is very Bruckheimer, for want of a better word. You’re playing in a terrorist organisation whose first and best line of offense is to just drive at high speed into the building they’re trying to destroy, then pile out. They crumble with wasted elegance. The occasional time when you question whether a building really should still be standing is the cost for the arguably unprecedented accuracy of centre-cannot-hold-and-things-fall-apart-ism. It’s also exaggerated enough to divorce it from reality and enhance the freedom of play. Realistically, you drive a car at a building and you get jammed in the wall, if you penetrate at all. Here, vehicles are made of Adamantium-esque material and the buildings have been constructed by the lowest- bidder, who worked out an innovative pasta-shells and cereal-packaging construction method which stands up, but is sadly non-resistant to Adamantium-constructed cars.

In this game – though hopefully not in their private lives – Volition care only about two things: blowing things up and giving you really entertaining reasons to blow things up. With Red Faction Guerrilla, they’ve succeeded admirably at both.

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112 Comments »

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  1. Snidesworth says:

    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned the jetpack and the additional level of joy it adds to the game once you acquire it. Or the ability to shoot a wing off a gunship with the nano-rifle and watch the thing spiral downwards into a nearby building.

    On hostage rescues: I’ve got a soft spot for them because they are rock hard (compared to everything else) later on. The building is often well defended and almost impossible to get into without causing a fuss. You’ve got to be careful with your explosives so you don’t blow up/crush the hostages. And if you dawdle you’re going to have tanks rolling around the corner to ruin your day. But if you get it right, either annihilating the defences swiftly or managing to sneak in the back with silent nano-rifle hole creation and then scarper before reinforcements show up, then it’s incredibly satisfying.

  2. bananaphone says:

    I’m loving this one. Knocking down buildings is just so satisfying. I have to say I’ve never considered the political subtext, was too busy blowing shit up.

    Re the performance, the current version is horribly bugged to the point it is unplayable on some PCs, largely dual-core systems it seems. The quick fix is to run it in windowed mode. I’ve got it going at high resolution with full detail on a 2 year old system and there’s rarely a stutter. Once they get that little bug worked out it should run very nicely indeed.

  3. Ed from Brazil says:

    I just wanna say that this game is pure kittens and puppies. I love it

  4. Initialised says:

    At last a review that considers the context of the games socio-political environment (the games primary objective). However, given the potential backlash I think it has been played down to avoid the inevitable Daily Mail article about games encouraging the destruction of large building by would be terrorists. Fortunately the subtext has gone under the Radar of the (Reactionary Press). It’s a shame they didn’t release it a week earlier to coincide with the attack that the Western World is still suffering from.

  5. Dave L. says:

    There’s a mission where you’re tasked with assassinating a handful of business men. The Red Faction has a decidedly terroristic bent in RF:G.

    • Dave L. says:

      Dammit, that was meant to be a reply to medwards. That’ll teach me to comment from my phone.

  6. Frools says:

    Here, vehicles are made of Adamantium-esque material and the buildings have been constructed by the lowest- bidder, who worked out an innovative pasta-shells and cereal-packaging construction method which stands up, but is sadly non-resistant to Adamantium-constructed cars.

    this is clearly because the gravity is lower on mars and therefore you can build stuff out of soggy cardboard without any problems!
    i like to think this also goes someway to explaining your characters superhuman strength, he’s just come from earth with its barmy high gravity stimulating enhanced musculature! :P

  7. Moonracer says:

    I played through RFG on the PS3 and loved it enough to get it for PC as well. It is a very satisfying game if you enjoy blowing stuff up, and can forgive certain elements. Here’s hoping that modders succeed in making some magic happen.

    Also of interesting note on the political direction. In the last area you open up there are two (twin) towers under construction which I believe are the largest buildings in the game. And (not?) surprisingly their frames are indestructible to prevent total destruction. I thought this was an interesting and obvious reference in the game and am interested that no one mentions it.

  8. Johnny Law says:

    I think the parallels between RFG and Iraq/terrorism are fairly weak. Rebels fighting against an oppressive military organization aren’t exactly rare in speculative fiction in any medium. I’m only halfway through RFG at the moment, but so far it doesn’t seem a great deal more controversial or terrorism-endorsing than, say, Star Wars.

    If you got points for killing civilians, and bonuses for victims of a different religion or ethnicity, that would be a different story…

  9. Jim Rossignol says:

    “I think the parallels between RFG and Iraq/terrorism are fairly weak.”

    War in the desert. Roadside bombs as a key tactic. Hitting infrastructure, especially police HQs, as a method for fighting the oppressors? It ain’t that weak.

  10. Johnny Law says:

    Yes but.

    The bad guys are cartoonishly evil. The story and gameplay are all about attacking military and industrial targets, and you lose points if any civvy dies for any reason (more points if you kill them yourself). The environment might have some similarities — although in general Mars doesn’t actually remind me of Iraq that much — but the emotional triggers that get people exercised about terrorism aren’t there.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Imagine if you were going to make a propaganda movie in favour of the Iraqi insurgency, how would you present it?

      KG

    • Johnny Law says:

      Perhaps, but how does RFG fit that mold any more than any other instance of “rebels fighting the evil empire” fiction?

      Is it really just the “Mars = desert, Iraq = desert, Mars = Iraq” thing that makes the case?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      External force. Denial of democracy. It’s all about corporations getting as much money as they can from the area’s resources.

      That kind of stuff.

      (And, most of all, it’s contemporary)

      KG

    • Dave L. says:

      And apparently it bears repeating: Assassinate a bunch of business persons mission (perhaps intentionally, these business persons are meeting in one of the towers that Moonracer mentions above).

      Once your insurgency explicitly targets non-military personnel (hand-waving about them being corporate overlords who actually control the government (sound familiar?) still doesn’t make them military personnel), you’ve given up all claims to being ‘Freedom Fighters.’

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Yeah, that was the point which provoked my opening, really. As in… wow. You’re totally doing this!

      KG

  11. Johnny Law says:

    Must be in a part I haven’t gotten to yet.

  12. Guy says:

    “War in the desert. Roadside bombs as a key tactic. Hitting infrastructure, especially police HQs, as a method for fighting the oppressors? It ain’t that weak.”

    Ultimately this is an argument about inspiration versus advocacy, i.e. is RF:G a story of rebels vs authority that contains elements of what the RF;G team read about Iraq and considered useful for any modern insurgency or is it a provocative statement on the Iraq war that deliberately aims to rip the headlines and paste them into a neutral location in order to make a political point.

    Frankly it could be either because most people don’t know much more about the Iraq war than what the (frankly risible) Press tells them:
    e.g. Roadside bombings? Popularised by post-1945 conflicts in Africa, the Rhodesian war being a pretty notable example. The UK even had a fleet of vehicles for dealing with roadside bombs before the Iraq war, only they sold them…
    e.g. Hitting the police? First thing the Communists did during the Malayan Emergency. All a matter of legitimacy. Any population-centric counterinsurgent would tell you all about legitimacy. Mao would be hugging himself in glee.
    e.g. Desert setting? Anything from the Rif War to the Polisario Front to the Barbary Pirates. And in fairness its hard to do a game about Mars that doesn’t feature desert.
    e.g. Corporatism? The East India Company wants to call you. They conquered and ran the entire Indian sub-continent for over half a century. Blackwater are pussies compared to those guys. And seeing as the US Govt is losing money hand over fist then how are they profiting from the corporations? I’m guessing you’re a Naomi Klein fan there KG. ;)
    e.g. Democracy? Well the Iraqis are one of the few democracies in the Middle East. They’ve even told the Septics where to get off several times (doesn’t always work but hell, most of the UK didn’t want US nukes on UK soil during the Cold War but they sure as hell stayed there). Compare that to, umm, Saddam, a member of a pseudo-Nazi organisation, supported by the Soviet Empire, running a police state with his own personality cult.
    etc.

    I don’t really want to start a flame war about the Iraq War though so I won’t add anything to the above, if you don’t awfully mind.

    • Muzman says:

      I’d be really impressed if you provoked a detailed flame war on this subject actually. Impressed with RPS as a whole that is. That’d be really interesting. I think everyone’s Iraq-ed out though.

      The thing is, how detailed does a parallel really have to be? The one factor that trumps everything is coincidence. Three(?) years ago when Battlestar Galactica did its New Caprica occupation/resistance plotline nobody missed what that was all about. But taken on its actual story details the parallels to Iraq are tiny; there’s a resistance, because, y’know that’s what nationalism’s all about; there’s desperate tactics like killing collaborators and suicide bombing etc and its all very morally murky. Lots of fighting monsters while staring into the abyss and so on.
      Throw a dart at the Big Book of War fold-out wall chart and you’ll probably hit one that it fits.
      The people who made this game knew what parallels people would draw from what is in the public mind and they still went ahead with it.

    • Guy says:

      True enough. It does depend rather on the intention. I mean, I remember watching the pretty trite BBC drama ‘Occupation’, which is all about Iraq, and thinking that actually you could change the setting to almost anywhere else. There was very little, bar the references to Gilgamesh, that actually marked it out as specifically being about Iraq (not least because the actual focus was almost totally on the British characters).

      I also remember defending the comic DMZ (before it went wussed out) against charges of it being about Iraq. Then Brian Wood came out and aid it was about Iraq. Partly I suspect its a conflict between creative representations of the conflict (which are, like BSG, spiritually about Iraq but not factually) and the fact that my career involves me studying insurgencies in extreme detail (and of course my belief that most representations get the spirit wrong!)

  13. Turin Turambar says:

    My GOTY. Fun, arcade, challenging action game, with somewhat lenghty campaign (22 hours), wreck crew mode, and varied multiplayer.

  14. Smurfy says:

    Why

  15. wcaypahwat says:

    This whole war in iraq thing is still going on? I’d forgotten about that…

    Blowing crap up = fun is the only important thing here, to be totally honest.

  16. CaseytheBrash says:

    Kieron Gillen said:
    Imagine if you were going to make a propaganda movie in favour of the Iraqi insurgency, how would you present it?

    KG

    In musical format.

  17. apnea says:

    “When high, passersby are more likely to throw in when you kick things off, grabbing weapons and fighting against the powers that be.”

    And in the game?

    /gets coat.

  18. StarDrowned says:

    One thing I noticed that people rarely mentions is the sometimes blatant pro-communism stance of the game. RED faction, along with the hammer logo are just too obvious, though the hammer and the red are both easily explainable within the games context. Sure, it’s a totally justifiable rebellion against brutal oppressors, I’m not saying the game is red propaganda or anything silly like that, but there’s a clear communist slant to the game.

    Mind you, I’m not saying this is all bad, I’m not a communist, though not anti-commie either. (I see it’s merits, but also see the reality that it just doesn’t tend to work out right.) I just find it weird more people didn’t point it out. Or maybe I’m imagining it.

    Chatter of the rebels in the bases: “First thing we need to do when this is over is start a union!”

    Long posts for me today…

  19. Dominic White says:

    Just bumping this bit of discussion to point out something great:

    The game has no official mod tools. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t moddable. Far from it, in fact. The first bunch of mods are already out, and more are on the way. Find the highest concentration here:

    http://factionfiles.com/

    Apparently one on the SA forums is working on applying the more fast-moving Multiplayer physics engine to Singleplayer mode, too.

  20. Nalano says:

    I like it. It's Saints Row 2-style antics with just enough of a story/game mechanic tie-in not to make me cringe. And it's really, really nice to blow out the supports on one side of a building to listen to it creak and shudder until it realizes there's no chance in hell the rest can hold it up.
    As for the "This looks too much like the latest in guerrilla tactics in certain contemporary wars not to be political commentary," well… y'all should read Mike Davis' "Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb" – this kinda stuff has been done for a long, long time.
    The story is bare and surprisingly cleansed of politics for what it is: Workers (with a capital W) are oppressed by mining corporations and the defense forces in their pockets, rebel against said oppressors using clearly Marxist imagery and use bombs on important places and people to get their message across? Hey, as they say:

  21. PHeMoX says:

    Quote:
    “If someone had made Red Faction as a film, make no mistake: it’d be pilloried as anti-American propaganda.

    It also says much to Red Faction Guerrilla’s character that I’m not entirely sure that Volition are aware of how political the material they’re playing with.”

    How can you claim the game is anti-American, when it’s about a guerrilla war within a unique sci-fi setting? Yes, it has communist / pro-socialism-like factions and capitalist-like factions and perhaps questions certain political approaches in their inevitable conflict… but that’s about it.

    The resemblance of certain more political things in comparison to real life are certainly there, but so are they in games like Killzone 2, Metal Gear Solid and so on and so forth.

    I think it’s a bit close minded to label this as anti-American, when it wasn’t meant as anti-American.

    In the end it’s not the developers to blame anyways. At best it’s ironic how this game manages to expose the huge flaws and mad methods in world politics of a nation so proud about their freedom.

    • Grape says:

      I think it’s a bit close minded to label this as anti-American, when it wasn’t meant as anti-American.

      You’re saying that as if displaying certain anti-American sentiments is a 100% universally and indisputably bad thing.

  22. Nalano says:

    Anonymous Coward said:
    Quote:
    At best it's ironic how this game manages to expose the huge flaws and mad methods in world politics of a nation so proud about their freedom.

    I think that's exactly what he was referring to.

  23. ToBo says:

    @Dave: That’s a strange approach. So you can kill and maim young men who are just following orders and maybe even don’t want to fight, but once you touch the schreibtischtäters [litteral: desk criminals] who force these young men into battle while sitting comfortably in their chairs, everything changes. So would you have denounced a resistance movement killing Eichmann?

  24. jebus says:

    Since when do we take videogames so serious? Maybe Batman Arkham Asylum is really a criticism of the health care system?

    The game itself is pretty bad. Awful controls and horrible “physics”. So what if you can destroy the buildings? That only makes the indestructable (and pretty cheaply made) landscape stand out more (come on.. there are rts games that have better 3d landscape now..)

  25. Flappybat says:

    I find this game quite incredible because most of the elements add up to what I would think would be a below average game, mediocre story, mediocre graphics, mediocre gunplay but it’s totally saved by having the most excessive and liberating destruction system I’ve ever played in a game. It feels as important as the physics and gravity gun of HL2. When you take an APC over a ramp at high speed to fly through the wall and wedge in the second story of a building you’re meant to be saving hostages from and then make an escape route with a sledgehammer before dropping the building on people with explosive charges… it’s a type of freeform approach we’ve never seen before.

  26. Grape Flavor says:

    in response to “External force. Denial of democracy. It’s all about corporations getting as much money as they can from the area’s resources.” and Jim’s comment about “the oppressor”

    I really hate to get into a political discussion on a gaming blog, but to be fair I’m not the one who initiated it. Denial of democracy? You think the Iraqi insurgents are fighting for “democracy”? By their very own admission most of them are fighting for a fundamentalist Caliphate in which women look like Pac-Man ghosts and where gays and “infidels” are hung by the neck. Indiscriminate and intentional targeting of civilians, their own people, is another difference you fail to mention. And what fledgling, flawed beginnings of democracy that do exist in Iraq are targeted mercilessly by these so-called patriots.

    Now, I’m no George Bush fan, or fan of unnecessary wars in general. But I think you should take another hard, sober look at the merry band of murderers and psychopaths you seem to be coming so dangerously close to glamorizing. And yes, maybe some corporations have profited from the war (*cough* Haliburton), but the idea that somehow our country as a whole is making a net profit on this adventure is ludicrous.

    –Grape Flavor (United States)

  27. Alex says:

    Too much driving. Too darn much driving. If I wanted to drive I’d buy a driving game and the controls wouldn’t suck. Maybe I’m just no good at this game.