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