Red Faction: Guerrilla (Xbox 360)
Pound for pound, the genre of open-world action games probably has more quality titles than any other genre. I suspect that's because the barrier to entry is really high. It takes the experience of a veteran developer and the deep pockets of a publisher with resources. For a return on the investment, it often takes a prominent license, maybe something propped up by a big-budget summer superhero movie. You don't see a lot of indie Grand Theft Auto clones. At worst, you get tripe like The Godfather or Just Cause. But even when it's middling fare, you get solid games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Infamous, Mercenaries or something with Spider-Man or The Hulk. And when the genre is firing on all cylinders, you get unforgettable and amazing living-world playgrounds like Saints Row 2, Crackdown and Far Cry 2. This latter category of exalted open-world action games just got a new addition: Red Faction: Guerilla.
Life on Mars
The elevator pitch for Red Faction: Guerilla is Saints Row 2 meets Far Cry 2 meets Boom Blox set on Mars. The Martian setting is actually a wonderful stroke of luck (I say it's a stroke of luck because this is the sequel to a space-dungeon-corridor-crawl that happened to be set on Mars). Mars gives Red Faction a pass for a lot of things that might seem wonky in other games. The slightly floaty physics of jumping and driving, for instance, can be credited to the low gravity. The sense that everything is made from pre-fab modules bolted onto the terrain would normally feel like the art guys being lazy. But it fits perfectly with the concept of a faraway world in the middle stages of terraforming.
Non-player character behavior that might feel contrived in a real-world city works just fine on this Martian colony, which is occupied by a repressive military called the Earth Defense Force (EDF). It's a bit like the way Mercenaries takes place in a war zone. Cops and wanted stars have no place here. Plowing through pedestrians has a location-specific disincentive based on gameplay mechanics. The denizens of Red Faction: Guerrilla are split into two factions: the military and the citizens (well, it's not quite that simple, but I'll let you find out on your own). Each zone has a control rating based on the strength of the military, and a morale rating based on how well you've inspired the citizens to rise up.
These values unlock the story missions and inform how you play the game. Knocking down propaganda billboards raises morale. Running down pedestrians or killing them with friendly fire lowers morale. Dying lowers morale. Destroying military targets lowers military control. Intercepting dynamically generated convoys ? la Far Cry 2 lowers control. Doing missions and side activities affects these values even further. Once you're reduced control completely, you unlock a liberation mission that will kick the EDF out of the region. Depending on the level of morale in a sector, other insurgents might show up to help you during a firefight. What begins as a quick shootout at a checkpoint can escalate into a full-blown skirmish as reinforcements show up on both sides. The artificial intelligence holds up admirably when it comes to dealing with the mayhem and destruction, although the EDF can make Grand Theft Auto's suicidally manic cops look downright cautious. The combination of low gravity, pokey trucks, and aggressive attackers can result in something closer to a rugby scrum than a pursuit.
Of course, Mars isn't going to give the developers much of an opportunity for interesting locations, right? For the first few hours, you might expect Red Faction will be a long slog through red-hued canyons. I'd just as soon leave you to discover for yourself that you're wrong. After Stillwater, the bland city featured in the Saints Row series, you might not expect Volition could create interesting places with personality. So it's a pleasant surprise to discover on Mars a lively and memorable progression of places, vehicles and especially weapons. The weapons further reinforce the idea of a community of workers under an oppressive military occupation. As a reviewer, here's where I'd normally break it down into specifics. But as a gamer, here's where I'm just going to say I hope you haven't been watching the videos released by THQ, or reading too many previews. There are some delightful surprises in store for you.
Among the surprises is a wide variety of mission types. The inspiration is clearly Saints Row 2. Some missions require surgical precision, some require driving, and some are almost like puzzles. Many are flat-out, balls-to-the-wall, scorched-earth, rubble-grooving explosion parties. There are even dynamically generated missions that give you the opportunity to play with the many different kinds of toys you get. The elaborate destruction required to take out some of the high-value targets is downright operatic. It's completely optional, but you won't want to miss the spectacle of demolishing, say, the EDS Memorial Bridge in Eos or the Ark Reactor in Oasis. In this regard, the presentation is more like that of Far Cry 2 than Saints Row 2. Saints Row 2 was a magnificent cartoon toy box with minimal context. But like Far Cry 2, Red Faction is a unified place as aimless as you want it to be. Explore, hang out, chip away military control, mine ore in the badlands, or follow the story. Like Far Cry 2, it has an role-playing-like system of weapon upgrades, and a couple of its own versions of diamond-hunting.
Then, of course, there are the destructible buildings that come down in their component chunks of concrete and steel girders and shattering window panes. It's as gratifying as Boom Blox, but nowhere near as simple. The physics of destruction are built on the wonderful physics of construction that Volition has carefully built by hand. This is as much architecture as it is level design, with physics perfectly integrated into the world and gameplay. They aren't as gratuitous as you'd expect from such a major bullet point. Once the game is underway, the destruction tricks fade effortlessly into the rest of the game. You just come to expect this is how the world should be. If you fire a rocket launcher into a wall, naturally, the wall is going to get blown open. Naturally, girders, rubble and bodies will litter the vicinity. Naturally, you can shoot through the hole. Naturally, you can walk through the hole. Naturally, if you keep shooting the wall, the hole will widen, the wall will fall, and eventually the entire building will come down. Naturally. It's just the way it's supposed to be. It's what bombs and rocket launchers and singularity devices do when they meet man-made objects. And once you go back to playing other games, the issue isn't that Red Faction has destructible objects. The real issue is that other games don't have destructible objects. Thanks, Red Faction: Guerrilla, for screwing up other games for me. Thanks a lot.
Red Faction deserves immense credit for not taking the usual videogame route of carelessly tossing in a McGuffin and letting the gameplay take up the slack. "McGuffin" is a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock. It refers to an object in a story that the audience might not care about, but it motivates the characters in the story. For instance, a rare stamp, plans to the Death Star, the Ark of the Covenant, and Milla Jovovich have all been McGuffins. Most videogames opt for simply a glowing ball with a fancy name like Ray Sphere, Piece of Eden or Crystal of Unimaginable Power. But there's no mere McGuffin in Red Faction: Guerrilla. There is, instead, something called the Nano Forge, which might sound like a name slapped onto a glowing ball. Instead, it's really cool and useful. It figures prominently into the gameplay. And I know exactly why the bad guys want it so badly, because Red Faction: Guerrilla is happy to let me play with its awesome power.
The writing is mostly serviceable, but it does a terrible job of developing any sort of villain, and the main threat you fight at the end of the game isn't very well developed. Mostly, it's a shame there's not more of a Veerhoven sensibility here. The setting is perfect for satire, or at least a little pointed political commentary (Mars as Iraq is teased, but it could just as well be an accident). Unfortunately, as with Saints Row 2, Volition seems content to aim pretty low. And also like in Saints Row 2, there's a weird episode involving torture that just seems as mean-spirited and out of place as injecting a dude with acid and locking his girlfriend into the trunk of a car and then crushing it. Who's the sadistic bastard at Volition responsible for these unwelcome tone shifts? The game wraps up -- well, the storyline, at any rate -- with one of those terrible final missions that you'll have to fail and replay so many times that you're liable to just turn around and leave Mars unsaved. Seriously, game designers, can you start going out with a graceful note instead of a long, drawn-out combat slog that confuses challenge with discouragement?
Finally, the multiplayer game adds a whole new set of legs to Red Faction: Guerrilla. The weapons from the single-player game are combined with backpacks, each conferring a special ability. These backpack abilities range from standard combat buffs to stealth to new ways to navigate the level (note that the Rhino Pack that lets you run through walls wouldn't be possible in any other game). This synergy of weapons and backpacks is the heart of the multiplayer gameplay, but since the items are scattered randomly around the map, you'll have to improvise rather than just rely on your favorite combo. Of course, you can also set up custom games. The breadth of options is almost as flexible as in Halo 3. A steady stream of unlockables -- mostly cosmetic -- adds just the right amount of incentive to the ranked games. The "Wrecking Crew" party game lets players take turns wreaking havoc for points, but really it just makes me want to play the core game.
Red Faction: Guerrilla is an historic game. By building into the gameplay the sort of destructibility other games have only pretended at, it's a revelation. It's like when I first discovered 3-D (Wolfenstein 3-D), iron sights (for me, Vietcong), mouselook (The Terminator: Future Shock), cover (Vietcong again), reloading (Outlaws) or 3-D accelerators (Tomb Raider). Once you've experienced these things, it spoils them for games without them. Red Faction: Guerrilla isn't just a great game. It's a point of no return.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.