I remember walking into THQ's decked out square footage at E3 in 2008 without expectation; appointments had been made, but nothing was specified. In short intervals I was skirted around from one demo to the next with barely enough time between them to scribble thoughts of what I had just seen and how, if at all, they made an impact. In this commonplace, exhaustive roustabout, not only did I get to experience the first rough workings of Darksiders and the quirky colorings of de Blob, but the long-awaited revival of Red Faction—this time subtitled, “Guerrilla.”
“So...you can't dig tunnels—at all?” I asked, dumbfounded.
In a haze of E3's exasperated pace and constant thunder of overpowered and over-brightened everything, the only recollection of the property I could tap into was that of burrowing nearly infinite tunnels throughout brownish polygons. Some semblance of what I could recall from the story poked through, but story be damned, it was a franchise built around technology!
“It took place on Mars, in the future—tunnels...railgun...first-person shooter,” I was throwing down barely half-thoughts in my notebook to use as inquisitional fodder while a pair of Volition's personnel gathered themselves to explain the new direction for Guerrilla, before lunch.
While one Volitionist sipped on his coffee and spoke with a guise of enthusiasm for what was easily his hundredth presentation of just that morning, the other used Alec Mason as his digital marionette. My pen and paper were still as I watched the puppet master utterly demolish the structures of Mars' terraformed surface. Bridges, silos, residences: They all came tumbling down with a thwack of Mason's hammer and a kaboom of his remotely detonated mines. The physics-based destruction was fun, but it was the interpretive creativity the new open world offered that not only piqued my interest, but made my gamer's fingers twitch with anticipation.
I only use this anecdote as a long-winded introduction to evidence why Red Faction: Armageddon comes off as an unimaginative, misguided, and flat exhibition. Like a lot of fluffy summertime entertainment, Armageddon is big on show and light on substance. There are some smart tweaks and additions made since the last game; there aren't any debilitating technical hangups; and it's not the change to a linear pace that necessarily kills the experience—after all, Dead Space shows how linearity can be still be exciting and captivating, when done right—but with an open-ended structure to completing tasks and a wealth of extra gameplay options, Guerrilla stands as the marquee edition of the franchise reboot.
Essentially, Armageddon comes off as the videogame equivalent of a popcorn action flick. A tight, over-the-shoulder camera angle tracks Darius Mason (grandson of Guerrilla's liberator hero) as he goes from one wrong-place-wrong-time setup to another. From failing to stop a devious radical Cultivist from destroying his grandfather's triumph, the Terraformer, to unleashing a dormant infestation of alien Bugs, unwittingly at the behest of the escaped madman, Mason's struggle to prove to himself and a threatened Martian colony he's not a complete black sheep plays out with little suspense and a desperate reliance on action.
Whereas Dead Space (and 2) allowed their mechanics to supplement their stories and atmosphere, and Guerrilla let the focus stay on brilliant destructive technology set to an innocuous context, Armageddon continuously battles with itself to try and marry a shallow narrative-driven adventure with flashy technical features. In the opening chapters, Volition seem to find a fair equilibrium: a story of a longstanding want for revenge is set to play out in a nearly completely destructible environment. What unfolds, however, are the same “Clear the Area to Move On” bottlenecks against nondescript aliens again and again, with cutscenes intertwined. Not to mention there's also an ambiguous love story tacked on, just because. The script and story is as hammy as “Starship Troopers,” but without that laughable self-awareness to make it ironically likable.
Indeed, Armageddon is a generic run-through. Kill Bugs, walk a hallway, kill more Bugs, jump in a mech-suit, kill more Bugs with different missiles: The pattern simply doesn't deviate. It's not as if the opportunity isn't there either. The variable weaponry, including the ingeniously added magnet gun—whereby an anchored projectile pulls any object tagged by an opposite polarity (enemy, facade, debris) in that direction—along with the couple of Nanoforge powers (pushing objects with a blast of force, suspending enemies in the air, creating a temporary shield, and short-term damage enhancement), should be cause for creative puzzle-solving treats, yet none present themselves.
The Nanoforge's other, primary function, repairing any destroyed environment object, however, touches on how distinct scenarios could have been created. A face-off against a large enemy vehicle early on demonstrates this when you're forced to reconstruct cover to stay alive, but the ingenuity doesn't carry through the rest of the game. Your weapons only serve as different ways to destroy bits of your surroundings or dispatch enemies, and the Nanoforge merely exists as a means to slow them down and patch up your zealous deployment of such explosive inventory.
Armageddon simply loses steam way to quickly to make it memorable. Alternate play modes try to add longevity to the package, but neither Ruin nor Infestation (see our preview for additional detail) break any ground for the series or the genre. Though the former sets you up to topple buildings for points, it's lacking as many options as Guerrilla's Wrecking Crew mode, including local party play; and the latter may work almost lag-free with three other players online, but it's survival gaming with little satisfaction that's really only an arena variant of the campaign play. You can score extra salvage to upgrade your abilities and attributes, but the same end can be accomplished by completing the story, with little difficulty.
I can't and won't say Guerrilla was a perfect game, but it was far and beyond more ambitious and entertaining than Armageddon. The barren surface of Mars may have been bleak, often times making for tedious expanses to traverse, but the amount of different toys to incorporate into missions facilitated a more diverse experience. The usual pitfalls of an open-world game were there, but aren't sequels meant to smooth over rough edges when core concepts work? If Armageddon is the direction Red Faction is to take from here on, more thoughtful and exploratory instances need to be a requisite. Linear storytelling doesn't make a game mediocre, but a short list of ideas does. Armageddon works, and there's at least a functional, mindless romp to be had, but it's not a surprising one worth revisiting or to contemplate.
Open world or linear exposition: Should Red Faction stick with one, or should it explore another structure? Let us know via Twitter @gamers_hell