You know what’s annoying? When you’re driving a mission-critical vehicle in GTA and somehow manage to roll it, only for it to burst into flames and explode. This game doesn’t do that. In Red Faction you can flip any car, buggy, or juggernaut back onto its wheels with a few quick nudges. It’s a small feature. Tiny. Wee, even. But there it is.
Losing your car in the middle of nowhere really aggravated us too; crashing your sole transport into the side of a mountain while out roaming in the open fields of San Andreas meant miles' worth of walking to the nearest road. Guerrilla doesn’t do that either. You can run so fast you’re never more than a short walk from the nearest set of wheels. If you’re catastrophically lost, a Red Faction soldier will inexplicably roll up in a car, get out, and wander off. It’s certainly silly but at least your blood doesn’t curdle in your veins every time you make a trifling navigational mistake.
It’s as if they knew. It’s as if Volition spent every minute of every day studying every open-world game with the intention of making their own game flawless. Name any annoyance from any sandbox game and Red Faction probably addresses it. On Red Faction’s Mars every vehicle is a colossal bouncy Tonka toy which barrels around the world in a hilarious, unstoppable fashion. The minute you hop behind the wheel your truck becomes the heaviest vehicle on the road – crash into another similar vehicle and it’ll bounce off like a rubber ball. Hit a smaller truck and you’ll smash straight on through. Drive it to an enemy base and you’ll forge on like a drunken lout through a wall of bouncers, smashing walls, tearing down support beams, and reducing the structure to rubble.
Red Faction has been sold on that one gimmick, but it’s a game of hundreds of parts, all polished to perfection. The destruction is a tool, and one that will immediately ruin you for every other game ever to feature four walls with a roof on top. You’ll walk past mud huts in Far Cry 2, castles in Oblivion, bunkers in Mercenaries, and skyscrapers in GTA and you’ll want to smash them down, to carve your own paths and infiltrate enemy territory your own way. Guerrilla is freeform gaming on a level you’ve never enjoyed before, where every path you take and every tactic you choose is your own.
While ambling around the world searching out EDF structures to collapse you might receive word of a raid on a critical EDF base. The Earth Defense Force took control of Mars several years earlier and has been running wild like Hulkamania ever since, all up in everyone’s face with its 24” Pythons and worryingly tight yellow underpants. Together with the rest of the Red Faction you’ll overthrow the EDF, at first by weakening their hold on Mars and then by smashing them and driving them out of sectors as they fall under Red Faction control.
En route to the EDF base you’ll pick up a handful of squadmates in your truck. Accustomed to dunces, you’ll want to coddle them like babies, but these NPCs are smarter than the usual rabble. They’ll take cover, keep their heads down, and get themselves out of danger without any hand-holding. They’re not geniuses in danger of becoming self-aware and overthrowing humanity by any means, but in any given fight there’ll be well over a dozen characters fighting while the world collapses around them; with so much math being thrown around it’s a wonder Guerrilla has time for AI at all.
Arriving on the scene you’ll be faced with a choice – disembark and fight side-by-side with your comrades, or just flatten the structure around the EDF’s ears. Chances are you’ll favour the latter because you’re a cruel bastard, so you’ll keep your foot on the pedal and roll right on through a particularly load-bearing corner. You drive in circles splintering tables and bringing down the ceiling like an angry bull in any shop that sells fine dining wares, diving from your truck as the wear and tear finally takes its toll and blows it sky-high, bringing down the tower with it. “That was fun,” you’ll say. “Let’s do it again.” But you won’t. Not right away.
Guerrilla gives you too much to do. Just as you get bored with wrecking offices you’ll start rescuing hostages; once you’re done rescuing hostages you’ll be a shotgun-riding gunner; when you’re finished manning the gun you’ll defend a Red Faction base from an EDF raid. And once you’re done doing all that you’ll still have the story missions to tackle and mile after mile of sprawling smashable world to drive your honking great Tonka truck around. Red Faction: Guerrilla introduces the world sector by sector and offers stacks of critical targets and optional missions within each region, yet by introducing things gradually you never feel like you’ve become over-burdened or stretched too far.
It’s as if they knew. They knew you’d get bored with running into Crackdown firefights, soaking up ten thousand bullets and plowing on through to the big baddie, so they made every story mission unique. One is a cross-country drive through the middle of an artillery free-fire zone; another is a recovery mission deep within the Marauders’ Mad Maxian badlands; another is an escort mission protecting a Faction truck with a satellite-targeted cannon. Always something new.
They knew you’d soon tire of the same old Martian reds and oranges so they gave every sector its own theme, even going so far as to coat the sector of Oasis with grass and the higher peaks of Eos with snow. They knew the world they made was stark and beautiful in its way so they put the GPS right on the road in front of you so you could concentrate on the world and not the inch-high minimap. They knew you’d grow weary of a clunky GTA IV cover system and traditional FPS weapons so they built the best cover system any open-world game has ever seen – one which lets you snap to any piece of cover, no matter how ruined – and gave you the best gimmick weapons this side of the N64’s Turok 2 and its insta-lobotomising Cerebral Bore.
Some are based around brute force: missiles, remote charges, the mighty sledgehammer. Others are built for finesse: the arc welder which arcs lightning through crowds of enemies, the heat-seeking bullets which home in on distant targets, the nanobot-firing rifle which eats through steel. And within Red Faction’s arsenal is a world of options for customization and improvisation; every weapon can be upgraded using salvage recovered from wrecked buildings.
Remote charges can be used to turn any vehicle into a bomb. The arc welder can kill a vehicle’s occupants without so much as scratching the paintwork on the vehicle itself, leaving tanks empty and hijacked with ease. The singularity bomb will suck objects in before spitting them out – the explosion proportional to the matter drawn in. You’ll soon find your favorites but you’ll keep experimenting with others as new upgrades unlock new potential. Try attaching a remote charge to a Factioneer’s face and see what happens.
Guerrilla is all about potential, never encouraging you along a ‘correct’ path but giving you the tools and a mission and setting you loose in a way no other open-world game has had the brass balls or sheer programming smarts to allow up until this point. For technical reasons it’s a sparse world – applying the destruction model to an entire city would murder your system and reduce the framerate to Hanna-Barbera levels – yet it never feels empty. There’s always something to do, something to destroy, or some squishy skull to smash with a sledgehammer.
Yep, it’s as if they knew. They knew the best vehicle foisted into a shooter is Halo’s Warthog so they made every car bouncy in the same way, even naming their main jeep the ‘Groundhog’. They also knew how you hate hopping off the turret to drive the ‘Hog so they gave every vehicle-mounted gun an auto-targeting system. They knew how much fun a physics playground can be, but they also knew how limited physics toys are and found fun ways to exploit the physics – explosive weapons, gravity weapons, even ones aimed from space.
They knew it was fun to just tear through Mercenaries 2’s world on an unstoppable gin-soaked rampage and how many laughs were had with Saints Row 2’s bonkers shit-hosing tankers and sausage wagons, but they also knew that both games were complete technical shambles. They built their new Red Faction on an engine that almost never drops a frame, built a world that remains perfectly consistent, and populated it with characters who rarely lose their way.
They knew how much fun it is to bring down a building, but they also knew how hard it is to build challenges in a world with no lockable doors or windows. They created story missions that only briefly steal away your time with exposition before leaving you to smash things up, stop convoys, steal documents, rescue hostages, recover artifacts, and assassinate enemy commanders – whether you snipe them with precision or drop a sky-scraper on them and their entire army. And while obligatory bloke in a bio-suit Alec Mason’s story isn’t nearly as expansive as Nico Bellic’s and the world isn’t anything like as delicately detailed as Rockstar’s Liberty City, it’s clear that’s something the developers always knew. Red Faction: Guerrilla was never about telling the best story or showing the most beautiful scenery. It’s about having the biggest explosions, the most bombastic action set-pieces, and the most flexible combat.
Guerrilla is the surprise summer blockbuster this year, filled to the brim with gaming superlatives and free of any pretentiousness or doubt as to what it wants to be. Volition have quite possibly made the best straight sandbox action game of this generation. And who knows, perhaps they knew that too.
June 2, 2009