Written by: The J Man

Date posted: June 3, 2008


Parker is your everyday, strapping young idealist looking to start a new life. He signs up with Ultor, the megacorporation with a monopoly on developing and exploiting Mars. The planet’s full of ore Earth needs, and Ultor puts Parker to work as another blue collar on mining detail. Working conditions are miserable. Bunks and environment suits are shared among multiple shifts. A hell of a distance between Earth and Mars means inspections are rare, and as long as the ore keeps flowing, Ultor is free to do pretty much whatever it wants to anyone foolish enough to sign a contract. They control the equipment, they control the facilities, and they control the shuttles off the rock, ensuring anyone who requests leave will simply be the victim of some beatings and an extra-long shift at the end of a tazer.

It’s a recipe for revolution (Recipe for Revolution is also the name of Parker’s industrial deathcore band). As Parker gets off his shift one night, an altercation between a guard and a fellow miner turns deadly. Riots begin and spread, with Parker caught in the middle. As the only miner to escape the flashpoint, he earns the attention of the leaders of the revolt – the enigmatic Red Faction – and gets drafted into their ranks. As they struggle to control and escape Mars, Parker begins to see that there’s far more at stake than worker’s rights.

Crater the bridge, and the carrier falls through. Diabolical!

Now if all of this sounds pretty neat, then it’s time for me to break out the one-word summary of Red Faction: underused. The story is underused. The setting of Mars is underused. The Geo-Mod system, the main feature which we’ll talk about in a minute, is, you guessed it, underused. Being a fan of both sci-fi and first-person shooters, there was a lot on this box to pique my interest. But much like Ultor, the game lures you in with false promises and delivers something much different.

First, there’s the plot. Red Faction seems to take a few cues from Half-Life in terms of placing you in the role of an everyman, and building a story from mundane to chaos across the span of its length. But after the first in-game scripted sequence, it pretty much devolves back to the era of Quake II; radio orders, non-interactive cutscenes, and all. The story isn’t critical to the levels, and nothing comes close to Half-Life‘s feeling of a living world. You never even MEET the Red Faction, never see the cause you’re fighting for, and have no investment as the mission wobbles from “get off the planet” to “stop a mad scientist” to “take the planet back from Ultor.” Despite the attempt of a plot, you’re back to the old FPS standard of shooting anyone that comes around the corner, and heading in this direction because all the other doors are locked.

Second, Mars. Red Faction, up until the very, very end, feels like it could have taken place anywhere. Much of your time is spent deep in brown-rock caves. The rest is spent in boxy metal complexes with no windows. One of the biggest draws for me was to play an FPS on Mars. It doesn’t feel like Mars, it feels like a cave on Earth. Why are there underground lakes everywhere, with plant life and psychic fish? Did Volition want to include submarine levels in their next game, no matter what? Why no scenic views of the surface? I assume that the engine won’t allow for sprawling mountains and distant terrain, so you’re limited to indoor areas, caves, and insurmountable canyons for a reason. But as you can imagine, it results in a hell of a lot of blandness, and very few places that feel like an alien world.

I will give them credit that your environment suit will cause you to lose health to asphyxiation if you’re outside a facility and down to 0% armor – that’s cool. But what about scenarios where you have to fight the planet itself? Just imagine Half-Life style scenes where equipment around you is failing and you have to escape a depressurizing tunnel. Mars should lend itself well to those kinds of intense adventure moments. Or what if you could shoot out windows behind guards and suck them out to their doom, a la Total Recall? You know, something to elevate the game beyond shooting-gallery corridors that take place on Mars because the signs say so.

Parker makes it off the planet, then turns around and goes back. I’m confused by this point.

Third, Geo-Mod. Red Faction was sold on this technology, which, in theory, allows you to completely deform the terrain in real time. Most shooters, even today, allow you to duck a rocket by hiding behind a wall, because the technology necessitates that standard walls are completely indestructible. Geo-Mod allows those rockets or explosives to destroy any wall or object, live and in real-time. This sets up a whole new way of thinking. Cover deteriorates. You could surprise an ambush by drilling through the wall on their flank. You could deal with snipers on a walkway by blowing out the walkway. You could vaporize the center of a bridge and cut off your pursuers. At the very least, it offers some realism because your battles and mayhem actually change your surroundings. At the most, it offers new tactics and a whole new way to approach the FPS. In theory.

Now Geo-Mod does work when it’s actually implemented. It does everything that’s advertised, and while holes aren’t always clean and easy to pass through, you can knock passages through walls, tunnel into rock, and, with effort, topple guard towers (weight isn’t considered, so platforms can float by a literal thread). The catch is, it doesn’t exactly work in single player. Multiplayer lets this technology shine, and you can create back entrances into the enemy’s flag base, bomb bridges, blast out trenches or sniping tunnels, destroy cover; generally be as creative as you want. It works so well in multiplayer, because multiplayer is non-linear. Single player is still held back by traditional FPS conventions, meaning Geo-Mod is simply turned off when the design needs to restrict you.

The first level gives a small taste of what could have been, and what the design probably was in the initial stages. You start off in a sprawling mine, with a catacomb of tunnels branching off in all directions. Guards are rushing around, and you’re trying to escape. You can plant a charge anywhere and blow holes into anything, while marked areas define where you can punch a hole into an adjacent passage. Using these markers, you can tunnel around difficult robot drones, dodge a couple of ambushes, and avoid a few fights to save your limited ammo.

But just a few levels later, this thinking becomes obsolete. Geo-Mod stops affecting most walls around you, and rockets leave a standard black puff decal at the point of impact. Those surfaces that can still be affected only allow you to create a useless tunnel to nowhere. Occasionally you’ll need to blow open a guard post, or can trade shots through a ceiling with a robot drone, but ultimately, you’ve already forgotten about Geo-Mod after the first few levels. It will only get used again in a few limited areas, which really makes its use no different than scripted areas of other games (like the drums of TNT next to blastable walls in Blood). You’re back to playing any other FPS game in the world, because the designers couldn’t figure out how to sustain the limited freedom of that first level across the rest of the game.

Some of the weapons are fairly inventive, like this Aliens-inspired assault rifle with a working bullet counter.

I mean, I get it. You’ve got a door that needs a key. If you could simply blow through the door, then the key, the room containing the key, and the rooms leading up the key don’t need to be made. If you can bypass traps, challenges, or puzzles, you’ve rendered their creation useless, cheated yourself out of that designed experience, and cut the total play length short. Letting players sidestep freely would ultimately result in a lot of wasted development time.

I can understand wanting to limit that, but since Geo-Mod is realistically only applicable in certain situations (wherever there’s something to blast through to), can’t that offer enough of a natural limit? Can’t you just replace the keycards with remote charges? Can’t you introduce puzzles that involve the technology? Going back to using the environment against you, I would imagine many scripted sequences of collapsing tunnels or precarious jumps would be very exciting with the power of Geo-Mod behind them. There were probably limits to the technology, but I still believe they could have raised their ideas above the traditions.

Ultimately, rather than changing the way you play, Geo-Mod becomes a gimmick that comes out of the bag of tricks only in very specific moments, or in areas where it simply doesn’t matter (who cares how many times you crater a featureless, unimportant rock wall with a repeated texture?) Still, even with the main feature of Geo-Mod relegated to a sub-background role, and even considering the fact that this game isn’t Half-Life and doesn’t have to be, you should still be left with a pretty standard FPS. Instead, horrible AI and frustrating weapons drop the base game down even further.

I hate the AI. It’s pretty obvious that multiplayer was long used by designers to dodge the difficult task of creating competent opposition. The role of the faceless, skilled enemy was basically farmed out to players across the world. But multiplayer bred competition, and encouraged players not to play those parts realistically, as AI would do, but to do whatever it took to win – no matter how silly it looked. Which is why it makes no sense to me that the AI in Red Faction is programmed to mimic the way that humans act in multiplayer.

Here’s the situation. You’re coming down a corridor. Two guards run in from the opposite direction, shouting “Stop miner!” They don’t stop and aim. They don’t take cover. Instead, they both start dancing around in random directions – forward, back, diagonally, circle-strafing – to make themselves harder to hit. Just like multiplayer. For the entire game. And they enjoy precision aim while they do this. Yes, it’s an effective tactic, but I’m looking for my single player story mode to be somewhat immersive and plausible, not to replicate the way some jackass bunnyhops in Counter-Strike.

This dancing already makes your foes difficult to hit, but your aim makes it closer to impossible. I suppose as part of Parker’s “everyman” character, he has no particular weapons experience. This comes across in the game as a series of random misses – your bullets will not go where your crosshair is. This is especially noticeable with the pistol, which also seems to be affected by recoil, but that recoil is never shown to the player. Parker’s view remains rock steady the entire time, while his bullets go off in wild, unpredictable directions.

You do eventually make it to the surface, but the revolution follows you.

So, combine random bullet trajectories with randomly juking enemies and you truly are looking at a game where it takes entire clips to drop single foes. No part of that is particularly fun. You only start to get decent weapons toward the very end, like the precision rifle. It ends up being the only gun you need because, surprise, it’s one of the few guns that puts the bullets where you’re aiming. Furthermore, by the final levels, the game assumes that you should be awesome at it and throws ridiculous numbers of armored, dancing bad guys. Headshots no longer work, so you’ll have to hit the guys you already can’t hit even more times. It’s pretty much not worth beating.

Is there anything the game does right? Not really, but there are some areas where its heart is in the right place. Graphics are usually pretty sharp and believable, they just rely on boring caves too much. There’s a fantastic glass breaking effect, but it rarely gets used (a rocket chopper strafing you as you run through glass and breakable pillars would have made a fantastic sequence with this tech). You get some variety, like vehicle sequences and a trip to a space station, but these areas are short and quick. Stealth levels make an appearance too, but cheap AI and a limit of 1 pistol with 2 clips (you can’t pick up more guns, even after the alarm sounds) make these sequences more frustrating than they should be.

There were some good ideas here. Geo-Mod does work, but could have been put to better use. The idea of “Half-Life on Mars” has some value, and could still be enjoyable. But the final execution is simply too bland and flawed to really be worth anyone’s time. I hear that multiplayer can be a riot, but though I’m sure you could find a server or two, you’re probably a bit too late for the party for that. If it weren’t for that damned AI, it might be worth a romp just to see the occasional moments of Geo-Mod in action. Instead, a trip to YouTube or a slice of imagination will satisfy that need, making this one truly one to leave collecting webs in the bargain bin.