Release Date: June 18, 2003
Buy 'RTX RED ROCK': PlayStation 2
RTX Red Rock is one of those games that feels kind of like it's an unfinished test run, with a truly excellent game waiting inside in a larval stage. Fun can be wrested from it, through diligence and practice, but it's hard to shake the impression that, in all things, RTX could've been better. It's an adventure game from LucasArts, which is a pretty big flag right there. LucasArts, above and beyond its seeming intention of placing a Star Wars game on every single platform that comes out between now and the heat death of the universe, knows how to make adventure games: witness such past efforts as Grim Fandango, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and Full Throttle.
The problem then becomes that an adventure game on PC, and an adventure game on a console, are two entirely different creatures. On PC, an adventure game tends to be something like The Longest Journey, with odd items used to solve esoteric puzzles, whereas on consoles, adventure has sort of evolved into the quasi-movies of the survival horror genre. RTX Red Rock works sort of along the same vein; it's a playable science-fiction novel, with a dynamite presentation, one of the better scripts in gaming history, and an excellent cast of voice actors. The gameplay itself, on the other hand, falls a little flat.
RTX is set in the late twenty-first century, just after humanity's first contact with an alien race. The aliens in question, the insectoid cyborgs called LEDs, weren't at all friendly, but after a fierce war, they've been pushed away from Earth.
Mars is another story. The colonists who inhabit the first Martian city, Red Rock, are under fierce attack from the LEDs. They don't have any soldiers among them, so their only hope is to radio Earth for backup and hope that it gets there in time.
Major Eugene Z. "EZ" Wheeler, who's recuperating from wartime injuries that forced the replacement of his right eye and hand with cybernetic prosthetics, gets the call. He's not thrilled to be going to Mars—his grandfather, one of the original Martian colonists, died there—but he's convinced that the job will be easy. EZ's a "radical tactics expert," trained to carry out one-man operations. He's sent to Phobos, one of the Martian moons, to gather information, so a followup squad of Marines won't be going in blind.
Naturally, within four minutes of his landing, that plan falls apart. An attack on his craft forces EZ to crash-land on Mars, where he finds the colony buildings swarming with LEDs. EZ now gets to fight aliens, save the colonists, figure out what the LEDs are really searching for on Mars, and somehow stay in one piece.
I'm probably most impressed with RTX's presentation. The voice acting's excellent, the script is decent (it's one of the first game scripts I've ever seen that wouldn't be totally laughable if it were a science-fiction novel), and the environments are extraordinary. Red Rock looks like what it's supposed to be, a half-wrecked bare-bones colony station, all iron grates and metal walls. They aren't very colorful, but it'd be more surprising if they were.
Those environments carry their own problems, though. RTX has a big problem with what I like to call "invisible wall syndrome," where your shots will occasionally be deflected by a clear surface that extends several inches away from any solid object. This is only mildly annoying at the start of the game, but plays merry hell later on when you get a sniper rifle. The occasional platform sequences are further complicated by problems with the game's collision detection, where EZ will fail to grab onto a ledge for no immediately apparent reason, and will thus plummet to his death.
All of your mission goals make a certain amount of sense. If this was a game from a Japanese developer, you'd have to trek across half the planet to get the golden scarab beetle, which unlocks the sewer grate, which leads directly into the secret laboratory that's full of aliens, who somehow got in even though you just opened the only entrance. In RTX, you generally have all the tools you need at any given time to solve the problems at hand. EZ's cybernetic eye can scan through various spectrums, showing you where aliens are hiding or highlighting important items; you can also use IRIS, EZ's pocket AI, to get hints, download maps, or take control of heavy machinery. It's possible to think your way through most problems in RTX, which is kind of refreshing.
What isn't new and different is the game's combat system. In most survival-horror and adventure games on consoles, the combat seems to be grafted on as an afterthought. RTX is no exception, and compounds the error by throwing in a lot of combat.
For one thing, EZ's automatic target lock works differently than almost every other action game on PS2. Instead of locking onto the closest opponent, regardless of their location relative to EZ, it fixes onto the closest opponent who's directly in front of EZ. It also turns on EZ's strafe command. It winds up feeling a little like Time Crisis, where you hide behind cover with the target-lock on, and occasionally jump out to take a shot at your enemies. Anyone who's expecting some run-and-gun action is really playing the wrong game; the problem gets worse in later levels, when you're actually expected to get into a couple of running gun battles. EZ has a handy evasion roll that can help to even the odds, but you have to hold down two buttons to use it.
The difficulty's also something of a problem. I'm all for challenging games—I grew up in the era of the NES, so, yeah, I think games are too easy nowadays—but RTX borders on cheap. Exploding vermin, for example, can hit EZ for about 50% health regardless of where he is; if you hear the vermin moving, it's way too late to avoid injury. In later levels, certain aliens get plasma rifles of such power that one bolt takes off most of your lifebar, and promptly start lurking in high places where you can't see them; it's almost impossible to sneak by aliens, although you can de-aggro them by retreating to a certain distance; one boss can shoot clean through walls to kill you, which is either a bug or an insufficiently animated feature; and going out onto the surface of Mars involves being constantly strafed by virtually-unkillable LED aircraft. (This gets twice as annoying when you're trying to climb the colony's radio towers, in a demanding platform sequence, and you botch a jump because one of those aircraft shot you a few times.) The last adventure game that killed me this often, for these specious reasons, was Space Quest.
RTX can be a lot of fun, yeah, and it's occasionally rewarding in the same way that all the best adventure games are. It's a great game for storyline buffs, who'll keep playing despite all its problems, just to see what'll happen next. I can't recommend it for anyone with a low threshold for frustration, or who's looking for a game that demands anything less than your full concentration.