When Volition first demoed an early version of Red Faction: Guerrilla a few years ago, we doubted that it would ever be more than a nifty tech demo. Well, let us be one of the first to say that we were dead wrong. The team at Volition has turned Red Faction: Guerrilla into a top-notch action title while also managing to produce what may just be the closest thing yet to a fully interactive game world. That's no small feat.
Fully interactive environments have always been something of an elusive beast in the video game realm. Whether it is the latest action title or a classic RPG, artificial limitations on the world have always been imposed for gameplay reasons, even if those limitations didn't quite make sense. Why should a macho military man who can carry a veritable arsenal in his backpack be unable to take out a wooden door with C4 and a bazooka? Nope, he needs the key for that one.
This may be how it was done in the past, but the team at Volition didn't want to do things the traditional way. When working on Red Faction: Guerrilla, they decided to focus on replicating real-world structures rather than simply simulating them. It was a gamble, but one that paid off in spades because you're no longer limited by locked doors, inconvenient walls or scripted explosions. It completely changes the way you play.
Taking on the role of Alec Mason, you play Red Faction: Guerrilla as a reluctant underground hero. Originally arriving on Mars planning to lead a simple life as a miner, Mason is quickly drawn into the ranks of the Red Faction by his late brother. Fighting against the tyrannical forces of the Earth Defense Force (EDF) and the savage Marauders, the ragtag Red Faction has but one goal in mind: freedom for Mars. Outclassed and outgunned, Mason has to rely on his wits and his skill as a demolitions expert.
Missions are split across three major types of gameplay: story missions, guerrilla actions and attacking EDF targets. The 20 story missions are the primary method of advancing the plot, but you will spend just as much game time (if not more) completing guerrilla actions and leveling EDF targets.
Guerrilla actions are shorter missions that can be anything from raiding an EDF base to attacking a convoy or defending a Red Faction hideout. Some involve training, while others simply have you racing from point A to point B in a set amount of time. Many of the guerrilla actions are listed on the map, but just as many are dynamic. You may be in the middle of a mission or simply exploring the map, when a call will come in over the radio asking for help. Taking on these spontaneous missions is entirely optional, but a decision has to be made quickly because the calls are urgent. If you decide to pass on a dynamic mission, there's no telling if or when the next one will present itself. Completing guerrilla actions helps reduce EDF control, but more importantly, it also unlocks new weapons and helps increase Red Faction morale in the sector.
Unlike the guerrilla actions, EDF targets are always located on the map. These are known EDF locations and range in importance from low to high. Each target is well-defended, with the high-importance targets offering more of a challenge than the low-importance ones. The goal here is simple: level the target. The beauty of it all is that how you do it is completely up to you. You can choose to set charges on the main supports of a building and detonate them from a distance. You can get up close and personal with a sledgehammer, or maybe you just want to say, "Screw it," and set off a singularity bomb inside the structure. There's no "right" way to take down a building, which is a level of freedom you won't find in many other titles. Eliminating an EDF target is key to reducing EDF control in a sector.
Control and morale are the two main influences within each sector of the game. When EDF control is high, the troops will be more aggressive and your progression through the story missions will be limited. Dropping EDF control to zero allows you to unlock the final story mission in each sector. Morale is effectively the opposite of control, as it represents the general feeling of the civilians and Red Faction members in the sector. If morale is low, you will earn less from the story missions, resupply crates will have limited ammo and civilians will rarely take up arms for the cause. Max out your morale, and you'll almost always have supporters at your side when fighting against the EDF troops.
Winning a head-on fight with the EDF is a rarity at best. The EDF troops are extremely well-trained, so they know how to work together to flush out an enemy, and they have no problems calling for reinforcements. To win, you need to use the environment against them. Pinned down by sniper fire from a guard tower? Don't bother shooting back at the sniper; just level the tower. EDF troops attacking from cover? Slap a mine onto a propane tank and chuck it at the enemy. As soon as it lands, detonate the mine for a big boom. Don't take too long, though, because the EDF troops won't hesitate to shoot the tank you're holding, causing it to explode in your hands.
That's not to say the EDF are unbeatable. Even on the harder difficulty levels, the troops have their weaknesses; you just have to be willing to exploit them. Mason is no Rambo, so attempting to play as if he is will simply result in a quick death.
On the other side of the fence are your fellow guerrilla fighters. Culled from the civilian population, some are effective at combat, but more often than not, those who jump into action are less than impressive. It's almost as if they read "Guerrilla Fighting for Dummies" that morning and figured they could take on anyone. Because you have no control over who fights at your side, this ends up being one of the game's few weak points, especially since guerrilla deaths are counted against the morale rating.
Given that Volition's other major open-world title, Saints Row 2, had an effective system for managing fellow fighters, it's surprising that such a system is completely lacking here. You'd think that if Mason were such a respected fighter, he would be able to give basic orders to those fighting at his side. The existing setup works, but it's an obvious dull spot on an otherwise shiny surface. More than once, we found ourselves cursing at our own teammates and simply wishing that they would get out of the way and leave the fighting to the professionals.
Because Red Faction: Guerrilla is an open-world game, there aren't levels in the traditional sense. Nearly the entire surface of Mars is accessible from the get-go, so you are free to explore at your whim. Split into seven sectors, each area loads on the fly with completely seamless transitions from sector to sector. Assuming you never die (an unlikely occurrence), the only time you'll ever run into a loading screen is when one of the few story mission cut scenes play.
Each sector is designed to have a specific look and feel, both in the natural environments and with the building architecture. For example, the starting area of Parker is very red and the buildings are simple. Oasis, which has plant life and residential areas, holds a green hue, while the capital city of Eos features futuristic architecture with plenty of glass and clear, blue skies. As you adventure from sector to sector, tearing up the EDF along the way, one thing that quickly becomes clear is that you definitely leave a mark. Almost everything you do in the world is permanent. Destroy a building or a bridge, and it's gone for good. The only exception to this rule is if a structure is necessary for a mission. In that case, it will be rebuilt as soon as the mission is triggered. Otherwise, any destruction in the world is permanent.
As the main draw to the game, the destruction aspect shouldn't be overlooked. As we touched on earlier, with Red Faction: Guerrilla, Volition aimed to replicate as much real-life behavior as possible with the in-game architecture, and it shows. Buildings aren't simple constructs with flat walls and a roof slapped on. There are load-bearing supports, concrete reinforced walls — even drywall hanging off interior studs. All of this is individually modeled, and it all has mass. If you knock down a tower and it falls into another building, it won't just bounce off. The game calculates the impact, and the damage happens dynamically. It's never the same result twice.
The same is true of larger structures. You can damage the base supports to bring down part of a building, or, if there is sufficient mass on the roof, just take out some of the key roof supports on the upper level. As the weight comes crashing down, it can set off a chain reaction that takes out each successive floor beneath it. This destruction can even be used to your advantage in combat. There is one mission in particular where you need to take out six individuals meeting in a partially constructed skyscraper. You can simply snipe them as they leave the building, but you can also use explosives to cause the building to come falling down around them. Either way, they're still dead.
Trying to describe the full impact of a destructible world on gameplay is actually somewhat difficult to put into words. Whereas most games break the suspension of disbelief due to the invulnerable status of buildings, in Red Faction: Guerrilla, the destruction serves to draw you in even further. As the bullets are flying and vehicles are exploding, the damage is real. When you return to an area later on the in the game, the damage is still there. Unfortunately, the damage is limited to man-made structures (it is impossible to damage naturally occurring bits such as the ground or rock walls), but it's a limitation that we're willing to accept.
Where Red Faction: Guerrilla could have done better, though, is in personality. Again, referring back to Saints Row 2, that was a game filled with memorable and colorful characters who all stood out. Here, Mason is more of the strong, silent type and the supporting characters are, unfortunately, somewhat forgettable. While it might have been a conscious decision on the part of the design team in order to keep the focus on the destruction, it left us feeling a little distant during some of the story missions. Whereas Saints Row 2 kept your attention because you wanted to see how everything played out; Red Faction: Guerrilla keeps your attention because you want to see more stuff blow up.
All in all, the single-player experience took us roughly 20 hours to complete. That total includes all the story missions and roughly half of the guerrilla actions. Once the story is completed, you unlock an insane difficulty mode as well as the ability to keep playing and complete all of the guerrilla actions as well as replay previous actions. This is one area where the focus on destruction serves the game well. After completing the story in Saints Row 2, it felt as if there was little left to do in Stilwater. On Mars, completing the story is only the half of it. With all of the guerrilla actions available, you can easily keep playing for hours on end. Replay value is strong with this one.
Multiplayer action also does a great job of highlighting the destruction aspect of the game. When we first started playing multiplayer, we played it much like any other third-person shooter, and so did the other players who we were competing against — until it dawns on you that the world is destructible. Then a whole new slew of tactics opens up. For example, in one early match, there was a sniper attacking people from the top of a tower. The upper area was difficult to hit, and the sniper was owning the field until another player rushed the bottom of the tower with his sledgehammer and toppled it, crushing the sniper in the fall.
In another match, we were being chased by an attacker. As we ran across a bridge, we dropped a few charges and then blew the bridge as soon as we were clear. The bridge fell down a chasm, with the pursuing player riding it to his doom. These sorts of events quickly became the norm as play continued, with the net result being a map that changed every game. While expert players could still learn the base layout and master some good starting routes, it was impossible for anyone to run the same routes repeatedly. This bodes well for the future of the multiplayer side of the game simply because it keeps things feeling fresh.
For those players without Xbox Live Gold subscriptions, all of the competitive multiplayer modes are also playable locally via System Link.
Finally there is Wrecking Crew. We've discussed Wrecking Crew in detail before, but it's worth another mention simply because it is a profoundly addicting gameplay mode, especially if you have a group of local players to game alongside. Best described as a "destruction-based party game," Wrecking Crew drops two to four players into a single arena with the goal of causing the most damage in a limited amount of time. It's an extremely simple mode and easy to learn, but it keeps players coming back again and again to try "one more time." Sadly, Wrecking Crew doesn't have any sort of leaderboard support, nor does it officially support one player. Because it is a bonus mode that was added onto the game, it's hard to find too much fault for missing features, but if there is one thing we would love to see in a future patch it would be leaderboard support for Wrecking Crew.
It is safe to say that Red Faction: Guerrilla has exceeded our expectations in almost every regard. While it is not a perfect game, it breaks a tremendous amount of new ground from a technical perspective and bundles in an enjoyable single-player experience with a solid multiplayer component. Red Faction: Guerrilla may not have the name recognition of Halo or Call of Duty, but it has enough depth of play to hold its own against any contenders.
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