Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Red Faction: Gorilla; or, fun with homonyms

Red Faction: Guerrilla was a game that got under my skin. You have those too, right? Something about a screenshot or an ad campaign lodges itself in a sensitive crevice and chafes away at your patience until the product’s mere mention has you gushing invectives. In Guerrilla's case, I can’t pin it down. Maybe it was the bland screenshots. Who knows? I couldn’t stand it, and when the demo went live, I downloaded it out of sheer boredom.

At face value, Guerrilla is GTA: Mars. You play an insurgent tasked with rallying miners against their sinister, faceless overseers. Open-world, vehicle-jacking - it’s all there. And then I swung my hammer. The nearby lamppost, and my baseless disdain, came crashing down.

Henceforth, I shall call the game Red Faction: Gorilla. Because that’s what you are.

History: Red Faction was a first person released in 2001 by Volition, the gentlemen/women behind the Descent and Freespace franchises (trivia: RF started off as Descent 4). It’s selling point was its Geo-Mod, or Geography Modification , technology – players would be able to destroy walls and demolish cover to their tactical advantage. To this end, Red Faction had plenty of nifty weapons, including a rocket launcher that could see through walls, and a railgun with similar capabilities. It came off half-cocked. Modifiable geography was too obviously modifiable, too contrived and too rare for too short a game. Red Faction II did nothing to advance the concept, and looked like an N64 game to boot. The franchise was like a crowd wave at a AAA baseball game aborted halfway through – well intentioned, but ultimately meh.

Maybe my lack of enthusiasm for Gorilla sounds a little more founded, now. In my opinion, this generation didn’t need a Red Faction game. It wouldn’t, were it not for Geo-Mod 2.

Geo-Mod 2 is what the series had been striving for all along, starting with the process. Structures weren’t built in the game world and then weakened – structures were built to be sound, and then dismantled. Designers encountered problems early on when they realized they weren’t architects, and their structures imploded like so much gingerbread. Every building in Gorilla is structurally sound because Geo-Mod 2 demands it be so.

And so the destruction begins. Your character is improbably well muscled, because a few minutes’ work with a sledgehammer is all it takes to reduce a small building to rubble. Demolishing a small building isn’t’ simply a matter of reducing its hit points – you need to break its supports and exploit its structural weaknesses. In the demo, you encounter an outpost jutting over a cliff, supported by three beams. Take out those beams, and the outpost drops like a bag of rocks. When the fuel tanks inside detonate, it’s a dizzying storm of girders, cement and rebar. What’s best? It won’t happen the same way twice.

Make no mistake: Geo Mod 2 is the best tech since Havok physics.

I may buy Gorilla if only to go Maxwell’s Silver Hammer all over Mars, but other mammals with more developed brains might be concerned about a few things. Half of the fun of open-world games is opening the world – in GTAIV and Far Cry 2, the game world was as compelling as the gameplay. Will Volition deliver a Mars that’s more than a scarred, rust-red desert? And if they do, will it be populated with interesting, dynamic things, or uniformly pathetic/heroic miners, and uniformly evil soldiers? I haven’t seen enough in the demo to convince me either way.

Do your ape brain a favor and download the Gorilla demo. Four years of hard work on Geo Mod 2 has delivered Volition the product they’ve wanted since 2001 – to them, I raise my glass.